The Glass is Half Full

August 12, 2010 by Bruce Landsberg

6-1 IntroIt’s been a tough week again for GA safety. Last week, as you may have read, we lost one of our own in a competition soaring accident. Chris O’Callaghan, AOPA’s VP of eMedia was involved in a rare midair collision in Uvalde, TX. Details are here at “AOPA mourns colleague killed in midair.”

Then comes word of the accident in Alaska claiming the life of former senator and pilot Ted Stevens, along with several others. At this point it looks very much like VFR into IMC with a 29,000-hour pilot at the controls of the Otter that was flying the senator and his party to a fishing lodge (You can assume my usual disclaimer on speculation here)

The point of this blog is to provide a point of reference or perhaps just to rationalize why we continue to fly. In Chris’s case it was clearly his passion as it is with most pilots. Most of us understand that our activity has some risk.

Travel in Alaska would be  impossible without aircraft and it can’t all be in Boeing 737s going to 6,000-foot paved runways. Just isn’t possible. So, we use light aircraft and operate in one of the toughest environments on the planet: Grubby weather, mountains, not much infrastructure, relatively few airports and, for those in the tourism business, a 4-month season where every trip canceled means significant lost revenue.

Five-year Alaska accident rates are based on 2004 – 2008 since 2009 activity survey hasn’t been released:

  • Alaska :13.59 accidents per 100,000 flight hours
  • U.S. national: 5.85 per 100,000
  • Alaska: 1.35 fatal accidents per 100,000 flight hours
  • U.S. national: 1.12 fatal accidents per 100,000 flight hours

Humans have a tendency to use something psychologists call “hindsight bias.”  It means that after all the pieces of the puzzle are laid out in front of us we’re sure that many of us would have seen this problem coming. You can see this regularly in autopsies, lawsuits, and congressional and accident investigations.

Sometimes it’s true. We discuss and educate pilots and each other on bonehead stunts that really are stupid. In other cases – perhaps these two – we have to accept that all the signals pointed to a reasonable risk and a safe outcome.

Weather that looks the same as something you’ve flown dozens or perhaps hundreds of time before is not. See and avoid doesn’t always work if one or both aircraft are in exactly the wrong place at the wrong time. The physical limitations of the human eye and distraction factors are part of the human condition.  Let those without sin cast the first stone.

This is NOT to say that there is nothing to be learned or that mistakes weren’t made but to reaffirm the belief (Supreme court in 1980 held that “Safe is not the equivalent of risk-free: Industrial Union Department, AFL-CIO v. American Petroleum Institute) that there will always be some risk in flight.

It’s up to us to manage it, learn what we can, and live our lives doing the things that make them worth living . I suspect that both Chris and Senator Stevens would have agreed.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Steve C.

    “Travel in Alaska would be impossible without aircraft and it can’t all be in Boeing 737s going to 6,000-foot paved runways. Just isn’t possible. ”

    Thank you.

    Now if we could just figure out how to make the MSM, whose understanding of aviation stops at the terminal concourse window, understand this.

    Not that we haven’t expressed this lament before…

  • Rich Romaine

    First, my regards to all of Chris’ family and friends. For a time I was in the hangar next door and he was always a pleasant soul.

    Article is timely for me (I’m just reading today), having just spent a night on a friendly FBO’s couch Sunday night after refusing to continue VFR into IMC. Though I’m IFR, aircraft was not, so I spent some time working the available weather info to come up with the best wx info beyond the standard “VFR not recommended”. I believe the pat answer of “VFR not recommended” has stymied progress on getting all the available weather info into the system. As I built my own picture, I was reminded of a continued oversight in the readily available weather info. AWOS info to briefers/online is not as fresh as it could be.

    When dialing the AWOS tel#’s the data is at most a couple minutes old, online (XM too) some was an hour old (or days old if the briefer/briefee doesn’t notice the zulu date)…even an hour is forever in fog/mist conditions. Now that LockMart has the contract and probably the capability…shouldn’t we push to improve the latency of AWOS derived info in the system?

    My opinion is that in some number of the VFR into IMC mishaps, the failure to have the latest info leads folks into thinking conditions are better than they are (time late info is useless even in XM linked glass cockpits; I’ve seen the cheerful symbols, only to curse the report time when digging deeper). In researching this further, there look to be several back door approaches online, but our target audience is going to be using the official weather products and may not have that insight.

    The info is already collected, the sites are already there, it just needs a technology push to match our other 21st century capabilities.

    Rich Romaine