After we post material related to accidents, or the poor safety record in general aviation, we get comments questioning whether or not we should be airing the dirty linen in a public forum. It has been said that we might just be trying to attract attention, or find a place in the sun (clouds). If talking about safety is an aeronautical sin, though, meet the two biggest perps, my father, Leighton Collins, and myself. Guilty as charged since February, 1938, when AIR FACTS started. That was more than a year earlier than AOPA.
I have no excuses to offer, only reasons and examples of why this has actually been constructive even though it has not been easy, especially in the beginning, and it has often been met with disfavor. Many in general aviation have, over the years, tended to ignore or at least downplay our safety problem. We haven’t.
My father outlined his concerns in that first issue. He wondered why, in our flying, we lost 15 times as many pilots as were lost in airline flying. Look at today and you can understand the remarkable progress in airline safety. In 2011 general aviation lost almost 300 pilots. The airlines lost none.
The fatal accident rate in general aviation is now about ten times better than it was in 1938; the airline rate is almost infinitely better.
From the beginning, it was my father’s hope that his work would help improve the safety record in what was then called private aviation. The “general” had yet to come upon the scene. Early on, though, he realized that the only thing that was possible was to help pilots understand the risks of flying and develop the ability to manage and minimize those risks.
There are a lot of pilots who aren’t interested in safety. There is no way to help them. This is how my father summed it up in the March, 1938, issue: “That flying appeals to a certain element of society which is emotionally unstable is unavoidable and there is no way to keep them out entirely. With regularity some of them, in spite of all we can do, are going to get down low, cut a dido, and spin in in a last burst of glory.”
The political correctness of that aside, the pilots who want to fly safely constituted a good audience for us over the past 76 years and I think that the efforts of the Collins boys helped at least a little in the ten-fold improvement in the fatal accident rate over that period.
The first issue of AIR FACTS, published in February, 1938, had a section called “Recent Accidents.” At the time, the government didn’t disseminate information about aircraft accidents so my father had to have another source.
There was no way to Google “airplane crash” in 1938 and have information pop up. But there was a slow motion version of Google available at that time. You could subscribe to a newspaper clipping service, specify a subject, and they would peruse a huge selection of newspapers and mail you all the clippings on the subject of your choice. That was how my father got information on accidents from all over the country.
There was not a lot of flying going on at that time, just over a million hours a year in maybe 5,000 airplanes. There were 15,000 certified pilots and 30,000 students at the time. If the activity is small now, it was minuscule then, and losing 274 people in accidents in a year was a relatively big deal.
One of the first airplanes my father picked out to study was the Cub. There were 854 of them flying in 1937 and all were either 37 or 40-horsepower models. There were 18 fatal accidents and it was observed that if flying a Cub were as safe as driving a car, there would have been ten times fewer pilot fatalities. Incidentally, over the years I have used available information to compare the relative safety of general aviation airplanes and cars, and cars have always come out from seven to 15 times better so not much has changed since 1938.
As was true in most low-powered airplanes, the stall/spin accident was the most prevalent in the Cub. The margin between cruising and stalling speed was not great and climb performance was marginal at best. Pilots were just not doing well with what little power was available. Actually, a 37 or 40 horse Cub would climb only one or two hundred feet per minute if fully loaded on a hot day.
One point that my father made time and again was that pilots (and many instructors) didn’t understand all there was to know about the relationship between accidental spins and the ailerons.
Spins were taught at that time and were accomplished by kicking in full rudder as the airplane stalled. That provided the yaw action to turn a stall into a spin.
My father used to demonstrate how he could spin an airplane with his feet on the floor. No rudder action at all.
Most airplanes will roll in one direction or the other when stalled. Apply full aileron against the roll and many, if not all, airplanes of that day would spin in the direction of the roll. The adverse yaw from the aileron deflection would do exactly the same thing as full rudder.
A lot of instructors and even some Feds didn’t like the idea of promoting this. A spin was clearly understood to be an interaction between full rudder and a stall and they were content to leave it at that even though most low-altitude losses of control were related more to the interaction between the ailerons and the stall.
