ONE-A-DAY – In the 50s, 60s and 70s, commercial aviation didn’t have a very good safety record. News of airline accidents frightened my mother and rightly so. However, in June, 1971, I was graduating from USAF pilot training, and my mother wanted to pin pilot wings on her boy’s chest. So, with my father holding her hand, she took a deep breath and boarded a Frontier Airlines Prop Jet, and flew from Salt Lake City to Denver and then on to Enid, Oklahoma. Today, things are quite different. The last fatal airline crash was Colgan Air flight 3407 in 2009, killing 50 people near Buffalo, New York. In sharp contrast, private-plane crashes have killed over 1,500 people since 2009 – 30 times as many as the Colgan Air Crash. That’s a rate of a little over one death per day!
WHAT CHANGED? – Advances in technology created the Angle of Attack indicator, GPWS (Ground Proximity Warning System), the onboard Wind Shear Alerting System, TCAS (Traffic Collision Avoidance System), advanced color weather radar, and a myriad of other gee whiz devices to improve safety. The airlines, following FAA mandates, installed all of ‘em and greatly enhanced their recurrent training programs. Today, commercial airline crashes due to icing, inadvertently hitting the ground, mid-air collisions, wind shear and other causes have been almost wiped out. The Commercial Jetliner accident rate has dropped 85% since 2000. Conversely, the private-pilot crash rate has increased 20%. (Reference: U.S. National Transportation Safety Board). Accidents involving private pilots in their own or rented planes, mostly small, single-engine aircraft, averaged about 12 per 100,000 flight hours from 2007 through 2010. Private-flight crashes were 12 times higher than the average rate for other types of general-aviation flying. More disturbing is the rate of deadly wrecks in the world of private flying. It’s growing faster than the accident rate and deaths are up 25 percent since 2000.
THE MISTAKES JUST KEEP COMIN’ – Pilots have overloaded planes, failed to check weather reports, and made flying mistakes that caused planes to lose lift (stall) or go out of control. Pilots can’t seem to stop flying into rising terrain or weather when on a VFR flight. In an average week, three GA aircraft crash due to fuel starvation (Reference AOPA’s Safety Institute). Pilots seem to be oblivious to the lessons that could be could be learned previous accidents.
MISTAKES LIKE: VFR to IMC – In 2005, the NTSB issued a study focusing on the role of weather as a common cause of small-plane accidents. In May 20, 2011, a Beechcraft Bonanza crashed in Taos, NM, after the pilot chose to fly into a cloud and slammed into a mountainside. Investigators found that the pilot, who died, hadn’t checked weather reports for the route he flew.
LOSS OF CONTROL AND THE “AFFORDABLE” BUT NOT MANDATED, AOA – The largest category of accidents are those in which pilots lose control during flight, said Bruce Landsberg, President of the AOPA Foundation. An NTSB safety panel, which met in June 2012, has endorsed working with the FAA to make it cheaper for small planes to install an Angle of Attack Indicator or AOA which will warn pilots when wings are in danger of losing lift. AOPA installed an AOA in the Air Safety Institute’s Archer. However, pilots are not interested in using the Archer’s AOA because they are more comfortable with the “old, unreliable airspeed [indicator] because that’s what they had lived with since they began flying.” (AOPA Pilot, August 2012, page 20). Landsberg lamented that, “AOAs will only be of value to a generation of pilots who are exposed to it at the beginning of training.”
IF YOU’RE YELLING “YAHOO!”, IT’S PROBABLY NOT GOING TO END WELL – I confess, I’ve been caught up in a juvenile stunt or two; even yelled “Yahoo!” Yes, the number one cause of accidents is still PILOT ERROR. Pilots can be trained ad nauseum, (“until the cows come home”), but they are still human and sometimes make bad choices. The following accident is particularly tragic. On Feb. 15, 2010, a Cessna T337G twin-engine plane crashed near Monmouth County Executive Airport in Farmingdale, New Jersey, as family members of those on board watched. The three adults and two children on the plane died. The NTSB found that after buzzing the airfield at high speed, the plane pulled into a climb and a section of the right wing separated from the aircraft. The plane was overloaded and flying too fast for such a maneuver.
THE WINGS PROGRAM – Strapping yourself and friends/family into your aircraft is serious stuff. It’s not a hobby. Flying radio controlled airplanes is a hobby with, I might add, a better safety record than GA. The FAA’s Wings Program was developed to increase a pilot’s exposure to aviation safety courses and enhance flight proficiency. After signing up for “Wings” at http://FAASafety.gov/ , pilots complete three Safety Courses a year and fly with a CFI three times year. That’s six flights in 24 months versus one in the BFR program. However, fuel and instructors aren’t free and “Wings” takes more time. So, the “Wings” participation level is very low. At the end of 2009, there were 234 recreational pilots, 3,248 sport pilots, 211,619 private pilots, 125,738 commercial pilots and 144,600 airline transport pilots. Yet, this year, only 14,745 pilots have earned at least one phase in the WINGS – Pilot Proficiency Program. (Reference http://faasafety.gov/). That’s just 4% of the Private, Recreational, Sport and Commercial pilots in the US. Is it ignorance or apathy? Apparently, many pilots don’t seem to know, or care.
IT’S UP TO US! –The accident rate is not going to get better until something changes. Mandatory continuation training would rejuvenate flight schools and invigorate Pilot Proficiency Programs and companies like Flight Safety, Inc. But, for now, it’s up to each pilot to be as professional as possible! At least take the AOPA and FAASafety.gov courses. Friends and family who fly with you believe that you are outstanding, professional and proficient pilot; otherwise, they wouldn’t get in your airplane. I contend that pilots should be as proficient and competent as their family and passengers think that they are. Until something changes, we can count on one thing: Somewhere in America – TODAY – at least one life will be lost in a GA accident.
To read more, see Bloomberg Newsweek, Deadly Private-Plane Crashes Prompt U.S. Call for Basics, by Alan Levin on June 19, 2012