Inexperienced pilots behind majority of ultralight crashes in Japan

The Yomiuri Shimbun
An ultralight aircraft is seen Nov. 20, after crashing into a field in Bando, Ibaraki Prefecture.

A series of accidents involving ultralight aircraft has led some experts to call for stronger government supervision.

Ultralights — one-or-two-seat recreational aircraft with a simple structure — have become popular in Japan. However, such machines have been involved in accidents for three consecutive months from September, one of which resulted in two deaths. Such accidents are often due to pilot inexperience, and analysis indicates unauthorized flights are common.

On Nov. 20, a two-seat ultralight crashed into a field in Bando, Ibaraki Prefecture. “The engine’s humming sound stopped, then there was a loud sound,” said a 74-year-old farmer who lives about 500 meters from the crash site.

The term “ultralight” refers to simply constructed lightweight aircraft that meet certain requirements, such as having a propeller and a maximum speed of 185 kph or less, and weighing 180 kilograms or less, in the case of single-seat versions.

Such craft come in a variety of shapes and sizes, from hang gliders with engines to small airplane-like vehicles. In principle, ultralights are allowed to aviate within a 3-kilometer radius of their takeoff/landing point but are not allowed to fly over people or buildings.

Owners are required to register their aircraft with the government, and, as of Dec. 6, some 2,370 ultralights, including home-built models, have been officially logged.

According to the Ibaraki prefectural police and other authorities, the accident in Bando is believed to have occurred shortly after the aircraft took off from a runway near the Tone River. The distance from the runway to the crash site is about 100 meters. Two people, including the 57-year-old pilot, were taken to hospital where they were pronounced dead.

The dead pilot’s aviation club said he had been flying for over 30 years and possessed official certification.

Lack of experience

Ultralight crashes in Gunma Prefecture and Hokkaido in September and October, respectively, resulted in the pilots of the two aircraft suffering broken bones and other injuries.

According to the Japan Transport Safety Board, 17 of the 71 aviation accidents that occurred from 2017-2021 were caused by ultralights and similar aircraft. This figure is higher than the 16 involving helicopters and the 15 involving small airplanes.

Of 54 accidents involving ultralights and similar aircraft that occurred between 2001 and 2021, 80% resulted in fatalities or injuries. In an analysis of the causes of these 54 accidents — in cases where multiple factors were involved — “improper pilotage” was the most common factor in 40 cases; “insufficient knowledge, skill and experience” and “weather effects” were cited in 19 cases; and “frame and component failure” accounted for 12 cases.

In August 2020, a 43-year-old pilot was seriously injured in a crash in Aisai, Aichi Prefecture. The accident — reportedly caused by a stall after the pilot unintentionally increased altitude — was attributed to pilot error. It was noted that the pilot had not mastered basic operations.

In a September 2010 crash in Chikusei, Ibaraki Prefecture, the 47-year-old pilot miscalculated the engine output, stalled after a rapid ascent and went into a downward spin. The pilot, who sustained serious injuries, reportedly had no experience flying such aircraft and lacked understanding of the pilot’s manual.

Unauthorized flights

Civil Aeronautics Law requires pilots to file applications before flying ultralight powered aircraft. Pilots must apply for and obtain advance permission to fly each particular type of aircraft. The pilot’s name and the takeoff and landing site must also be noted. At the same time, the pilot is required to submit a medical certificate and a skills certificate from relevant organizations.

Nevertheless, unauthorized ultralight aviation is common. Penalties for such flights include imprisonment of up to one year or a fine of up to ¥300,000, but in most cases, these illegal activities only come to light following an accident.

According to the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry, there were 83 accidents and “serious incidents” involving ultralights and similar aircraft between 1999 and 2021. Some 70% of these were illegal flights that were unauthorized or deviated from the specified regulations.

“Even [pilots of] ultralight aircraft require a certain level of skill and a knowledge of the weather,” said Toshiyuki Kusuhara, an expert in aviation accidents who served as an accident inspector for the Japan Transport Safety Board. “The government should provide more guidance for pilots and flying clubs.”

Govt survey

The transport ministry has created a survey in response to the growing number of unauthorized ultralight flights.

It is currently surveying owners of such aircraft — based on registration details — and requesting information on how they use their ultralights and how they obtain flight permits. The ministry plans to contact owners who have not applied for a flight permit within a certain post-registration period to check if they have been taking to the skies without official clearance.

Future measures may include the creation of a system to ascertain the use and strengthening of penalties. “We’ll consider measures to stop unauthorized flights from going unchecked,” a ministry official said.