Low altitude had more meaning then than now simply because the basic light airplanes climbed so poorly that most all flight was at low altitude.
I started in the magazine business 20 years after my father but there were still a lot of folks around who tended to ignore the role of ailerons in stall/spin accidents.
I was talking with some Cessna folks about this at their factory in Wichita and one person in particular was skeptical. I suggested he provide a new 150 or 152 (I forget which was current at the time) and I would show him. We climbed up and, bingo, I spun the puppy with my feet flat on the floor.
Cessna later restricted the up-elevator travel on this and other airplanes and tinkered with the wing and the vertical tail on some to reduce this tendency. Because of the lessened elevator authority, they had to reduce maximum flap travel from 40 to 30-degrees in order to have nosewheel clearance from the ground at touchdown.
My father’s initial work in this area did cause manufacturers to look at the subject and over the years the stall characteristics of most general aviation airplanes improved.
One area where we both proved to be wrong was related to weather. There were a lot of VFR into IMC weather accidents in the early days of AIR FACTS and my father was an early proponent of instrument flying in light airplanes. I can remember as a little kid going with him to Roosevelt Field for Link trainer time and riding in the back seat during hood time in a gullwing Stinson.
By the time I came along, the VFR carnage will still pretty bad. Nobody will ever forget all the country music folks lost in light airplanes, most in VFR weather-related accidents. Some, like Jim Reeves, were flying. He had a Debonair. Others, like the great Patsy Cline, were passengers. She was in a Comanche. The peak was The Day the Music Died, February 3, 1959, when Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper (J. P. Richardson) and a young pilot were killed in a Bonanza. The flight originated at 12:55 a.m. on a snowy night, was VFR, and did not get far.
The advent of more money and the likes of NetJets have almost (but not quite) solved the celebrity problem.
I got an instrument rating early-on and continued my father’s encouragement of instrument flying in light airplanes. There was a tremendous prejudice against doing it in singles and we tried to counter that by showing weather flying was far safer IFR than VFR.
At the time, a lot of us were guilty of the same thing: basing ideas on what we thought was true as opposed to what could be shown to be true. That happened here.
Ever more general aviation pilots embraced IFR flying and many of us were surprised by the results. Instrument flying, especially at night, quickly overtook VFR scud running as the major weather-related accident factor.
We had swapped one weak point for another because we thought pilots would do a better job of flying IFR. They didn’t and this was made even worse when, in response to misguided pressure groups, the FAA relaxed the standards for the instrument rating. They had been minimal; under the new rules they became almost a joke. The same government that ruled that you have to have 1,500 hours to fly as a crewmember on an airliner said that general aviation pilots could fly the far more difficult task of single-pilot IFR with only a smattering of training and experience.
The instrument flying record is quite bad and there is still a lot of work to do on spreading the word on the risks of instrument flying.
On July 22, 1958, I lost a close friend in one of the first light twin flat spin accidents. He was a CFI and had ridden along in the back seat on a multiengine check ride conducted by an FAA inspector who possibly should not have been flying for personal reasons. At the time the FAA required that Vmc demonstrations be done as low as possible but not below 500 feet. That is what the inspector had the applicant doing when control of the airplane was lost and it hit the ground in a flat spin.
That was the first of many training accidents in light twins, especially Twin Comanches and Beech Travel Air and Baron twins. Most came from low altitude but there were some flat spins from higher altitudes. One of the Army’s most experienced T-42 (Baron) instructors rode one down from thousands of feet in a flat spin. It was simply a condition from which there was no recovery. To my knowledge, only one of these accidents was survivable. In it, the airplane spun into some dense woods and the trees broke the descent by enough to allow the occupants to survive despite serious injuries.
It was as if the FAA was granting multiengine ratings to those who lived through the training. Twins were also having problems with surviving pilots as they went on to use the airplanes. To this day, in many years the fatal accident rate is higher in twins than singles. That is especially pertinent when you consider that virtually all the experimental airplanes are singles and the record there is not as good as elsewhere.
