Safety crisis – what’s going on?

A common staple of Internet garbage has become those inane lists of 10 Best….10 Worst….10 Most. Cuss ‘em but you do look at them and recently I got a jolt when one I read said that “airline pilot” was the third most dangerous job in the country, with 50.6 fatalities per year for every 100,000 people involved.

dangerous jobs
The news media claims that airline pilot is one of the most dangerous jobs. Really?!

Of course, that is absurd. Our airline transportation system is the safest form of transportation that has ever existed, by far, and to suggest that the job of flying airliners is that dangerous makes no sense. Neither does the sensationalism that comes after a bad landing or a small panel falls off an airliner. But the media does love to trot out the talking heads and warn of disasters lurking just around the corner. Every slight airline incident seems to get the scrutiny of a major disaster. As they used to say, it sells papers – even if it is misleading.

What is most bothersome about that listing of “airline pilot” as the third most dangerous job is that it came from somewhere and I looked into the source and found out where that was. The general aviation accident record can be interpreted to show that there are 50.6 annual pilot fatalities for every 100,000 pilots. I am not saying that is an absolutely accurate interpretation, just that it is possible.

Where a compilation of dangerous jobs listed it as “airplane pilot” someone preparing a sensational item for msn.com listed it as “airline pilot.”

It’s a little sobering that our avocation can be that high on a list of dangerous things to do. Equally bothersome is the fact that the NTSB’s preliminary fatal accident rate in private flying showed a relatively significant spike in 2014, to 1.4 fatal accidents per 100,000 hours. That would be the worst record since 1996. Recently, in another post, I said that the accident rate had remained about the same for years. Now that has changed, and not for the better.

Talking heads were quick to point out that, given the relatively small nature of the activity, this jump in the fatal accident rate could be an aberration and that the rate will settle back to the “no change” range of the past couple of decades. That is something to hope for but not to anticipate. And is no change in what has been a bad accident rate for years a good thing?

Fatal accident rate

The airlines have been able to parlay advances in technology and training to their near-perfect safety record. We have available every bit (and possibly more) in the way of high-tech stuff and yet the safety record doesn’t improve and has now apparently gotten worse. There is no question that something is badly out of place. Our tech improvements have been around for long enough to have started making a difference but things seem to be going the wrong way.

You know what comes next: Unless the pilot is improved, no amount of high-tech stuff will ever have a beneficial effect on the safety record. Large sums have been spent by entities like the AOPA Air Safety Foundation (now Institute) and over the years millions of words (some mine) have been printed in aviation journals trying to promote flying safety but it has all apparently been to no avail. The money has been wasted and the words have fallen on deaf ears. The record has actually gotten worse.

If the safety effort has not worked and all the new equipment has not helped, what might be done next? Certainly to say that a worse safety record in one year doesn’t really mean anything is not productive.

Something that makes the next step hard to determine is the fact that the nature of the pilot population has apparently changed. Thirty years ago reader surveys at FLYING showed that the most popular subjects were safety, flying technique and weather. Today I note in our AIR FACTS numbers that these subjects are not the key things that they once were.

Almost 40 years ago I wrote a book on this subject. Flying Safely sold about 35,000 copies in its original and revised versions. A few years ago I wrote another book on safety, The Next Hour. The total sales of that one were tiny by comparison. The interest just seems not to be there now.

S-Tec 55X autopilot
Is that autopilot a good thing for safety or a bad thing?

I have also seen an increase in the number of pilots who question why we even talk about safety. They don’t want to hear about it and don’t want the spouse to find out that private flying is not safer than driving or riding the airlines. It is a real challenge to find a solution to a problem that the participants won’t acknowledge.

That sure doesn’t mean we should quit trying.

I asked one CFI, with experience in a wide range of airplanes, why he thought the record might be worsening. He said he expected this to happen it because pilots have become more interested in high-tech and less interested in flying. He thinks pilots fly around with their heads down, mesmerized by screens, and not really interested in what is going on with the airplane which is still there and has to be flown. Certainly we see people spending an inordinate amount of time staring at and thumbing smart phones everywhere else. Why expect it to be any different in airplanes?

