Prediction: 2009

December 31, 2008 by Bruce Landsberg

The beginning of the new year just begs for some sage observation on what will happen in 2009 . I’ll wander out on the limb and you’re welcome to join me or stay close to the tree trunk.

Safe bet: The number of accidents will go down simply because we are flying less. Less exposure means fewer opportunities for something to go wrong. Insurance companies are fond of saying that their business would be perfect if people just paid their premiums and parked their airplanes.

Cloudy bet: The accident rate will increase as some pilots who are flying less become less proficient at basic flight tasks. Take offs and especially landings will suffer as these essential skills atrophy with disuse. It’s worse when one is new to the activity but even high timers are not immune. When I started flying, if I wasn’t flying at least once every other week, the rustiness began. With the grooves now worn a bit more deeply, routine actions begin to feel rusty after a month or so of layoff. Non routine activities such as instrument approaches are still in the bi-weekly category and I set my minimums accordingly.

Suggestion: If, due to economics or other downers, you’re not flying as much as in the past, get a little instruction from a trusted CFI. Invest in yourself!

What’s a good guideline for staying reasonably proficient? The Air Force used to require desk jockey pilots to log a minimum of four hours a month to maintain flight pay. Additionally, they had periodic checks to be sure they were taking good care of the taxpayers’ property.

I realize that’s more than some of us fly in the best of times and our aircraft aren’t as complex nor the missions as demanding but it’s still a performance activity. One size certainly does not fit all. Local day VFR in low density traffic and light winds is quite different from long distance cross country flying that crosses multiple weather systems, terrain and traffic environments.

What do you think is enough for reasonable safety in basic VFR and more advanced IFR flight?

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Brandon Freeman


    I agree with your assessment, especially regarding how quickly proficiency drops off for new pilots. I got my private certificate just over a year ago, and I have made it a point to try to fly at least once a week (ideally), but definitely no more than 2x a month. However, due to some really wacky weather in the Pacific Northwest, I haven’t flown since before Thanksgiving.

    At this point, I don’t think I would fly on a less-than-CAVU day with passengers until I’ve had at least a couple flights by myself or with a CFI around the pattern and out in the practice area. I feel I owe my passengers as safe a flight as I can provide, and right now, I don’t feel proficient enough to do that.

  • Brigitte Howells


    When the fuel started rising, I found that extended flights in my Sundowner were simply too costly. So, in order to stay proficient and keep the battery in the aircraft charged, I make short flights of 1-1/2 to 2 hours every week or 10 days.
    And while I am current for IFR flight, it will be necessary to fly the simulator or snag an instructor once in a while for my own comfort level.
    Fuel prices for aircraft have certainly not dropped at the rate as those for cars and trucks, and with the stock market not providing supplement income, I still don’t see long flights in the near future.
    Also note: Good leaning practice saves fuel.

  • Bob H.

    Well, I’m a bit more pessimistic regarding the “safe bet”, considering it anything but….

    As a percentage of flights, it is actually more likely that with a higher percentage of lesser proficient pilots, the number of accidents as a sum total will increase. In other words, if the collective proficient pilot accident rate is 1 in 1000 and the accident rate of collectively less proficient pilots is 10 in 1000, the number of accidents in 10000 flights will be 100 as opposed to 10. I think this is the scenario I would unfortunately predict for 2009 even if you don’t agree with the exact details of the math. This is about weighting the impact of the decline in proficiency – a variable that would be less likely to change dramatically in more nominal economic (or regulatory – like 9/11 airspace closures) conditions.

    That said I wholeheartedly agree that planning for and receiving more instruction will be less costly and more rewarding in a one year period than just trying to fly more. So, instead of 12 hours of solo proficiency practice (i.e., 1 hour per month), 6 proficiency flights with 2 hours of instruction and 1 hour flying every other month would be considerably more valuable and effective (economically and practically).

    I’m not sure there is a one-size fits all rule of thumb for training and proficiency that anyone would agree upon. What I think is true is that while accidents have been trending downward (yay!), now is the time for pilots to consider how much recurrent training they need and employ it. I believe that previous utilization rates of instructor resources by certificated, non-rating seeking, pilots has been and continues to be sub-optimal. It’s amazing how many “wow I never knew that! [basic skill/technique]” exclamations I encounter in the process of giving a flight review. Especially now that there are fewer airline transitioning timebuilders (there is very little of that at the moment in the profession), now is a good time for a full court press to lobby the community to more consciously utilize resources dedicated to safe and proficient piloting.

