“An Airline of One” or who’s Pilot-in-Command?

June 27, 2012 by Bruce Landsberg

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.



Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Brian Turrisi

    Spot on Bruce! I could not have stated it better myself. I viewed most of the NTSB conference on day 1 and the morning of day 2. The same problems we have identified for years were discussed again.
    Ultimately it is the pilot and his/her approach to personal responsibility and excellence. If the current rules were always followed, the GA accident would fall a great deal.

  • James

    Oversight is NOT the answer unless you subscribe to the marxist big brother is better system. Personal responsibility rules in America, or at least it should.

    Why are the regulators so Hell bent on making things more difficult on the 99% in order to fix the less than 1% that won’t be fixed anyway. Seriously, is their goal to take all risk and sense of accomplish out of our lives and substitute it for absolute complacency?

    Why did you want to learn to fly? Was it the thrill of accomplishing something new and exciting or was it something more on par with sitting in a fluffed up bean-bag in front of the TV wearing a helmet?

    Most of us understand that flying is followed by fundamental risks. The rate of survival in any aircraft is directly proportionate to the angle and speed of which you approach the ground. 99% of us have an innate sense of self preservation. We don’t go looking for trouble and we avoid situations which would put us in definite harms way. There are a lot of variables in flying and smart pilots will choose to eliminate as many of the unknowns as possible. Most pilots get that.

    As far as I can tell, hundreds of thousands of hours are flown each year without incident, but we are completely bent on regulating the safe 99% to a new level of scrutiny and training. Show me the numbers that say that pilots as a whole are unsafe individuals and as a pilot population needs their hands held and coddled; then I’ll start accepting that thought. Until then, fly safe, fly smart, be smart.

  • Sherif Sirageldin

    It seems that we may be striving for zero tolerance in accidents.

    Sadly, given that pilots are, well, human, this is impossible. We are not 100% rational machines and we succumb to moments of poor judgment, mistakes that may be construed as poor judgment, bad stuff that just happens, and more likely, a combination of all these.

    Our system for teaching the rules and reviewing our capabilities is a good one. It should always evolve. But the discipline for always following those rules is a personal one and will always be more suspect to failure at the private level than at the commercial level. The reason for this is most likely additional oversight for commercial operations.

    Oversight should always exist and also evolve. But to increase oversight in the private sector without acceptance of some level of accidents is, frankly, naive.

    Driving dangerously (get there-itis/joy-riding/etc) and having an accident is treated with, for the most part, a well-defined level of accepted procedure (and punishment). Oversight does not drastically change as long as this accident rate remains around a certain level. However, change that accident to a bus in public transportation and we have a different response – and appropriately so.

    While driving, I have done some dumb things. Fortunately, I lived to learn from those. I’ve been flying almost as long as driving and I’ve placed myself in poor situations in flying, also. I remember each of these situations vividly and know that they would not have been avoided with additional training or oversight (indeed, one was under IFR and partially due to ATC oversight/rules). Each was a result of a chain of events that I fully recognized when I was back on the ground, reviewed the entire situation, and was able to say “Never Again”.


    I am a 10,500 your commercial pilot who has flown more than 750 Angel Flights.
    I am also 80 years old, have a Ph.D. in psychogy and am retired. I continue to fly Angel Flights and Life Line pilots flights. I read as many accident reports as I can. The causes seem to me to be varied, mechanical, poor judgement, carelessness and just plain poor planing, such as no weather briefing before a flight.
    As I see it, there is a group of pilots who make bad decisions ( the pilot of the plane in Florida who flew into thunder storms a couple of weeks ago and killed all 6 abord). The problem is that flying is terribly unforgiving of a variety of errors. Some people, it seems to me, just can not grasp how unforgiving flying can be. Until the day happens when everyone uses good judgment all the time, flys within his or her capability, and stops doing stupid thiings ( low level maneuvering) we will continue to have accidents, and no amount of regulation will help.

  • http://www.aviatorsunlimited.us John White

    My Father was a highly experienced, skilled Pilot and Instructor from the WWII era. He once told me that when I became an Instructor I would might have to “Wash out” ( a term used in the CPTP) a student sometime because not every person should be a Pilot.
    After 47 years and 30,000+ hours in GA, Aircraft Manufacturing test, Airline, Bush, and Training type flying with many hundreds of Pilots from all walks of life and background, my Father’s sincere words are still stone cold true.
    We already have an “Over sight” system and the last thing GA needs is another Federal agency writing more rules and showing up to offer help with something they really know little about!
    The GA, Airline and Military all make the same mistake when it comes to training our future Pilots.. They “Through away” so to speak the Pilots that have spent most of their lives in Aviation, have accumulated a wealth of knowledge and experience and survived.
    Look who is doing the training and regulating and is in charge of oversight! Not the experienced and survivors.
    There are plenty of us out here that have a tremendous knowledge and experience base that could make a revolutionary contribution to the Industry. But because of a combination of economics, obstinate bureaucratic regulation and oversight the knowledge and experience base is not being used.
    The FAA and NTSB are always “Telling”. Maybe just maybe they should be listening and start restructuring the way we train and who is doing it.