I agree that the interests of new pilots, and born-again older pilots, have changed. Years ago I could write an article about crosswind landings and pilots would lap it up. Now I can do a post on crosswind landings and a relative few people will look at it. If you want to draw a crowd, write about iPads in the cockpit.

I guess the inescapable conclusion is that today’s pilot does not think flying is inherently risky so he is just not willing to put a lot of time into thinking about that. What danger does lurk can be managed on the screen. What is going on makes me wonder if today’s pilot really wants to be what we historically thought of as a pilot. If the abiding interest in aviation and the camaraderie that existed among the faithful is gone, what else can be found to build on?

This is where the desire to attract new people and ensure some sort of future for private aviation and the desire to try to make it less risky collide head-on.

It is my opinion that while attracting new people is of primary importance, this will become ever-more difficult if the accident rate worsens. Trying to sell something that is increasingly risky to people who are increasingly risk-averse is more than a challenge.

Risk vs. reward
“Trying to sell something that is increasingly risky to people who are increasingly risk-averse is more than a challenge.”

I have been around for a long time, working this subject for most of that long time. I’d be the first to say that my two-bits worth might not have the value of a quarter but here it is anyway: I think we need to be up front and vocal about the fact that flying as it is being done today is probably more dangerous than most like to admit. That would cause some to turn away from the activity but we might be doing them a favor. Flying is totally unforgiving of carelessness or inattention. Any pilot who doesn’t recognize this and acknowledge the potential hazards is likely to account for one more uptick in that unfortunate accident rate.

The other thing that has to be acknowledged and talked about is the fact that the high-tech is great, but having it does not automatically equate to safer flying.

For example, it truly bothers me to see angle of attack instrumentation presented as some new device that will save your butt. It is old and like other devices it gives information about something that can be easily managed without the device. I hasten to add that the importance of angle of attack management is not stressed nearly enough in training and testing. You can’t buy safety, you have to learn it. It has to become a state of mind.

One more thought on angle of attack: It has been suggested that having the instrumentation enables safe flight closer to the edges of the envelope. To me, anything that pushes pilots closer to the edges of the envelope doesn’t decrease risk, it increases risk.

The FAA and NTSB might be pushing angle of attack instrumentation but the FAA’s sample 60-question knowledge test has only one question on the subject and it is in reference to the definition. On the one hand they want you to buy expensive angle of attack instrumentation and on the other hand they don’t even ask a question about the importance of angle of attack. Go figure.

It has always been true that the people who don’t need it are the ones who seek out useful safety information. The ones who badly need the information don’t want it and have always been difficult if not impossible to reach. The latter used to be the macho hairy-chested guy wearing a leisure suit and gold chain, with an attractive lady on his arm. Maybe he is now the technerd flying along poking his devices while totally oblivious to the fact that he is pilot in command of a real airplane that is governed by the laws of aerodynamics, not software.

I guess this leaves safety-minded folks two choices: Either combine real flying with high-tech and connect with the new breed of pilot, or, watch the accident rate gravitate to new highs.

58 Comments

  • I could not agree more! The new tech is mesmerizing, and those who think it will NEVER fail them are whistling past the graveyard. Dick, keep writing these articles and hopefully a few minds will be opened. An accident avoided due to someone dedicating themselves to good airmanship because of something they read will never be reported. Thanks for the great article.

  • My 2 cents…the lack of safety culture in flight schools is mind boggling. CFIs show up with no plan, or even a pencil to take notes. There is no way for the renter pilot to note mechanical discrepancies, or to view problems without goign to the maintenance shack and going through the logs. Besides making maintenance records viewable by everyone, my recommendation would be for CFIs to get themselves together, make a proper lesson plan, give a proper flight brief or have the student give a flight brief before takeoff. Take notes during the lesson, then debrief after the flight. This is the military standard, and it should start with CFIs so that pilots know what they should be doing for every flight. Solo or not, every pilot should have a plan, follow a checklist, and note good and bad decision making after the flight. I’ve flown with a dozen or so civilian CFIs over the past few years (ratings, currency, BIFR, etc) and professionalism is really lacking. The “average” CFI is not doing this. The “top” CFIs (10,000 hr career teachers) are the only ones doing this, but it needs to be standard. No tech can replace good habits and decision making skills.