In 1964 we got a Twin Comanche for our AIR FACTS transportation. It replaced a 250 Comanche. I was astounded when I got the new insurance policy. The premium for the twin was way lower than the single. Did that make sense or was it based on what someone thought to be true?
I hit the books and learned that the insurance underwriters were dreaming, as they often do. With one exception, the single-engine retractables had a much lower fatal accident rate than did the twin fleet and, in fact, the retractable with the worst record was twice as good as the twin with the worst record.
I have written about the twin v. single question many times and the truth bothered some people so much that I came to be branded as anti-twin. Really, all I wanted to do was convince pilots that if you don’t maintain an exceptional level of proficiency in a twin you will likely fly it happily until the day an engine quits and that will be your last flight.
Fortunately, over the years the FAA and insurance companies have become more realistic about twins.
We have fewer problems in twin training simply because the requirements have become more reasonable and the airplanes used for training have largely been tamed. The suicidal Vmc demonstrations came from the World War Two mentality that dictated FAA policy in the 1950s and those guys are no longer there.
If anything, the insurance companies might have gone a bit too far because light twin insurance has become harder to get and more expensive, especially if you are an old guy who can afford a twin.
New airplanes have often had problems as they are introduced into service. Spotting and writing about these problems has always been a challenge and has not always been appreciated.
I was branded as anti-Cirrus when it was apparent the airplane was involved in an inordinate number of accidents and I started writing about it.
It bothered me that an airplane with such great safety potential was racking up so many accidents that its rate was far worse than like airplanes. I hastened to point out that it was the fault of the pilots (see What’s Wrong with Cirrus Pilots) and not the airplanes.
It was a subject begging for attention and not long after I started writing about it, the Cirrus pilots association chimed in and verified my contention that the accident rate was terrible. The manufacturer got into the act with better training and educational programs and recently the Cirrus accident rate has shown improvement. Hopefully that will continue.
A new airplane that I wrote a lot about for a long time was the pressurized 210. I mistakenly thought this would become a popular new class of airplane and I got one of the early ones (SN 261) in 1979. I flew it for 28 years and almost 9,000 hours so you might say that I became familiar with it. Most lessons were learned early in the experience.
Flying the airplane home from the factory, I had to have mechanical help at the second stop. There was oil all over the airplane because of a problem with the oil filter adapter.
On the last leg before home, I was flying at FL190 and got some ice on the airplane, which was allegedly equipped for flight in icing condition. The deice worked but the airspeed dropped and the engine got hot as a fox before I worked my way out of the icing.
When I put the airplane in my T-hangar I had the thought that this airplane was as demanding as any in the fleet and would kill you in a heartbeat if not used correctly.
Over time I discovered and wrote about many of the booby traps in the airplane. Problems with the vacuum, electrical, exhaust and fuel systems were many and not very far between. I wrote about all of it, hoping that I was helping pilots flying this airplane and the other pressurized piston single, the Piper Malibu, manage the myriad risks attendant to these airplanes.
The combination of mechanical factors and the demands of Flight Level flying led to a really bad accident rate. In fact, for a long time the P210 enjoyed the worst fatal accident rate among certified airplanes. I did manage to literally wear my P210 out without incident. The pressurized piston single did not become an important new class of airplane for reasons other than safety, two of which were cost and complexity.
There will always be risks in flying and there will always be some risks that pilots are not managing as well as they could. That is what leads us to our present accident record of somewhat over one fatal accident for every 100,000 hours of flying. Twins usually have a fatal accident rate higher than singles, and a most basic airplane, the Cessna Skyhawk, consistently has the best record of any airplane, shows that you can’t buy safety.
This also reinforces the thought that the overall record can’t improve under the present regulatory framework. It is as good as it can get but that doesn’t mean that a pilot is not in full charge of his personal level of risk.
That leaves pilot education and that is what has been a primary mission of AIR FACTS since 1938. My father’s generation has all Gone West and while some in my generation feel like we are not all over the hill, there is no question that we all do have a commanding view of the valley. So, after 76 years the torch will soon pass.