STILLWATER — Oklahoma State University's new travel policy requires that a consultant pass judgment on private aircraft and pilots used by the school.
One such consultant expressed reservations Monday about allowing an 82-year-old man to fly a plane on university business as was the case in a Nov. 17, 2011, crash that killed four people, including two OSU coaches.
Kirk Koenig, president of the Indianapolis-based firm Expert Aviation Consulting, said flights like the one that crashed have relatively little federal oversight.
The single-engine Piper PA-28-180 Cherokee aircraft crashed into the mountains of central Arkansas, killing pilot Olin Branstetter, 82; women's basketball coach Kurt Budke, assistant coach Miranda Serna and Branstetter's wife, Paula.
Federal officials haven't determined the cause of the crash. National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Terry Williams said the agency expects to release an accident report early next year.
There's no specific age at which a pilot would be considered unfit to fly, Koenig said, but when a pilot the age of Branstetter flies a small aircraft, it could raise concerns.
Koenig said federal law requires commercial pilots to retire at age 65. As a private pilot, Branstetter wouldn't have fallen under that provision.
Federal restrictions tend to be more lax regarding private pilots than for charter or airline pilots. Unlike commercial airline pilots, private pilots generally don't risk the safety of hundreds of passengers. Most private pilots act responsibly, he said, since they put themselves at risk when they don't.
“Worst-case scenario, you're generally killing yourself,” Koenig said. “And most people generally have self-preservation as their No. 1 issue.”
Koenig said the age of Branstetter's plane, built in 1964, would have been less of a concern. If a plane receives proper maintenance, it could be airworthy for decades, he said.
OSU's new travel policy tightens restrictions for all university faculty and staff, including student employees, who travel on university business.
The new policy requires that a university aviation consultant approve all private aircraft that would be used for university business, as well as the pilots who would fly them.
OSU officials said they overhauled the policy as a result of the crash, but didn't tailor it to the specific facts of the accident. Officials wouldn't speculate as to whether last year's fatal flight would have taken off had the new policy been in force. However, both Branstetter and the plane would have had to receive approval from an aviation consultant before flying.
Another aviation consultant said he isn't convinced the age of the pilot alone would be enough to justify grounding a plane. George Williams, president of Arizona-based firm Williams Aviation Consultants, said safeguards are in place to prevent a pilot with serious health problems from flying.
Pilots must undergo an annual medical checkup to keep their FAA medical certification current.
Those checkups must be conducted by an FAA-certified medical examiner, meaning any pilot with a valid license has received approval to continue to fly.
Generally when evaluating whether a pilot and a plane are safe to fly, Williams said, he looks at the plane's maintenance records and history. Likewise, he looks at the pilot's credentials — how many hours logged, and in what conditions.
“Age doesn't seem to be a factor,” Williams said. “If you have anything major wrong with you, you basically can't have a pilot's license.”