76-year crash course: is only the good news fit to print?

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.

GA accident rate chart

The general aviation accident rate has improved, but not anything like the airline accident rate.

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.

Cirrus crash

Are we doing a disservice when we talk about airplane crashes?

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.

scud running

More IFR flying and less scud running was supposed to improve safety – it didn’t.

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.

N40RC

The Cessna P210 was a fine performer, but had a terrible accident record.

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.

23 Comments

  1. G. says:

    Extremely informative article. I find the best way to describe the current situation, with anything, is to relate it to the past.

  2. lindsay petre says:

    great article. the more we can understand about why things go right–or don’t–the better, hopefully, we’ll fly. keeping the facts under wraps helps no one.

  3. Duane says:

    Thanks, Dick. I always enjoy your writing, even if a few folks feel their pet ox has been gored a little from time to time. You’ve no doubt helped a tremendous number of pilots fly safer over the decades.

    I agree with you that the FAA and the FAR are probably the single biggest impediments to substantial improvements in personal aviation (I definitely prefer that term to “general aviation”, which sounds rather bloodless and antiseptic). It is far past time to do a complete top to bottom review of all FAA rules, with the simple test for each one being, “Does this rule make our flying safer, or not?”. Change or get rid of every single rule that does not answer that question in the affirmative.

  4. Stephen Phoenix says:

    Thanks Richard, I also believe that you and your father made a significant contribution to aviation safety. Your writing over the years has certainly helped my flying anyway.

    I also note however, that safety was not always the prime topic of the Air Facts magazine. I have in my personal aviation library, Air Facts magazines spanning the period of August 1959 to July 1960. In rereading those, I do not find any accident analysis or even the word “accident” in any of the articles. This is in contrast to todays aviation magazines which feature a column every month presenting an accident analysis. The earlier period was a period of growth (and a lot of crashing, I believe) as opposed to the current situation. I sometimes wonder if the monthly accident scenario does not turn off new prospects. Other types of specialty media (motorcycles, cars, etc) do not do this even though there would be plenty of fodder to use.

    • Dick Collins says:

      I have a personal library spanning the period from February, 1938, to December, 1973, and it is chock full of accident reports and safety studies. Brief snapshots don’t work here.

      • Mark Brown says:

        Hi Dick – I tell my aviation friends I was in the same fraternity as your father at Sewanee. They may not know of Sewanee but the definitely know who you and your father are!

        I’m curious what you think about the safety record of the PC-12s and TBMs? Anecdotally, it would seem they are safer than the P210s and Malibus. What do you think explains this – more power, better systems, better training.

        Lastly, thank you for aviation safety related writing though the years. I suspect their are more than a few people out there who owe their lives to it.

        • Dick Collins says:

          Good to hear from a Sewanee man and a Delta Tau Delta at that. My father loved the school and went back as often as he could, including to collect an honorary degree. The turboprop record is better, for all the reasons that you mention, but there are still needless accidents there.

  5. John Petrikas says:

    Great article. i was taught to learn from the mistakes of others and I actively teach that to my students. History repeats. Only the pilots flying the planes change. The wise pilot sees how the other guy goofed and doesn’t make the same mistake. Keep reading the accident reports and learn.

  6. Jim Frankenfield says:

    Hi Richard……You and your dad should get a “medal for merit” (Websters New World College Dictionary) for you’re contribution to aviation safety, throughout the many years. I got my pvt. cert. in 1952 and we, at Trig’s Flying Service, PA, couldn’t wait for the next months’ issue of “Air Facts” to come out.

    We all learned ‘a bunch’ from your and dads ‘teachings’ as the years went by and much of it served me well in the following 15,300 SAFE hours of “earning a living?” at it.

    THANKS for that!. Jim

  7. Schaps says:

    Keep up the excellent work of accident reporting and analysis. It is critical for all pilots to be aware of others’ mistakes and/or ignorance! Thank you

  8. You have contributed greatly to aviation safety and probably many of us owe our lives to your contributions. I am not sure how people can object to “learning from others” in aviation even if the subject is a bit grim. With that said, I think we should try to keep some of the gore “behind the curtain” in various public safety seminars where a mixed audience is in attendance. I remember my wife attending an NTSB presentation with me years ago…bad idea!

  9. Jerry Smith says:

    Once someone sent me a little story about a baby bird. I’ll shorten it up. This baby bird never would listen to his father & mother. Winter was coming & when its father, mother, sisters & brothers left to fly south he stayed, enjoying the beautiful weather, all the food. Soon one morning he woke up, it was very cold, & very uncomfortable & the weather was very unstable. He decided he had better catch up with father & mother so he took of flying south. Soon it started raining, them freezing, he got heaver & heavier, until finally he fell into a field. He laid there covered in ice, shivering cold & dying. It just so happened a cow came along, & the cow took a dump, & it fell on this little bird. This started warming him up, & he started twitching about. An old housecat came along & noticed the movement of this little bird & came over to check it out. The cat took his paw & flipped the little bird out of the cow pile, them slowly licked it clean. During this time the little bird, with all the massaging of the cats tongue, getting all warmed up, got to feeling much better, thinking soon I can take off flying once again & catch up with my father & mother. Yet once the cat got him cleaned off he had his morning meal. There plenty of moral points in that little story for everyone to learn from. I call it the story of the ‘Know It All Bird.’ In this world we have plenty of ‘Know It Alls,’ & many of them ending much like this little bird. I’m not an aviator, but I’ve read many articles on this site. And I noticed when Dick writes such article about safety some replies reminds me of this little bird. Hopefully many will not be that way, & in the end such articles will help them very much, perhaps saving their lives & others too.

