“Get your facts first, then distort them as much as you like.” So said Mark Twain. But sometimes a reporter distorts a crusade in search of something nefarious that just isn’t there or is a small part of the whole truth.
USA Today reporter Thomas Frank in a recent article interviewed families of general aviation aircraft accident victims and took carefully edited video clips to create a “compelling must-view” narrative on how unsafe GA flight is. The premise is that GA poses a huge threat that hasn’t improved over the years because manufacturers and the FAA have blocked safety improvements.
The aircraft or improper maintenance represents a small part of the accident picture, accounting for 10 to 25 percent depending on the year. Generally, it’s pilots who cause a crash. It’s the same, by the way, for all other forms of human-machine interaction. Mechanical faults—in cars, boats, motorcycles, and bathtubs—represent a very small proportion of accidents.
When Mr. Frank interviewed AOPA he asked about the accident rate and number of fatalities: They have dropped by 55% and 75%, respectively, over the last 40 years. It seems odd to exclude those salient facts from a balanced piece.
The Cessna seat slip problem, which might cause a pilot to lose control, was mentioned extensively. There was a design issue, but it was also very much a maintenance issue. In 30-year-old aircraft, or anything mechanical, parts (including seat tracks) wear out and they have to be maintained. If owners fail to heed guidance from the manufacturer on product changes and fixes even when warned in the direst of terms that it’s important, I fail to see how that is the company’s fault. In some cases an Airworthiness Directive is issued but there has to be solid statistical evidence, not isolated incidents.
Frank notes the 1994 General Aviation Revitalization Act (GARA) as being inappropriately rammed through an unsuspecting Congress to protect manufacturers from product liability. The act says that plaintiffs cannot sue manufacturers for airframes or any installed parts once they are more than 18 years old. If an aircraft has been flying safely for nearly two decades it’s highly unlikely that a systemic design problem would remain undiscovered. I’m not aware of any personal transportation product that is held to a comparable standard or judged retroactively by new standards. GARA also does not protect manufacturers from withheld, concealed, or misrepresented information—that wasn’t noted.
Frank cites several anecdotes in his article. But somehow he misses one of the most egregious product liability cases of all time: In 1983, a 1970 Piper Super Cub, with a sailplane in tow, collided with a van driven onto the runway to block the takeoff. A crude (and illegal) camera mount replaced the Cub’s front seat and there were no installed rear-seat shoulder harnesses where the pilot sat. They were not required, although the pilot could have chosen to add them. The pilot suffered massive head injuries from the camera mount and Piper was sued for lack of non-required shoulder harnesses—you can read more in this case study.
Comparing a new 2012 Cessna Skyhawk to an early 1970’s vintage would see substantial improvements: Fuel injected engines to eliminate carb icing, re-engineered seat tracks, better door latches, a full annunciator panel, dual vacuum pumps, airbags, shoulder harnesses, etc. Somehow none of that made the cut either.
Using an automotive metaphor, if you drove a 1957 Chevy (a great year) there would be no seatbelts, no airbags, no crush zones, a solid metal dash instead of padded, etc. The public, the NTSB, the NHTSA, and presumably Mr. Frank would have no expectation of similar safety to a late model Chevy.
Likewise, comparing airline operations to GA is absurd. No one would think to compare the safety record of intercity busses to personal vehicles. Frank used NTSB former chair Debbie Hersman’s non-sequitur comparing GA operations to the airlines—I’m disappointed. She knows that’s jumbling the fruit basket.
NTSB investigations do sometimes leave something to be desired, and in some cases they don’t even send an investigator to the scene. But in many cases the investigation is spot on, but the probable cause findings are not allowed in court—merely a quirk in our justice system to let an unbiased third party present its findings?
The general aviation community takes safety very seriously, which is proven almost daily in print and online. The Air Safety Institute conducts 200 free safety seminars annually and has the largest GA safety website in the world. None of that was mentioned.
So, with apologies to the many responsible video journalists, writers, and editors who strive for accuracy, this particular writer and editorial team deserve three Pinocchio’s for deliberately distorting the facts. They don’t get four because there are a few truths contained in the story, but to finish with another Twain quote,“When in doubt tell the truth. It will confound your enemies and astound your friends.” I am neither confounded nor astounded. Perhaps we’re expecting too much from USA Today.