Archive for April, 2010

News Flash: GA Not as safe as the airlines!

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010

BlogI am always amazed at the mental gymnastics that some people make in comparing light GA aircraft to the airlines. I’ve written on this before but the false hope that Part 91 operations will ever even begin to approach Part 121 operations is pervasive in some circles.  Some politicians, a few regulators who really should know better and some folks who have something to sell,  continue to make this spurious comparison.

Don’t get me wrong – there is plenty more that can be done to improve GA’s safety record. That’s what the Air Safety Foundation is all about but let’s get real.  GA is not a monolithic entity. We are distinguished more by our diversity than commonality and that has an inevitable impact on safety.

  • Business jets  in most cases, match or exceed air carrier safety.
  • Turboprops are excellent but not as good as jets – type ratings generally aren’t required and they are often flown by single pilot crews.
  • Flights for business in piston aircraft – big step down from the above categories for a variety of reasons. The major difference is aircraft and pilot capability. They still have a very good safety record with 12% of overall flight time but only 3% of accidents.
  • Personal flying – This includes what some pejoratively refer to as “flying lawn furniture” to turbine aircraft. Here is where the bulk of flying takes place and where broad statements that GA’s safety record is 40 times (or more worse) than the airlines become misleading.  Personal flight makes up less than 40%  of non-commercial flight time yet accounts for 73% of the accidents in 2008. The machines, the motives, and the pilots are as different as can be.  We can do better but reasonably achievable goals should always be set.

In Part 91 there is little oversight and we allow individuals to make decisions about how safe their flight will be as long as there is no interference with airliners and little risk to people on the ground. In my view, that’s how it should be.

Everybody understands the risk difference between a sailor going out in a small boat and an ocean liner. Big seas and strong winds will send the little guy to the bottom and nobody is conflicted or surprised. Ditto, if  Captain Gilligan overloads and/or overspeeds his dingy and it winds up in Davey Jones locker. There is no attempt to make the ludicrous comparison to the liner which overwhelms the small craft in EVERY category by several orders of magnitude.

All that said, every PIC is master of his or her own universe. It’s as safe as you choose to make it and we in the industry should not be over nor underselling the risk of personal flight. ASF’s website is packed with  online courses, quizzes, articles and more that cover almost every aspect of safety. We show what happens when pilots behave badly and how to make good decisions.

As a group, GA should neither condone nor defend bad behavior but I would much rather make my own decisions based on good information than have further regulation and cost forced upon me because someone else thought that I should conform to airline standards. That’s my choice – not theirs! The safety water has been set out for the horses – and we encourage them to drink.

What do you think?

Sleepless in the Cockpit

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

05-463_028Fatigue is a big item these days, especially after the Colgan Air accident in Buffalo. It was revealed that both crew members had commuted to Newark – the captain slept overnight in the pilot lounge, something that Colgan allegedly prohibited and the first officer had flown in on a red eye cargo flight from her home on the west coast. It is probable that neither were anywhere close to 100% when they began the disastrous night approach into Buffalo that resulted in some 50 fatalities.

I attended an FAA, industry workshop at MITRE this week where the topic of fatigue came up once again. We’re all familiar with the concept of  “powering through” as NTSB Chair Deborah Hersman put it in her opening remarks: The college student’s all-nighter in prep for exams, doctors and truck drivers known for their commitment to deliver the goods. There are other life-critical professions that have taken the traditional view that fatigue is a form of personal weakness.  It’s not – it’s a core part of human physiology.

In GA, with the exception of corporate and Part 135 pilots, we get to set our own schedule.  The long day is a staple of business pilots everywhere: Up at 0600, or before, airborne by 0730, arriving at destination by 1030 or 1100. Then it’s down to business for 6 hours or so, maybe a dinner with the client and heading for home about 2000 for a 2300 arrival.

The Air National Guard found that 20-30% of its mishaps occur when fatigue is at least a  factor. Eighty-five percent of  surveyed GA corporate operators noted it as a ” moderate to serious concern.”  In GA, ASF was able to find about 7 accidents over the last 20 years where NTSB cited fatigue as a probable cause. Another hundred or so listed it as a factor.  In the grand scheme of things is that a big deal?  Consider that there were another 400 plus where the cause was undetermined. I am confident that fatigue, hypoxia, or both, played a role in a significant number.

I’ll do a more complete report on this later in the year. In the meantime, here are two references for your consideration.

ASF Safety Brief: Fighting Fatigue

Safety Pilot Article: Tired

We all have sleep time stories – what’ s yours? Also, how do you feel about professional pilot commuting?

Loss of a President

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

BlogI was sitting in a regional meeting of the International AOPA in Friedrichshafen, Germany last week when the Polish delegate quietly approached me early Saturday morning to report that Lech Kaczynski, President of Poland, many of the top government officials, and military leaders had been killed in an approach accident. The 20 year old Tupolev jet was landing in heavy fog when the pilot apparently decided that the VIPs on board would be disappointed beyond measure if the flight diverted. According to the news reports, which must be taken with a grain of salt, controllers had advised the pilot against landing.

Unfortunately, this type of mishap remains all too common both for GA and the airlines. My speculation is that the official probable cause will be “The pilot’s improper decision to descend below landing minimums.” The real probable cause, barring a mechanical problem, might be the captain’s fixation (possibly due to external pressure) to deliver his valuable cargo at the appointed place and time. This normally laudable objective is an incredibly dangerous mindset for pilots of all aircraft.

Again, relying on news sources, there is speculation that another pilot was pressured by President Kaczynski two years ago for not landing at the primary destination due to weather.  That pilot resisted and while the president was presumably not happy, he lived to fly again. It took far more courage for the pilot to resist the president than to execute a dangerous approach.

Some of us have difficulty understanding the responsibility of Pilot-in-Command and the risk-reward equation. If a vote had been taken on board and the risk explained by a knowledgeable and neutral third party, the outcome would likely have been nearly unanimous (maybe discounting the president) in favor of diversion and blast the inconvenience. Mission mindset is to be carefully guarded against in GA, airline, and civilian transport  - Safety Pilot: Aspen Arrival.  Next time you’re pressuring yourself, or a passenger is insistent on getting somewhere, figuratively step outside for a moment and take a vote. In the calm, clear air of self reflection, perspective often returns and is frequently life-saving.

You’ve heard it many times – there’s no place you have to be. We all need to develop that independent view that as self-important as we or our passengers think we (they) are, Newton’s second law of physics is absolute. Aircraft, big and small will always lose. My sincere condolences to the Polish people and the families of the souls on board. They deserved better.