Flying is not an extreme sport – time to get serious about safety

Completely by chance, I talked to three people in the past week who have given up on the dream of flying. All of them have a real passion for aviation, but walked away for the same reason: lack of family support. Two wanted to begin flight training (and had the money set aside) but didn’t because their spouses were dead set against it. The other was an active pilot but stopped flying because his wife didn’t want to fly with him anymore and it just wasn’t fun without her. All three spouses cited safety as their main concern.

skydivers
What spouses think of when they hear “private pilot?”

Just a few hours after talking to the third dropout, I was enjoying some hangar flying with a long-time pilot when I heard those dangerous words: “what aviation really needs is…” The brilliant idea this time was for general aviation to take a page out of extreme sports – sell flying as the next best thing to the X Games. This pilot believed that, in order to appeal to the next generation of pilots, we need to make aviation look thrilling and daring.

The juxtaposition was startling. Many spouses wish flying was a lot less exciting, not more. Are we our own worst enemy?

Sometimes it seems like it. Pilots have a long history of stumbling through the safety conversation that inevitably comes up with non-pilots. You may have even repeated the old saw about “the most dangerous part is the drive to the airport.” That’s false, but it’s worse than that. Glib answers that dodge the question miss a prime opportunity to talk honestly about aviation safety – right at the moment when a nervous passenger is open to a little education.

And let’s be honest – whatever our current tactics are, they are not working. While hardly anyone today thinks twice about hopping on a Boeing to go from New York to LA, going around the pattern in a “small prop plane” is positively terrifying to many people. I know one spouse who has nicknamed her husband’s small airplane the DT – for death trap. Accidents like the recent Phenom crash in Maryland, and the front page stories they create, do not help our reputation either.

There’s a tendency for pilots to be dismissive of the safety question. After all, we’ve answered any doubts about flying safety or we wouldn’t be pilots. We are also in control of the flight, so we hold significant advantages in terms of knowledge and experience. But history shows that downplaying safety concerns – even if they’re irrational – is short-sighted.

The airlines got serious about safety decades ago, and have since posted an unbelievably good accident record. Perhaps not coincidentally, airline travel has boomed over this period. Lower air fares help, but they haven’t declined as much as you might think. In any case, $49 air fares don’t do much good if passengers are too afraid to fly.

Likewise, business aviation’s safety record has improved and this segment is now one of the few bright spots in the general aviation activity reports. Perhaps as important as the actual record, business aviation operators are talking about and measuring safety more than ever: charter brokers search for safety-audited operators, flight departments are instituting formal safety programs and regular simulator training is more common than ever. As a charter customer, you’re sure to hear about safety early and often.

Cirrus crash
Cirrus has tackled the safety issue, and these pictures are less common lately.

In the piston airplane world, Cirrus has tackled the safety issue head-on. You can disagree with their tactics or their marketing (and plenty of pilots like to), but they have been serious about discussing safety and working to improve it through both design and training. The topic comes up throughout their sales pitch, and many Cirrus owners’ spouses are very well-read with respect to aviation safety, even if they aren’t pilots. Recent accident trends in the Cirrus fleet, if they continue, suggest real improvement may finally be here. Yet again, this safety focus seems to be paying off in the sales numbers – while Cirrus’ sales are hardly at 1970s levels, they are far better than most general aviation manufacturers.

I’m not suggesting we scare passengers with all the safety talk, but we can’t ignore the subject any longer, if for no other reason than we have a great story to tell. The story is that flying is as safe as you want to make it. But talk to most non-pilots and you quickly find out they are worried about the wrong things: engine failures and catastrophic mechanical problems. An honest look at the statistics quickly proves that such accidents are rare, and when they do happen they are not necessarily fatal. A spouse simply should not spend every flight worried that the wing might fall off.