    • Meredith,

      I have posted on this topic in several threads before this, but actually, blaming flight schools in any way for the rate of GA accidents is simply not supported by the data.

      The safest flight hours experienced by private pilots are those first 100 hours right after finishing primary flight training (up to about 150 hours total logged time), after which the accident rate begins a long climb up to a peak between 500 and 600 hours.

      Ditto for instrument pilots right after finishing instrument rating flight training. That’s according to data released by FAA in February 2015 in its analysis of accident rates according to number of flight hours by the accident pilot.

      According to Dick Collins, the data in this report confirm what’s always been known, that the most dangerous pilots aren’t newbies, but the 500 hour pilot, likely years after his/her primary flight training.

      This means that right after learning to fly, and/or right after learning to fly on instruments, when we private pilots have had the most and most intense exposure to input from flight instructors is actually when we are the safest.

      At that point the average PP has an overall annualized aviation accident rate of around 0.0025, as compared to about 0.010 (four times as high) for the 500-600 hour private pilots. From the 500-600 hour point onward, the annualized accident rate begins a long decline toward about 0.045 (still nearly double that of the newly minted pilot) at 2,000 total flight hours.

      Nope – the problem is not our flight schools. The problem is with we ourselves, the private pilots who forget our safety training, develop bad habits, grow complacent, and who attempt flights beyond the capability of ourselves and/or our aircraft. None of that can be put on flight schools.

      To quote Shakespeare, by Cassius, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

      • Correction to my comment above, third paragraph from the end .. the rate for the 2,000-hour private pilot is 0.0045, not 0.045. I left out a zero 🙂

  • The fatal accident rate exceeded 2.0 every year from 1950-1978.

    http://www.aopa.org/About-AOPA/General-Aviation-Statistics/General-Aviation-Safety-Record-Current-and-Historic

    It seems incorrect for you to conclude that pilots enjoyed safety more “in the good old days” and therefore the world used to be a better and safer place.

    You and your peers should be pleased that your great work saved hundreds (perhaps thousands) of lives over the years. I’ll look forward to your analysis on why the rate spiked in 2014.

  • I think Sam’s point about the 1950-1978 accident rates is worth noting compared today. Statistically speaking 2014’s looks better than is was in the “good ‘ol days”.

    I would add since then, we as a society have generally become more safety conscious, and I think a large safety culture exists today in small GA flying. However, there is always room for improvement. (I can’t speak for over 30 years ago, as I am under 30 myself)

    A strong safety culture along with the wonders of modern technology (like iPads) can help the cause. So as long as the technology is properly used and backed up with a solid foundation of ADM skills of course.

    About pilots’ perception of the risk associated with flying small GA airplanes. I can easily see Today’s Pilot plugging their ears and telling themselves that “GA flying isn’t inherently risky, and at times even dangerous. No, no, no, everything is fine” when the safety question is raised. I wonder if this is due to Today’s Pilot buying into phrases like “the most dangerous part about flying is the drive to the airport” early in their career, or Today’s Pilot convincing themselves that those phrases actually hold truth after a while when nothing bad happens to them.

    Either way, when confronted with the reality that something they enjoy doing has a greater inherent risk than previously thought they plug their ears. They can also listen to what reality is telling them, but in the end simply refuse to accept it. Both of which can’t be good.

    As a side note, I find it an interesting coincidence that this safety news came out around the same time NASA drop tested 172’s at Langley again.

    Watching those videos is sobering. Since NASA shows that the typical light plane’s crash worthiness looks worse than a typical modem car. Not NASA’s primary goal in that project, but an interesting by product of their research.

    I think crash worthiness is another factor to consider when discussing how to improve safety, along with the use of high tech pilot aids, and GA’s overall safety culture. All three of which can continuously be improved upon.

  • I rarely disagree with Dick’s posts or his emphasis on writing about aviation safety, but I’m a bit puzzled by Dick’s sudden alarm at “increasing general aviation accidents”.

