The Great Debate: can we “make” flying safer?

The above question suggests that general aviation flying is not as safe as it could be. No argument with that. An average (for the whole activity) fatal accident rate of 1.30 per 100,000 flying hours is certainly not good. Any other way you look at it comes to an equally unfortunate conclusion. It doesn’t compare well with other forms of transportation though all comparisons are between apples and oranges.

Corporate and instructional flying have a great record. Even agricultural flying is good. The trouble comes with when and how we individual pilots use our airplanes. When I was in New York City public grade schools, a report card item was: “Works and plays well with others?” My grade was about like one that many pilots would get today were the question “Works and plays well with airplanes?”

Crashed airplane
Is this inevitable?

There are two schools of thought on how to approach this.

One way of thinking is that the safety record is the product of every element of general aviation flying. The training, the aptitude of the pilots, the airplanes, the flying environment, and the attitudes that are brought to the cockpit all figure into the equation that comes out as the existing safety record. The only way you could “make” it safer would be to tinker with some things that make it a desirable thing to do.

The good news is that a pilot who takes flying seriously and makes an effort to fly better than is required can enjoy flight operations that, while not perfectly safe, have a low level of risk.

The other school of thought is that we have to continually work to make it safer than it is. Money is spent on research, on complying with new regulations, on training programs, on educational stuff, on hardware for the airplanes (like parachutes), and on avionics bells and whistles. This has been going on for years and it hasn’t helped the overall general aviation safety record much, if at all.

The safety work has to be addressed to the pilots who don’t take flying seriously, the loose cannons. They are largely responsible for the accident rate.

So, the question relates to whether or not you think we should throw the loose cannons under the bus, accept the current safety record, and fly on with our remaining freedoms intact? Or, should we make changes that might rein in the loose cannons but that would likely swap a lot of freedom for the chance of a better record?

FYI, after working with this for many years, I am of the opinion that there is little or nothing that is practical that we can do to “make” general aviation flying safer than it is today. How about you? Sound off.

 

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30 Comments

  • All we can really do is each put our minds to making our individual flying safer. Giving the same loose cannon pilots new bells and whistles frequently only serves to make them think the airplane will protect them. However, giving those same bells and whistles to pilots who work to appreciate the limitations of these systems and use them to compliment, rather then replace, the pilots ability makes them safer.

  • Its not always loose cannons getting into accidents. We had an IFR pilot in our club that ended up in an accident because he ran out of fuel flying from New England back to NC. Weather and winds not as predicted, while flying IFR at night as a single pilot, resulted in him using up his reserves on his approach into the airport. Of course its probably an obvious result of fuel miscalculation. Sometimes pilots get in over their heads and end up on the wrong side of the curve. It may even be a student pilot that ends up in one because of a gusty crosswind on landing….not necessarily because they are loose cannons. I just think that perhaps the writer should back up the statements with actual facts, rather than telling them damn kids to get off his lawn.

  • I think that we’ve basically gotten to the point at which the human foibles that make us intertesting as a species become a hazard to our survival when we play with airplanes. And I don’t think that enhanced repetitions of the “blame and train” game will do anything to mitigate that. I’ve seen experienced pilots make bad decisions primarily out of hubris and testosterone poisoning. Some walked away from it. Others endured crashes. This cannot be legislated or regulated away. At least not without fundamentally destroying civil aviation as a source of joy and good.

    It’s like making motorcycles safer. At one point, we have to accept that humans, despite the facts, make seriously bad decisions. All the elements of good decisions are there for pilots. They simply must endeavor to choose them. But to enforce a correct choice ends up being counterproductive.

  • There’s a good amount of things that I think we could do, but if there is a should in there, I don’t know. I’m kind of in the middle.

    I don’t necessarily think it is a bells and whistles thing but we have come far enough that I do think things like transponders or radios should be used-period, end of sentence. Dodging a Cub who’s not talking or looking around when you’re flying a jet and trying to land isn’t fun.

    It also isn’t fun to be flying along at minimums with your tail in the clouds but in contact with the ground and look up to see a plane coming right towards you claiming it was Class G and they were ‘clear of clouds’ and what were you doing there because you were on an instrument flight plan and with Center and they were on CTAF at an uncontrolled airport and weren’t required to be on the radio.

  • It’s easy to say “I don’t need any more rules in life” and rant about government. I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment, but an objective person has to admit that some aviation rules are good for safety and good for pilots.

    Collins is right–the loose cannons can’t be helped, and I say we don’t waste any time on them. But for the pilots who are safe, have we really done everything we can? I think there’s probably some work left to do. For example, I think the rules regarding flight reviews are incredibly generous. Anybody that did no recurrent training for 23 1/2 months is not being safe. How about we add some rules that matter in exchange for killing some rules that don’t.

    • I’m in favor of this! And I really only have one thing in mind. I alluded to it above. Radio communication should be required at all public airports, end of discussion! I can honestly see not requiring transponders or not requiring training. But not requiring communication in the pattern is asking for trouble. And when I say “HEY! you cut me off!” “Radios aren’t required at an uncontrolled airport”

    • The only problem with this idea is that you are assuming that requiring more training is the only thing that makes pilots do it. Loose cannons will be the ones who do no training in between flight reviews. I for one am always training. I try to make virtually all flights into training flights. It doesn’t build experience to have the same flight every time up. The old adage that you may have a thousand hours, but are they the same hour a thousand times? Also I would point out that training doesn’t require an instructor. My father and I train by challenging each other to different scenarios on a regular basis. The government requiring something doesn’t make me do it, I do.