  • cujet

    I’ve been working professionally in GA for 25 years. I’m also an aircraft owner (177RG) + PP with 1000 hours. Frankly, flying GA scares me. Not because I find flying uncomfortable, but because the statistics are awful.
    It’s clear to me that what we are doing to enhance GA safety is nearly 100% ineffective. In recent years, the FAA, AOPA and others have put great effort into practical safety education (which I try to take advantage of) . It matters not. GA aircraft continue to kill people at alarming rates, possibly on par with, or worse than motorcycles. And, as we well know, the same things continue to occur, over and over.
    I have 2 suggestions: 1) Change tactics. 2) Allow simple and easy, advanced equipment installations on older aircraft.
    We put a stunning amount of effort into compliance issues, many of which have zero statistical bearing on safety of flight. Yet, we put very little effort into fixing “real” problems. That’s insane, and it simply borders on incompetence.
    There is no question that improved training is a good thing. But that ignores the root causes of many crashes.

  • Kevin Collins

    When I started flight training, I checked out the safety statistics and started reading accident reports. At first, was scared like “cujet” is. As I continued to study the NTSB accident reports and the annual Nall report, however, I realized that a large percentage of fatal accidents are caused by people being reckless (either consciously or unconsciously).

    Bruce, as you have pointed out many times the same is true in any number of activities that involve risk: motorcycling, boating, rock climbing, skydiving, etc. I think all we can do is try to educate pilots about what is most likely to get them killed. If pilots care to operate more safely, they will use those resources. If not, they won’t and there’s nothing we can do about it short of banning recreational aviation. If the government wants to do that, then they might as well ban every recreational activity in which people get killed.

    They should also enhance traffic safety legislation to ensure anybody who executes any unsafe maneuver loses their driver’s license for at least 6 months. Such regulations should include definition of a “sterile interior” rule that prohibits non-essential conversation & activities when the vehicle is within 50 ft. of another vehicle, a pedestrian, or an intersection. Passage and enforcement of such regulations would be sure to decrease the driving fatality rate and increase safety for everybody. Isn’t that what society wants?

  • Bruce Landsberg

    Excellent commentary! Looking at our “highly unscientific” poll so far the numbers are running about 7 or 8 to 1 against more regulation. I had an off-web discussion where a suggestion was made to add a judgment test in addition to the practical and knowledge testing we already have

    It’s an interesting thought and while psychology is tremendously exact science ( well sort of – not) I wonder if there is some way to stage an intervention, at least in a few of these cases, without being over-reaching.

    As stated in too many words inthe blog – not sure we’re going to be able to resolve this and still allow the freedom that we cherish

  • http://www.austinflightcheck.com Ken Lane

    This has to be the most complete discussion I have found on this subject.
    I feel it was probably a a failure on both the system and the individuals. I don’t feel one or the other can be blamed. Keep on bringing us the facts Bruce.

  • Curt

    Fantastic article!

    It’s simple really, although many in government appear honestly unable to accept it: you cannot legislate away stupidity. Either you are a safe pilot who constantly strives to be safe and follow the existing rules, or you’re a candidate for an episode of “Jackass” and no amount of additional regulation, no amount whatsoever, is going to change your genetic makeup.

    I wonder how many hours Ms. Hersman has spent on her cell phone while behind the wheel of her car?

  • Kayak Jack

    As there are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, etc. – there are also fools, and there are damned fools. Training works for increasing skills and knowledge. Training does NOT work to correct attitude. You cannot train out a bad attitude like you can train out a knowledge deficiency.

    Other discussions explored questions about possibly intervening when we see a fellow (or gal) pilot about to do something stupid, or reporting it after they do something stupid.

    This is another subject altogether – should we be self-policing? If we were, would it have a potential to reduce accidents by removing some reckless pilots – leaving the “wreckless” ones to fly more safely? Is it worth a try? Is it worth the risk of trying it? Do we need a multi-million dollar FAA study to figure it out?

  • John

    The problem seems to be risk tolerance by some pilots, and risk intolerance by the NTSB, the FAA, and perhaps the legal system. We’re human. Some of us like to ride motor cycles or snow machines really fast – without helmets or leathers – and like it or not the risk of smeared brains from those activities is pretty high. Some people like to fly low (buzz), others like to fly upside down, and some even like to fly low in the mountains. What’s the difference? The difference is that aircraft accidents are rare events that are sensationalized, while motor cycle and snow machine accidents are very common. There’s probably not too much difference in judgement between the snow machine rider who likes to make a run across an ice shelf on a thawing lake and a pilot who willingly flys VFR into IMC. Some would call it “stupid”, others might shrug and say “it’s Karma”. Why (WHY) do we have this institutional urge to eliminate risk from flying, while many pilots willingly hop on a large motor cyle and weave through traffic? I’m very happy with my round dial aircraft and 1960’s instruments and the potential risks associated with an off airport landing should my engine quit whilst over the mountains. My friend (like some others on this thread) isn’t happy unless he has a BRS, virtual terrain, air bag seat belts, etc. etc. etc. Why? Because my risk tolerance is much, MUCH larger than hers – sort of a chasm evidently existing between my risk tolerance and the individual on thread who fears GA flying. So, why is it necessary to impose (or expect) that accident rates for those with low risk tolerance should apply across the board? This entire debate strikes me as wierd, and not particularly productive. What is seminal to this discussion is how a pilot’s risk tolerance can directly impact the outcome of a flight for a non-pilot who entrusts them with their safety. This seems to me to be the core of the issue. Pilots, go kill yourselfs if you want, but if we take a passenger along for the ride (as was the case with the buzzing 337, the C206 that a blind pilot cartwheeled, and the C208 full of jumpers) the sin is great.