Media Bogusity and Truth

July 22, 2014 by Bruce Landsberg

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles /

Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, and media must rake muck even if it’s wrong. Facts, apparently, are no longer required. The New York Times, which once proclaimed “All the news that’s fit to print,” has now switched to “All the news that fits (our preconceived notion) we print.” Last week the NYT printed a poorly researched op-ed that tried to equate GA’s safety record to the airlines—again. This follows USA Today’s so-called “investigative report” several weeks ago that cited this invalid comparison. We’ve written about this bogusity many times (a new word I just coined—derived from Bogus).

Rather than refute the NYT point by point, which AOPA President Mark Baker did immediately in a letter to the NYT editor, let’s try a different tack: News flash…GA is NOT the airlines, and the most dangerous part of the trip is NOT the drive to the airport!

GA is not as safe as the airlines—(except where we fly multiengine, multi-crewed turbojet aircraft—that record is as good as or better than the airlines). Light GA accidents (light GA is where most of the crashes occur) result from pilots’ misjudgment/poor skill. Did the system fail or the individual? Were pilots not aware of the risks they were taking? In most cases I believe they were. Listed below is an ASI safety education program for each risk area (and in many cases there are additional safety courses, publications, videos, and case studies covering a particular risk topic). No other personal activity goes to the effort GA does, in general, and the Air Safety Institute, in particular, to lay out the risks. No other activity is as heavily regulated, and it’s almost impossible to crash without breaking some specific or common sense rule.

  • VFR into IMC?—What part of cloud don’t you understand?
  • Thunderstorms?—Shredded airframes and extreme upset await.
  • Ice?—Most light aircraft do not fly well in it.
  • Stalls?—It’s angle, not speed. Failure to understand this geometry is to not understand the essence of flight.
  • Gas?—Gotta have it.
  • Takeoff and landing?—Minimum safe runways lengths must include a margin well beyond what the test pilots found in certification. Try the ASI 50/50 solution.
  • Weather?—It’s what you see—not what was forecast.
  • Old aircraft?—Not that much of a problem, but like all things they must be maintained, and there are too many examples of shoddy maintenance and deliberate shortcuts by owners.
  • Buzz jobs?—Totally dumb—’nough said!
  • Decision Making?—For obvious reasons.
  • IFR Procedures?—ASI offers eight courses dedicated to IFR charts, regulations, procedures, and more.

Our fatality numbers have improved by about 40% over the last two decades—something that’s lost on media and sometimes on the regulatory authorities in the rush to do what they do. There is less flying, so the rate reduction as near as we can measure it isn’t as much—but it is lower. In comparison to other risky activities, GA losses are small and innocents are seldom involved (but let’s strive not to have any).

So why all the attention? See the opening sentence. We’re pushing back and you can too. Note the bulleted list, train regularly, and help fellow pilots understand that arrogance or ignorance is not life-prolonging.

We can do better–GA can be safer. Death and destruction are poor selling points and bad for business—this is true in motorcycles, skydiving, personal watercraft, ATV riding, skiing, and mountain climbing. But in any performance activity there is a natural accountability—something that’s missing in too much of today’s journalism, which is all about sell—not truth.

Does GA’s training system have some holes? It does. We should be, and are, working to address that. But show me any human activity that doesn’t. Risk management unfortunately doesn’t equate to risk elimination. The airlines are a business: and for a business it’s about money. But for us: it’s about being as safe as you choose to make it—your life, your passengers, and our collective reputation ride on it. Do it well!

Want to help? Make a contribution to the AOPA Foundation Image program.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

ASI Online Safety Courses  |  ASI Safety Quiz  |  Support the AOPA Foundation

  • Duane

    Bruce – We all know that personal aviation will NEVER be as safe as commercial airline flight…. unless and until we take the pilot completely out of the equation (and the cockpit) by going to fully autonomous flight. We will likely get to fully autonomous private flight operations some day, at least for “transportation flying”. The technology (including NextGen) exists already.

    But since private pilots actually enjoy piloting aircraft, and the freedom and the sights and thrills and so forth, fully autonomous flight will never eliminate private recreational piloting … and therefore we’ll always have a higher accident rate compared to the pros.

    A few things that we CAN do to improved personal aviation safety:

    1) Get actively engaged in reviewing and commenting on the draft Part 23 rewrite when it comes out from FAA next year as mandated by law.

    Getting the FAA bureaucracy out of the way of constant innovation and aircraft upgrades will do more than any other possible thing we can do to improve personal aviation safety.

    2) Any pilot who is not highly familiar with risk management (RM) techniques ought to make himself/herself familiar very quickly. It’s a very effective way of thinking that leads to better decisions, both pre-flight and in flight. RM is a way of life (literally). The new FAA airman training standards are based in part upon this method. It’s long overdue.

    3) AOPA needs to continue to do all it can to promote 1) and 2) above.

  • Sherif Sirageldin

    Hmmmm… let’s see.
    So those who made it thru much more training and have vehicles that are maintained to a higher standard have safer records than those that don’t?
    Aaannddd… those who are just starting out and/or have less experience have more accidents?

    Wow… sounds like every other mode of transportation and occupation. Those who train at the commercial level are way better than those who don’t. The machines maintained at the commercial level are much better than those maintained privately (in general).

    I’m sorry… but exactly what is the issue (besides dramatic journalism)?

  • Bruce Landsberg

    Sherif….I think you get it although I’m not sure I’m nit sure I’d put in exactly those terms. Fish gotta fly, birds gotta swim and media — well— you understand..

  • Joseph Eugenio

    I’m sorry but Mr Landsberg arguments do not convince, light GA will always be less safe, all we can do is strive to always fly responsibly and hope those few less responsible amongst us learn from earlier close calls.

    AOPA and the FAA do a good job promoting training and safety, that goes a long way in assuaging public concern but Insulting the messenger only makes our community appear arrogant

  • Dror Shannon

    Aside from issues of differences in experience, training, or maintenance, it seems to me that the way to emphasize that GA is not like the commercial airlines is to present the variety of missions served by GA. The airlines fly fixed routes and schedules, and maintain routines, much like other public transportation such as buses and trains. Minimizing unexpected occurrences is certainly a means of reducing risk and its corresponding incidents and accidents, but GA is rarely routine. GA includes known risky missions like firefighting and rescue, and is essentially ad hoc and as far removed from routine as one can imagine. Some operations, like crop-dusting, power-line inspection, traffic reporting, police operations, and border patrolling are conducted close to the ground and therefore leave much less margin for error than high-in-the-sky airline travel. Hence the accident statistics cannot avoid being skewed by higher risks that produce higher casualty rates. Comparing the two is the proverbial “apples and oranges” problem. Even if one were to separate out accident statistics specific to personal transportation in light aircraft, the appropriate statistical comparison would more likely be with road accidents rather than airline accidents. There really can be no justification for responsible media to behave like supermarket tabloids to ignore facts and logic.

  • Harry

    Imagine if news writers were accidentally killed anytime they published an erroneous statement.