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What's the difference between an accident and an incident?What's the difference between an accident and an incident?

Did your aircraft’s wingtip hit the fence while you were parking? Did you have a gear-up landing or prop strike? Did you knock over a taxiway light while taxiing, or brush your aircraft against another on the ground? Did a passenger fall and break an arm while exiting the airplane? Which of these events must be reported and to whom?

The short answer is that “accidents” and “serious incidents” must be reported to the NTSB, but non-serious incidents do not need to be reported, according to 49 CFR 830.2 and 830.5. Neither accidents nor serious incidents are reported to the FAA unless the FAA requests information as part of an investigation. While distinguishing accidents from non-serious incidents may seem simple, the distinction is actually complicated. For example, a gear-up landing typically is not a reportable accident, but a passenger sustaining a broken arm while exiting an aircraft is a reportable accident.

The NTSB defines a reportable “accident” as “an occurrence associated with the operation of an aircraft that takes place between the time any person boards the aircraft with the intention of flight and all such persons have disembarked, and in which any person suffers death or serious injury, or in which the aircraft receives substantial damage.” 

A “serious incident” is one of a specific list of events such as a complete loss of information from more than 50 percent of an aircraft’s cockpit displays, according to 49 CFR 830.5(a)(9). In contrast, a non-serious incident is “an occurrence other than an accident (or serious incident) that affects or could affect the safety of operations.” The words and phrases used in these regulations are further defined.

While common sense might suggest that a gear-up landing results in “substantial damage” to the aircraft and is a reportable accident, the definition of “substantial damage” actually excludes typical gear-up landing damage. “Substantial damage” is defined as “damage or failure which adversely affects the structural strength, performance, or flight characteristics of the aircraft, and which would normally require major repair or replacement of the affected component. Engine failure or damage limited to an engine if only one engine fails or is damaged, bent fairings or cowling, dented skin, small punctured holes in the skin or fabric, ground damage to rotor or propeller blades, and damage to landing gear, wheels, tires, flaps, engine accessories, brakes, or wingtips are not considered "substantial damage." Consequently, there is no requirement to report a gear-up landing as long as no one is injured, the damage fits within the definition, and the specific incidents within 49 CFR 830.5 did not occur.

The definition of serious injury includes a broken bone. Thus, a passenger’s broken arm while exiting the aircraft would be a reportable accident.

These few definitions and examples illustrate that an airman should analyze carefully whether an event must be reported before doing so.   

Once the determination is made, accidents are reported to the NTSB using Form 6120.1, which is available on the Internet. The report must be submitted to the NTSB within 10 days of the accident. However, serious incidents and accidents specifically described in 49 CFR 830.5 require notification to the NTSB “by the most expeditions means available.” If the accident may result in a claim for damages or injury or pilot certificate action, it is best to obtain the advice of an aviation lawyer before submitting the NTSB report form. The report form contains instructions and addresses for submission.

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Edward Hadley

Mr. Hadley is an attorney at North, Pursell, and Ramos, PLC. He holds a private pilot's license with instrument rating. Currently flies a Cirrus SR22.

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