The next step in the safety conversation is to point out that, while small airplanes are not death traps, the pilot in command determines how safe each flight is. Whether it’s great training, personal minimums or just having the guts to cancel a trip, we can make flying safer by making better decisions. The exciting part here, at least for many non-pilots, is that they can play an important role – and removing that feeling of powerlessness is a helpful part of conquering fear. By understanding some of the decision-making process, a spouse can be supportive of no-go decisions when they know the pilot is feeling pressured or they can encourage the spending of extra money on proficiency training. This helps everyone involved.

None of this is a miracle cure for general aviation, but it doesn’t get the attention it deserves. We complain loudly about the cost of flying – and it is expensive. We complain about the complexity of flying and the FAA’s regulations – and they are too complicated. But the topic that comes up most often when I talk to prospective pilots is safety. An active pilot needs the full support of his family and friends, and convincing them that this expensive and time-consuming activity is safe shouldn’t be an afterthought. Let’s meet the question head-on and get serious about safety talk.

In other words: pilots are boring. Embrace it!

17 Comments

  • John;

    I appreciate your comments here. I’d like to offer some of my own insight to the topic. I’m no psychologist, so feel free to dismiss my thoughts at your leisure.

    As an aviation community we are battling a behemoth in the form of the popular media, particularly the news media. That entire industry feeds primarily on one thing; human emotions and the manipulation of them. The strongest human emotion is fear, and the news media feeds ravenously on fear.

    Humans are born with only two innate fears; the fear of loud noises and the fear of falling. Clap your hands loudly next to a newborn and it will startle noticeably. Drop a newborn on its back from an inch above a fluffy duvet and it will do the same thing. All our other fears are learned.

    Since the news media, which is incredibly pervasive and invasive in our daily lives, preys primarily on human fear (with anger a close second), any story involving an airplane is automatically geared to prey on our fear of falling. And as we’ve seen so many times, the truth is damned to obscurity in the face of ratings and the number of copies sold.

    An example from my personal experience illustrates the point. A friend recently landed his homebuilt airplane on a nearby lake amidst by a small city. The plane’s ski hit a small trench in the ice and it broke one of his gear legs. The airplane came to rest with one wing low.

    The local media, broadcast and print, went nuts. The incident was first or second page news that day and the next, with large banner headlines proclaiming that a plane had crashed on the lake, and/or that a plane had gone through the ice on the lake and that the pilot had managed to escape with his life. Of course, there were emergency responders all over the place and in the news photos to add to the sense of manufactured terror over my friend having plunged from the sky to a hair’s breadth escape from the clutches of an icy doom.

    Unfortunately, my friend has no training or experience in dealing with the media, as most of us don’t. Thus, he was unable and unwilling to offer factual information about what actually happened. Had he been able to do so, the story might have been less sensationalized. At least I have my hopes.

    Instead, along with some friendly local help, my friend moved the aircraft to the lake shore, came back with a new gear leg the next day, repaired the plane and flew it home. Oddly, that portion of the story never got a mention.

    My point is that we may be fighting a losing battle in trying to convince the public at large of the safety of aviation simply because we don’t have the largest soap box from which to stand and yell our story. We simply can’t as effectively compete with the mass media.

    Programs like Canada’s COPA For Kids, America’s Young Eagles, and other introductory flight programs haven’t created the number of new young pilots originally hoped for, but they make a terrific impression on the public who attend them, kids and parents alike.

    Other avenues like the various internet channels out there also have an impact, though you’ll not hear about them as much because they are direct, terrifying and uncontrolled competition to the popular media.

    I hope that each of us in the general aviation community takes the chance when the subject comes up to extol the fun and safe virtues of our passion. It’s often difficult to overcome the inherent biases that people have acquired through sources such as the news media, but it’s vitally important that we try.

    Stu Simpson,
    Calgary, Alberta

  • Guess I’ll have to disagree with the premise of this article, i.e., that the world of private aviation in the United States is not and has not been “serious about safety”. Safety is and always has been on everybody’s mind in aviation, from primary flight training through one’s last flight west, and for anyone who pilots an aircraft. Safety dominates the spending on aircraft upgrades, it dominates aviation media and comment boards, it dominates everything the FAA does. Safety surely dominates the business models for the insurance companies, and ditto for the manufacturers who design, certify, build and sell aircraft and aircraft components.

