Synonyms for conundrum: ” Deception , drawback, Catch 22″ and ” Puzzle, complication, dilemma.” That sums up the challenge of encouraging people to fly with us but giving them a reasonable chance of surviving. How do they know if we’re any good? This conundrum plagues general aviation’s image. Last week we looked at the horrendous crash involving an overloaded Piper Seneca on a “mission” to buy an aircraft. Five passengers accepted a ride to disaster reasoning that a 2,000-hour-plus pilot must be OK. NTSB will publish probable cause on this fairly soon. I’m betting that decision making will be seriously lacking.
A retired professional pilot, Captain John, who visits our site periodically, sent me a very thoughtful letter regarding how to address this. I’ve excerpted some key parts: “One problem is Part 91 passengers are unprotected by the regulations… The authorities recognize that commercial passengers have little knowledge by which they could evaluate risks of flight ….Unfortunately GA passengers are, in general, no more able to evaluate the risks they take…”
For Part 121 and 135 the system is largely mandated and nearly all corporate flight departments follow system safety concepts voluntarily, often exceeding what commercial entities embrace. The major challenge for GA, though, isn’t on the professional side – it’s personal. Years ago a newly certificated pilot invited one of the old timer’s kids for a ride. It was an innocent and enthusiastic request but the pilot’s father spoke up immediately saying that the new pilot needed some seasoning before any rides would be permitted with his family members. Many of us would react similarly unless we knew the pilot and his or her reputation.
A year after becoming a Private Pilot three friends joined me in a C172 to observe my ATC comm skills at one of the local big airports. That hazy east coast summer evening turned into murky night as we flew back to the short field that was home base. It was shades of JFK Jr except there were ground lights. The little airport was tough to find since this long predated GPS and one actually had to use pilotage in those days. Lots of opportunity for mishap. Could this have turned out badly? Yup.
Captain John cites several accidents that we’ve discussed in the past and sums up,”We can continue to try and make pilots behave in a more rational way. If we fail, we have a tremendous obligation….to prevent them from subjecting uninformed passengers to completely unknown and unmeasured risks. Part 91 doesn’t do it; we must.” Now the conundrum: How to do that without infringing on the privileges of those who have properly earned them while giving the passengers a better system to judge for themselves when it might be wise to either not accept or terminate a flight early?
Should we publish a checklist to Part 91 passengers?