  • Often “loose cannons” are known to be such by other pilots. How often have you heard of a pilot taking any steps to address the problem of the loose cannon? Perhaps the concept of live and let live (or live and let die) is a significant part of the problem?

    • You are absolutely right. This is the problem – we have often not the guts to tell very clearly other pilot that he risks too much. I have lost a friend in this way, and I feel myself more than a bit guilty.

  • Nothing in life is completely safe. Risk goes up based on individual behavior and some of us would be better off staying home. I for one support their right to make mistakes. It’s called freedom, the more the powers that be try to protect us from ourselves the less free we are.

  • Nothing comes without cost. No safety initiative, no regulation, no law, no techno fix can be implimented without a cost. Techno fixes have made a big difference in the utility of aircraft. Now we have terrain warnings in a lot of new aircraft (but it ain’t free!). We have parachutes and airbags (again, at a high cost). We have glass panels that provide huge amounts of information to pilots – and the FAA has found that in comparable aircraft steam dials actually have a lower accident rate. Bob Miller (Over the Airwaves) and others regularly beat up AOPA and EAA over their stance against mandated safety gizmos and significant increases in training costs while at the same time whining about ‘declining numbers of pilots’. We can’t have it both ways. Either we accept that there is risk associated with some types of flying which create ‘unsafe’ conditions, or we simply regulate recreational and personal GA travel to the point it is only a pastime of the very well off who can afford a professional pilot to chaufer them about the sky. I think the FAA’s efforts with regard to personal flying should be to educate, offer pilots opportunties for free recurrent training, allow us the freedom to take personal risks, and avoid adding more layers of regulation to the FARS. Personal flying should never be compared to the airlines or air taxi ops, and those aspects of aviation should be expected to fly with much lower risk tolerance (approaching zero if the market can bear it) because when a passenger climbs on an airliner or into an air taxi they should have the expectation of a safe arrival.

  • I agree Mike that there should be restrictions on all of us when it endangers others. However, almost everything we do has an element of danger to others. People speed on the highways, that endangers others…yet everyone accepts that risk when they drive on the roads. Regulations that currently exist already protect the innocent, more government involvement only stifles people. You cannot regulate stupidity out of human beings, therefore a never ending pursuit of perfect safety is folly.

    • I agree…anytime you go higher than you can jump or faster than you can run you take the risk of getting hurt. No amount of regulations can prevent it.

  • Speaking as a low-time pilot, it seems there is more that can be done. I’ve read that the accident rate is fairly high during the first several hundred hours after the private certificate, so this is either the weeding out of the “loose cannons,” or the fact that the experience needed to be a safe pilot comes during this time, and is obtained at a higher level of risk. I think it’s more a case of the latter. Surely there’s more that can be done to make the attainment of experience in this time frame less dangerous than it appears to be.

  • Depends on the accident. Run out of fuel or land gear-up and there should be a huge insurance deductable. Knowing that there is a large financilal cost to carelessness will raise some peoples consciousness.

  • I believe that we’re reached the point of diminishing returns in our societal quest for safety. Going beyond training and general prudence by addressing safety through instituting more restrictive FARs has a far greater impact on reducing enjoyment than on reducing risk.
    For that matter, when I get together with some of my friends who ride motorcycles I thank God that I’ve chosen the safety of a hobby like flying homebuilt aircraft!

  • You can’t legislate good sense, and we’ve already got enough rules and requirements in place to establish the highest practical level of safety.

  • I like Warren’s idea of raising the limits of deductibles for us when we screw up…. When financial considerations have entered into our flying experience…. we should be aware that careful consideration of our liabilities can…possibly make us a better driver.. Insurance people….are you listening?

  • I have spent the better part of the last 20 years flying commercially in Africa. I did a bit of research on accident rates in the Republic of South Africa and came up with numbers which showed that the accident rate was twice as high in RSA as in the USA all in an area with generally much better weather and a higher layer or regulatory control. My own conclusion is that there is a lower level of safety consciousness in Africa and all the regulatory control in the world won’t change that.

    Governments have a limited toolbox at their disposal to tinker with flight safety- regulatory changes. The direction of regulatory change inevitably is toward more regulations not less. More regulations lead to less utility and higher costs. The unintended consequence of these higher costs and less utility is a higher level of air safety(less accidents) due to fewer flying hours.

    So be careful what you wish for……

  • You can’t legislate better pilots, the same way you can’t legislate better drivers. Let’s not forget that the greatest aviation disasters of all time were perpetrated by pilots with high hours and lots of experience, just look at the top 100 aviation accidents of all time, how many of them do you see with low time pilots? http://planecrashinfo.com/worst100.htm

    • I would bet that the worst accidents of all time were airline crashes. Airline pilots are all relatively high time but the CAUSE of the accident was not the high time of the crew obviously. Similarly rules and regulations dont “cause” better pilots but they do provide a framework for safe operation. Places in the world where regulations are nonexistent, ignored and/or not enforced have the highest accident rates- for example Alaska and Africa.

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