    Concerns about the safety of “little airplanes” have been always been commonplace and dominant amongst non pilots (that is, the 99.X % of people in the USA) for like, forever. That’s one of the three main reasons private aviation is limited in its market potential (besides the cost of learning to fly, and the cost to continue flying thereafter!).

    We have reduced the fatal accident rate tremendously since World War Two, and advances in product design and training quality like that provided by Cirrus have reduced the fatal rate significantly more even within just the last several years. The safety record of private aviation can and probably will continue to improve in the years to come. But it will never be perfect, and will always be worse than for ground travel or airline travel. Flying a private airplane is inherently more risky that most modes of travel.

    We can communicate safety all we want to, in a thousand different ways, but it won’t matter much in the long run. Personal aviation will never be for the masses unless the entire aircraft control system is handed over fully to computers and government control, with “pilots” being relegated to quaint anachronisms as we all become mere passengers.

    And yet there will still remain a tiny minority of sporting pilots who are thrilled with the mere act of piloting an aircraft without input from or control by others. And yes, there will also be the thrill seekers who fly aerobatics or land on tiny mountaintop grass airstrips or land on gravel bars in the Alaskan wilderness or fly formation with their buddies on a Sunday morning, or to just get in and go sightseeing from a couple thousand feet in the air. And most “civilians” will consider that and say “no thanks – it’s too risky” … and so what?

    We’re always going to be a permanent micro-minority.

    • Duane, I’m under no illusions here – I don’t see 10 million pilots anytime soon. Minority for sure, but I wouldn’t mind being a little bit larger minority (or at least a steady minority instead of a shrinking one). How’s that for aiming high?

      • I think if you polled most pilots today, it would be apparent that most of us like being part of a relatively small elite community, and that we are thankful that we don’t have to deal with 10 million idiots in the air, in the pattern, competing for hangar space, and so forth, like we do once we strap ourselves into an automobile for a trip down the public highways.

        We have a situation somewhat analogous with boating here in the great state of Florida. We have a huge population of boaters here with our year around boating season and lengthy coastline, and lack of operator licensing or liability insurance rules. But I tell you, it’s a huge pain dealing with the masses of untrained, selfish, frequently misbehaving and often drunken and generally idiotic boaters who infest our waterways.

        While “small is nice”, we also need to be large enough a market to be sustainable, politically speaking, since the Feds rule the airways and other governments control most of the public-use airports.

        As much as we complain, though, about the high costs of aviation which are in large part driven by small economies of scale and small market size in GA, I think we’d really hate the alternative of idiot-filled skies even more. We’re stuck between the rock and the hard place.

  • General aviation accident statistics are showing that we’re in a declining trend, which is a good thing. However, there’s plenty of room for improvement. I have no idea how to effect the change that I’m about to describe, but I think we have to begin moving in this direction somehow.

    The number one cause of general aviation accidents is pilot error (75% of them are caused by pilot error). In other words, a sizable number of all GA accidents right now are, in theory, preventable. Whether it’s running out of fuel, controlled flight into terrain, VFR into IMC, or any of a number of those types of errors, failure to check weight/balance, they’re all preventable mistakes.

    In the Information Technology Industry we recently began moving toward a practice called “paired programming”. The effects it had were, in some ways, unexpected. The idea is that you’ve got two programmers sitting next to one another, and only one keyboard. One person is writing code, and the other is kind of a second set of eyes / coach / moral support / tester. It might seem wasteful to have one person sitting doing somewhat undefined activities while the other does the traditional programming job, but the statistics show that it’s only slightly less productive (in terms of code produced) than having two independent programmers, and quality control is *dramatically* better than two independent programmers. Why? Well, we don’t do silly little things when there’s someone standing over our shoulder asking us why we’re doing that, even if they have zero authority over us. Those silly little things build up over time until you’ve got intractable bugs.