  • Leo Robinson

    Hello All,

    Bob, I do not agree with the maths. You said “the number of accidents in 10000 flights will be 100 as opposed to 10”.
    That may be true for 10000 flights flown by non-proficient pilots who take to the sky. However, you must consider 10000 flights conducted by both proficient and non-proficient pilots. Predicting accident rates cannot be done so easily. One variable in this case as you rightly stated is the number of proficient pilots who fly during 2009 and their impact – “a variable…. less likely to change dramatically in more nominal economic conditions”.

    It’s true, a one size fits all rule of thumb for training and proficiency is not so likely but that is every regulatory body’s task to at the very least, set standards. After that we owe it to ourselves and our fellow man to sacrifice what it takes and get the training we need when it is needed. We must also be each other’s keeper and make a statement when we know someone (whether above or below us in rating) seems to be slacking off.

    What is enough for reasonable safety?
    Reasonable safety should not be limited to the standards given by FAA for the main reason, as we all agree on; one size does not fit all.
    With regards to preparation for basic VFR flights during downtimes, it is important to recap airspace classification, the particular aircraft manual and the standard radiotelephony techniques, at least. But how often and when should this be done you ask. There are several categories to which a certain amount of ground training should be applied: for student pilots, pilots licensed less than a year , pilots licensed for more than a year (3 months without flying), pilots licensed for more than a year (more than three months without flying). It may seem as though this could only happen in a perfect world but during any downtime, any pilot who knows that they will fly again must have solo ground training. Additional training with a more current pilot must also be sought by most pilots when downtime is as much a month. During downtime, the habit of flying must still be on our minds as often as possible. At the moment a lapse in memory occurs during self training, action must be taken.

    Safe Flight.

  • Bob H.

    “However, you must consider 10000 flights conducted by both proficient and non-proficient pilots. ”

    Well, Leo, I see now that I did not articulate my point very well, but let me see if I can clarify. If we say that pilots come on a proficiency scale of 1 to 5, and the average P-rating of the entire body of pilots today is 3, what will happen when it drops to 2 because all pilots regardless of economic advantage are flying less often? It was not my intention to suggest that there is a group of proficient pilots and a group of non-proficient pilots, but rather all pilots as a collective whole. I think on that we had agreement. You are correct that it does depend on who IS flying, but I feel confident that the distribution of proficiency will remain the same across the total number of flights, if not flight hours. In fact, it could even happen that less proficient pilots actually do more of the flying as proficient pilots cut back based upon the pace of business.

    Anyway, the point here was my perception that less flying does not always result in less accidents, and that conditions may be ripe for anomalous results.

  • Leo Robinson

    Bob, I completely understand your point now; taking the proficiency of pilots flying as an average.

    “Less flying does not always result in less accidents”. Point well taken.

    It’s been a pleasure discussing these issues. I am always interested to hear other opinions.

    Kind Regards,

    Safe Flight.

  • Cary Alburn

    Since I’m not into analyzing the future, let me just respond to Bruce’s questions.

    For my purposes (as a 2100+ hour, dormant CFII), I could lay off flying for months and still fly reasonably well in an uncomplicated VFR situation in a relatively uncomplicated airplane–reasonably good weather, an airplane I’m familiar with, perhaps a couple hundred mile XC. I’ve done exactly that.

    For even “easy” IFR, though, I’d rather have a relatively recent IPC under my belt (or several recent hours in the clouds) as well as recent (within the last week or so) flying in the same airplane that I’m about to go IFR in.

    But what’s good for me isn’t necessarily good for another pilot, due to differences in time in the saddle, years as well as hours, equipment, weather experience, etc. So setting a one-size-fits all experience level probably won’t work, no more than the USAF’s 4 hours a month requirement worked. I knew USAF instructors who flew with those desk jockeys, and while some were pretty OK pilots at 4 hours a month, some were flat out dangerous. We’re all different. We can probably agree that the more one flies and the more instruction one intersperses into that flying, the likelihood is better that there will be fewer mistakes, but going much farther with predictions is probably futile.