    The latest version of the annual ASF Nall report, available at aopa.org (released just a few weeks ago) says just the opposite – that GA accidents (non-commercial fixed wing) in 2013-2014 are the lowest ever seen (955 and 923, resp), and plunged by the largest amount of decrease ever seen (18% reduction from 2012) in 2013. The Nall report does not report the fatal accident RATE for 2014, because, apparently, it is very difficult to accurately gage the number of flying hours and there is usually a 1-year delay before the rate can be accurately estimated. However, the Nall report does say that there was no significant downturn in flight activity between 2013 and 2014, in fact most of us are aware that it likely went up with reduced fuel prices throughout the USA.

    The total number of non-commercial fixed wing fatalities DID increase from 2013 to 2014 (by 20), but even at the slightly higher 2014 number (184), it was still far below any prior year ever except for 2013, and it was 87 fewer fatalities than 10 years before (2005).

    So, it seems far more likely that NTSB has erred low in its estimate of 2014 flying activity (in flight hours) in its preliminary estimate. In any case the raw numbers do NOT tell a tale of suddenly increased accidents (just the opposite – we had a decrease) or fatal accident rates (likely a very minor increase in rate if any, but far below the 10 year average and the second lowest ever).

    I also don’t see that there is less interest in aviation safety … there is a lot of stuff posted here on this blog about aviation safety, and I understand that viewers and mouse-clickers are way up this last year. Dick seems to be over-reacting to one or two commenters here at airfactsjournal.com who routinely attack his safety posts and generally complain about “too much emphasis on accidents”. Most of us feel just the opposite, I would venture to say, or we wouldn’t be here.

    The “too much safety” meme is an extreme outlier opinion, in my humble opinion. And the actual accident data from 2014 do not back up the panicked over-reaction in this post.

      • Dick – it’s bothersome, of course, when the numbers we’re discussing involved lost lives and not numbers of widgets coming off an assembly line. So any time they go up in a given year, we’d much rather seen them go the other way.

        Yet, numbers, and the analytical models we build using numbers, always involve a degree uncertainty and “data scatter” and “random variation”, with numbers clustering around some underlying reality of what the numbers describe.

        Accidents went down a little from 2013 to 2014 (by about 3%), and fatalities went up a little (by about 12%) in the same period. So what’s up with that? Was there some underlying process that affected piloting in 2014 that resulted in fewer accidents but more fatalities? Or was it just random data scatter?

        (Wayne’s comment below about the entire increase in 2014 being due to an increase in experimental fatalities is interesting … why the sudden up-surge amongst that group?)

        Also, like anything else in life and statistics, what one concludes can depend a great deal upon whether the analyzer is a “glass half full” or a “glass half empty” person.

        On the “glass half empty” side, one can point out, as you did, that any increase in fatalities from one year to the next is never welcome.

        On the “glass half full” side, however, one could point out, as ASF did in their 2015 Nall report, that the two years in 2013 and 2014 were the only two years in 50 years of data collection and aviation history to have seen fewer than 200 fatalities and fewer than 1,000 accidents in light aircraft. I’d say, “(at least) Two cheers for that!”

          • There was not a “drastic drop in flying hours” from 2012 to 2013-2014. The “great recession” ended years before that. The rate data – which are always just an estimate because there is no way to actually meter the hours flown – don’t show a big change upward from 2012 to 2013, and the Nall Report specifically states that, while it does not yet have rate information for 2014, there was NOT a big drop in flying activity from 2013 to 2014.

            Sorry, Dick – I think you’re over-reacting in calling this a “crisis”. It isn’t.

  • Doing a very quick look at some of the stats pulled from the AOPA accident database site (http://www.aopa.org/asf/ntsb/search_ntsb.cfm)it looks like the number of home-built fatalities doubled from 2013 to 2014. 30 fatal accidents in 2013 compared to 57 in 2014. During the same time factory built fatal accidents went down from 200 to 188.

    Again, this is just a look at some numbers and I am not saying home-builders are less safety minded. I just wonder if something in the home-built environment is leading to more accidents.

    Looking forward to Richard’s further analysis of the trend.

  • Angle of Attack is no magic bullet and requires proper installation, training and understanding. I learned about the advantages of AOA in Citations and installed AOA and flew with it for 12 years in a Cessna 182.

    Calibrated properly AOA is typically 1.3 Vs in the flaps up position and about 1.4 Vs in other flap configurations in a 182. That is a better margin than the 5-8 knot stall warning margin. I certainly don’t suggest approaches slower than 1.3 Vs.