    • Jim Frankenfield says:

      Jerry…..this….is just about the way it happened to Pvt. Pilot, NO instrument rating, Dick K. in his newly-purchased Bonanza on a proposed flight to Florida with his wife and two kids, back in the late 60s’.

      WX was crummy down through Virginia and the owner of the airport (north of Philla.) tried (pleaded, actually) as best he could to disuade Dick, and to postpone his departure until the next day, but to no avail. To boot, it was a late afternoon departure into minimum VFR.

      We learned later that he ‘lost it’ (and his family) in Virginia. THAT stubborn ‘bird’ wouldn’t listen to friendly and wise advice and it cost him dearly.

      • Jerry Smith says:

        Sad to say many have wound up like that. Will not listen to the experienced persons warning. Thank goodness everyone is not that way & do not pay such a high cost.

  10. Chris Russell says:

    Thanks for your good insights. In regard to improving safety, I would like to hear more of your thoughts on how to handle the problem of the marginally competent pilot who lacks awareness of his limitations. Older pilots, especially instructors, have noticed that some younger or less-experienced pilots have natural aptitudes for flying that greatly exceed the average, and other pilots are weak on required aptitudes. Also, some pilots recognize risks that exceed their capabilities, and others don’t. So often it seems we’ve seen that the pilot with weaker aptitude for flying – combined with a lack of awareness of his limitations – is the one who most often comes to grief. I have a young pilot friend who has escaped death twice because his weak aptitudes for flying were fortunately offset by both awareness of his limitations and a considerable aversion to risk-taking. Also, when he was faced with a “bad situation” he’d flown into, he was able to recall a few “words of wisdom” about how to handle “engine-out” situations, and “inadvertent IFR” situations.

  11. hemmerechts jack says:

    About stalls and spins

    In Unusual attitudes 2 Rules

    Nose high,low speed plus bank;Action :Full power,nose down and only ailerons when speed is up again!!
    Nose low,high speed plus bank :power back,ailerons neutral and then nose up !!

  12. William "Pete" Hodges says:

    In your article you used the Skyhawk vs twin engine aircraft as an example that you can’t buy safety. If you consider the safety records of well built singles with fixed nose gear and simple operating systems then the opposite is true. You can buy safety but not safety and complexity at the same time.

    When my wife and I started flying she was apprehensive and read every ntsb report she could find. We discussed them all and concluded that if flying in the soup and fuel mismanagement were eliminated nearly 90% of all accidents go away. We made a concious effort to fly singles, fly VFR, and keep our fuel reserve intact. There are other aspects of flying safe but those three make a big impact. Maybe you can’t buy safety but you definitely can be safer through your decisions and actions.

  13. phil g says:

    I would think if publishing disaster porn worked GA would be “safe” by now. All it does is scare people off, find a car, bike, snowmobile, boat magazine that dwells on accidents?

    • Jim Frankenfield says:

      Awwww, come on, Phil. How naive can you be? Wake up and go stand in a corner for an hour.

    • Duane says:

      I don’t think there’s any way to confirm it, but I would guess that the guys that never read accident reports and analyses are likely more prone to replicate the same old accidents than are those who make it a point to read and try to learn from others. No matter who you are, nor how experienced, you can get complacent or simply experience a day of bad judgment when other things aren’t going your way.

      I know that I am much more cognizant of my potential for errors from reading of others. Still just as fallible as ever … but more aware.

      • John Zimmerman says:

        Duane, I think this “preaching to the choir” issue is ever present. I like reading these reports, so you can learn what not to do. But how do we interest the people who don’t read them?

  14. Jerry Smith says:

    Some just do not want to learn from the mistakes of others, perhaps they are the ones who go down yet not softly & safely on the runways they were headed to.

    I recall in the Air Force they taught us engine mechanics about the dangers of the ejecting seats in the B-52. They showed us a film, & it really happen while they were filming, a person setting in an ejection seat with him making a big mistake setting in a hanger & he went up very fast.

    Seeing that did not scare me away, I set in many ejection seats in many B-52′s running up their engines to check for problems & or after the repair to see if they were properly fixed.

    And thankfully because of the safety I was taught by the Air Force that nor any other accident never happened to me. I feel sure a few go though it paying no attention & perhaps wind up dead because they didn’t.

    I also remember in high school they had a State Policeman come to our school teaching us about safe driving. he showed us a film, it was very bloody, but I expect it saved many of us young teenagers lives.

    I hope all those who put this down articles such as this before its to late will realize it is for their benefit & don’t drive newcomers away from reading & learning from others minor & deadly mistakes. It just might save your family too. Its sad to see people that go before their time.

    Yet do as you please, no one forces this on you, your free not to read such articles keeping such things out of your mind.

  15. Bill Polits says:

    You write of the torch passing… The question is, to whom?

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