    I don’t know how to apply that kind of thinking to General Aviation exactly, but if there was some standard practice of doing your preflight with another pilot, or having one-button access to an instant Skype conversation with another pilot (during run-up, takeoff, and landing for example), it would be very interesting to see what happened to accident statistics. Even if we just made it so preflight always involved two pilots I bet we’d see a significant reduction in certain kinds of accidents (like VFR into IMC and fuel management issues).

    In any event, if we want to drive down GA accidents, we’ve got to focus on the behaviors that we pilots exhibit, and known methods to manage them. We talk about Aeronautical Decision Making, and we all learn about hazardous attitudes and thinking (anti-authority, impulsivity, invulnerability, macho, and resignation) in primary training. What we *don’t* seem to do is apply any actual remediation toward managing these attitudes. We make ourselves aware of them, and then go “that’s nice, I’ll stuff that away in my brain and forget about it”. How many of those things (along with the associated accidents they cause) would simply evaporate if we had ready access to another pilot at all times? Someone who didn’t have any formal authority over us, but was just someone who knew exactly what we were doing, and might have a different opinion on what we should do in a given situation.

    Anyway, that’s some food for thought.

    • That is an interesting idea. I believe that is the same concept as having a co-pilot or an instructor sitting beside the pilot. The airlines always fly with two pilots which is a large component of their safety record.

      With glass panels and improved communications in GA planes, maybe a single pilot will be able to get real time assistance from another pilot when they find themselves in to deep, such as VFR into IMC.

      I have not personally experienced, that I know of, an ATC controller who is a pilot and aided me as such. However I have read numerous stories of pilot ATC controllers and how their knowledge have aided pilots that are in to deep.

      Access to a live pilot who can see your instruments and aid you may help increase the single pilot safety record.

  • The logic of the masses is simple… If many people are doing it, it can’t be that bad…
    The problem is that the person you are talking too only knows one guy that is flying in small planes… YOU!

    So mention the Ebola patients who were transferred in small jets to treatment facilities, the huge number of families that show up with their kids to the AOPA fly ins, the rediculas number of GA hours flown this year compared to all the airlines (people have no idea!), and let’s not forget all the angel flights that are buzzing up there extending a helping hand to truly sick people.

    … If so many people are using small planes… Maybe it’s not so bad :-)…

  • Maybe we are competing with extreme sports for customers. The three guys in the picture look like they’re having more fun than they would have droning around in a Cessna 172 (after having checked weather, NOTAMS, TFR’s, ADs, Weight and Balance, etc.). Cost per hour is probably about the same and the safety level is probably equivalent. So, is all the talk about safety really even relevant? I think there’s more to it than that.

    • I think flying is, for most people at least, a family activity. It requires tacit support on the low end and active engagement at the high end, but regardless, pilots who have family support stick with it. Anything that’s expensive, time-consuming and requires frequent practice falls into this category. For those reasons, I think we need to think more about the non-pilots in the equation.

      Those skydivers sure do look like they’re having fun, but for many people it’s a bucket list type event: do it once and you’re done. Being a pilot can’t quite fit into that role.

      • Ah, a great lead in for my next comment. Maybe private flying shouldn’t be sold as a family activity. The family thing only started showing up after WWII when Beech (and others) started showing ads of happy doctors and their smiling wife and kids hopping in the family Bonanza for a planned ski vacation in Colorado. It only took about 20 years for the general population to figure out that maybe the amateur pilot in a minimal airplane was not up to the job of flying the family on planned vacations. Maybe we should get off that path and get back to Cubs on clear days flying underneath happy families in fully equipped airliners and business guys in royal barges. The cub type airplanes are viewed as no more hazardous to the general population than motorcycles. Which by the way, have a pretty large market.

        • “Maybe we should get off that path and get back to Cubs on clear days.” Could be, and I certainly agree that we oversell the traveling capabilities of a private pilot’s license in many cases.

          But even if you want to fly a Cub on clear days, most new pilots will at least require family consent, if not involvement. Maybe Johnny plays too much soccer and maybe Dad works too much, but modern life and modern families put a premium on tim – running off to the airport for 3 hours on Saturday is pretty hard if the wife and kids aren’t at least a little supportive.

