Last week, the NTSB held a forum as the general aviation safety record continues to be under scrutiny by the FAA, the NTSB, and the industry itself. As the co-chair of the GA Joint Steering Committee (GAJSC), an FAA-industry group that has been in existence for over a decade, I am well-acquainted with the issue. The GAJSC was formed to look at data and to make realistic recommendations on how to improve GA’s safety record. Our desire to prevent all accidents will always overshadow the available resources, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying. However, we do need to make rational choices.
NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman cited two VFR-into-IMC accidents in her opening remarks and noted: “… along with our lessons learned, (we) have to reach all pilots—not just the safety-conscious ones watching the forum in the audience or online. If the general aviation community is to learn from past experiences, everyone should be at the table. Because the reality is, we see the same bad things happening over and over.”
After detailed analysis last year, the GAJSC chose loss of control as the priority with focuses on two significant fatal accident factors: buzzing and VFR into instrument conditions—both of which were mentioned by the NTSB during and prior to the forum. So, we’re thinking alike; however, there are different thoughts on how to address this challenge.
The real question that should be asked is: Did the system fail, or is the failure because of a lack of individual responsibility and judgment? In 2009, the latest year with complete data, there were 27 fatal VFR-into-IMC accidents for the year. Two accidents a month, albeit regrettable and preventable, doesn’t seem to indicate a systemic problem when spread across tens of thousands of flights per month and over 200,000 private pilots. (There will be annual fluctuations up and down; continual analysis of root causes continues under the GAJSC.)
If there’s a systemic problem, what can be done? Put more directly, do pilots truly not know the risk of buzzing or VFR-into-IMC? Both industry and government have provided significant resources and attacked the problem in various ways. The examples of those efforts are too numerous to quote here.
“Accident” is defined as an unforeseen event. But the outcome in way too many fatal crashes is completely predictable—the result of bad judgment on the part of the pilot. “Reaching the unreachable” was a phrase used during the forum. Unfortunately, the truly unreachable are just that, and just how far should we go to teach those who may also be unteachable?
Shifting gears, two areas with increased risk identified by the GAJSC were in experimental aircraft and in personal flight. It’s no surprise that flying experimental aircraft will entail some level of increased risk—that’s why they’re designated “Experimental,” and there are special rules to reduce, but not eliminate, some of the differences.
Personal flight is another area where safety is always the responsibility of the pilot—it can be no other way. Chairman Hersman’s reference to personal aviation as “an airline of one” is a great idea, but remember that the airline system is built upon no single-point human failure and a massive infrastructure that GA cannot support—so manage your expectations accordingly.
What about increased stringency on private pilot test standards? The existing standards and regulations will ensure safe operations if pilots will but adhere to them! Two buzzing accidents were cited in promoting the forum (a Baron and a Cessna 337). I have a hard time seeing that as a fault of the system, or that there is not adequate regulation—these were not skill-related accidents.
No amount of additional regulation will eliminate all judgmental errors. The ability to assess a pilot’s judgment on a practical test or during a flight review administered every two years or annually, as some have suggested, will also not be particularly effective because humans modify their behaviors when being watched. (Think cop at the roadside with a radar gun.) The same applies to “tweaking” the practical test—a pilot will always behave conservatively on a checkride.
There are things that can be done that don’t involve still more government intervention, and the hard reality is that all our interventions will have limited effect on the unteachable. The Air Safety Institute has invested more than $30 million in the past decade in live seminars, online programs, Pilot Safety Announcements, quizzes, and accident case studies to help those who choose to be helped at www.airsafetyinstitute.org. The messages are direct and sobering.
Let’s clarify one point that is repeatedly used as a justification for additional GA safety oversight: Comparing GA’s safety record to the airlines is meaningless. The only valid comparison to the airlines is for the GA segment that operates like the airlines: crewed turbine equipment flown by professional pilots. In that arena, GA matches or exceeds the airlines on a regular basis. Because we allow people the freedom to fly without the massive oversight system that is essential to protect the airline passenger, there will inevitably be a significantly higher accident rate. This is true in all other activities involving personal transportation and recreation, so it comes down to Chairman Hersman’s “airline of one.” The safety of your flight and the lives of your passengers ultimately rest with you. Be prepared and choose wisely.