  • Well I would say that while I definitely agree that general aviation should not be promoted as an extreme sport, a lot more emphasis should be placed on the fun aspects of flying, rather than constantly harping on the dangers. Practically every pilot I have met in general aviation has an almost fanatical love of flying. While there is nothing wrong with that, it seems that you almost have to have that fanatical love to keep flying, the way things are now. We need to get some people involved who are not fanatics if we want to see any growth. A big part of the problem is that every flight instructor I’ve dealt with is obsessed with telling me everything that can go wrong. Translation: I don’t want anyone to say that I’m unsafe, and I don’t want you to do anything that is going to jeopardize my certificate and derail my chances of becoming a regional airline pilot. We need more people who instruct because they want to instruct, and not because they want to build hours for an airline job, this way they will be more concerned about the student’s flight training experience. Do not allow CFIs to log PIC sitting next to some student flying the pattern in a 172, these hours counting towards the 1500 hours that supposedly makes a pilot safe to get an ATP certificate is ridiculous. The biggest danger is from pilots who fly just a few hours a year, of which there are many. Require any pilot who hasn’t flown the last 3 months to get an instructor checkout, and any pilot that hasn’t flown in a year should need a BFR. Two year BFR is also somewhat ridiculous for inactive pilots. And lighten up on this culture of being obsessive about the risks, and stop pretending that you can somehow eliminate the risks of general aviation. What we do has a certain amount of inherent risk no matter how through a pre-flight you do, deal with it or just stay on the ground.

  • No doubt safety concerns trump the cost & time constraints of GA participation. A supportive family & wife is clearly key as well. For 30 years my wife has supported my flying, however we have the safety talk fairly often still. We do a poor PR job when it comes to the image of aviators, and those who should be developing that image/market do a poorer job given the overall population growth & declining pilot numbers.
    The FAA site lists 2958 Wright Brothers ‘Master Pilots’ who have actively flown for 50 years without an accident, so there is data to indicate we can aviate safely.
    A good target segment to start growing pilots might be business people with a need to travel regionally and providing them with collateral (i.e. a simple solution for employer liability coverage) so their employers will allow the use of GA aircraft for business travel. 25 years ago this was a more acceptable activity than today – clearly a backwards move for GA. If the industry developed a path to follow here, you’d see a lot of activity.

  • We need to educate plane passengers on how to judge whether their pilot is safe and encourage them to ask questions and to not feel guilty about it. Teach passengers to ask pilots questions using safety keywords we use: risk management, decision making, limitations, etc. Pilots should not be offended when asked questions regarding their level of safety. Pilots should be proactive in convincing their passengers that they are safe as well, by sharing their history and what they like to emphasize in regard to safe flying with others. Safety culture in personal flying requires investment of a personal relationship with your passengers.
    Finally a website, such as “isyourpilotsafe.com” could teach these inquisitive techniques to skittish passengers, and provide an avenue to determine the pilots safety record from FAA websites (in conjunction with the privacy laws and regulations of course).

  • When asked the whuffo question, “Aren’t them little airplanes dangerous?” I respond, “How dangerous would you like it to be?” I go on to explain that airmen who maintain their planes well, preflight carefully, fly in weather that both they and their airplanes can handle, get recurrent training, do not run out of fuel or oil, do not drink/drug and fly, and do not show off are very unlikely to bend an airplane. Then I ask if the questioner rides motorcycles, ATVs, or power boats, and has ever been injured or had a friend injured or killed on them. Sometimes that changes the whole tenor of the conversation.

  • I am one of those who are generally very scared of flying and I hope all the airlines tackle this very serious issue urgently in the light of recent air disasters.All aviation experts put forward statistics comparing air disasters with road accidents and it is true also that air accidents are far few in numbers as compared to road accidents but the kind of impact single air crash has on people, is just comparable with thousands of road accidents.

    Crashing down from the height is certainly more terrifying.

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