    It is not the equipment, it is the training and understanding of what AOA is designed to do that is missing in the current dialog about AOA.

    • One of the elephants in the room that is never mentioned is the negative role the FAA plays in accidents. Yes, I said that right. The effect of the FAA watching carefully over every facet of small aviation is to squelch innovation in life saving pieces of equipment. For instance, how many pilots are in their graves because they did not have an automatic pilot at a desperately needed time? For experimental pilots, they have the right to purchase a fine auto pilot for a fraction of the price of a certificated one. But, if you have a plane”protected” by the umbrella of the FAA, you will many times fly without an auto pilot because you cannot afford the multiple thousands required to buy the approved one.
      How many older planes fly with a patched up fuel pump because a new certified one is ridiculously priced. That certified one is very very similar to the infinitely cheaper version on cars. Buy a new certified alternator that looks precisely like the car version and pay 3 times as much.
      If you have a really old plane (50+ years) and want to re place your old gas tank with a new one you are very apt to patch up the old one and let it rattle on rather than pay 3 to 4 times what a fine shop could build a new one for.
      In newer planes, the manufacturers (and their supporters in the media who receive advertising money from them) push more and more complicated (but very competent) glass cockpits which in an unknown but no doubt significant number of cases, the pilot is less than competent to properly use the equipment. A very basic flight instrument/ navigator would be better in many cases.
      How many good men were and are being victimized by the very bad vacuum pumps which will kill an instrument pilot in a flash when it fails in instrument conditions. Why were two separate systems never required?
      This conversation could go on and on.

      • I have to agree with Bart on this one. The certification process delays innovation that could potentially increase safety, and causes the certified equipment like autopilots to be so expensive that many of us just can’t afford it.

  • I am a green rookie at 800 hours.

    When I was florescent green (5 years ago and at 73 hours) I briefly considered installing an AOA indicator in my newly-purchased 182.

    I was dissuaded largely because my insurance agent advised against it. “Our underwriters don’t like those,” he said. “The only guys that use them are the back country fellas who want to get real close to a stall.”

    I have never wanted to get real close to a stall.

    So in recent years when I heard the FAA bring them up the only thing I could think was

    WTF?!?

    Thank goodness we have Mr. Collins to bring his knowledge and historical perspective. If I hadn’t read The Perfect Flight and The Next Hour, as well as Flying IFR: The Practical Information You Need and Confident Flying: A Pilot Upgrade I would be a far less capable and safe pilot.

    I confess I am always re-reading one of these books. Do yourself a favor and buy them all.

    The Perfect Flight
    http://www.sportys.com/pilotshop/perfect-flight-ebook-edition-download.html

    The Next Hour
    http://sportys.com/pilotshop/the-next-hour.html

    Flying IFR
    http://www.amazon.com/Flying-IFR-Kindle-Practical-Information-ebook/dp/B00T3CAJQG/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1441122704&sr=1-1&keywords=flying+IFR

    Confident Flying
    http://www.amazon.com/Confident-Flying-management-decision-judgement/dp/1560274050

    For the absolute best analysis I have ever seen on AOA, read this (It’s free):
    http://www.av8n.com/how/

    • “I was dissuaded largely because my insurance agent advised against it. “Our underwriters don’t like those,” he said. “The only guys that use them are the back country fellas who want to get real close to a stall.”

      I have never wanted to get real close to a stall.”

      Hmmm… in most cases I always thought the proper way to land an airplane was to get real close to a stall. If AOA instrumentation helps a pilot do that more easily, I say use ’em. To criticize their use makes no sense whatsoever.

      • Hi Andrew:

        Thank you for your comment, I really appreciate it.

        I hear the stall horn on my plane every time I use it: on the ground when I test it during preflight.

        I have only heard it in the air a handful of times when I have had to demonstrate a stall recovery on a check ride. A TR182 has a VSO of 43 knots; with the STOL kit that came with the plane the actual stall seems to be slightly less.

        I have only flown a few 172s for about 80 hours. The rest of my time is in my 182.

        I was taught by a long time Cessna test pilot to always land with full flaps, to ‘fly it onto the runway’, and that is what I do. I land mains first but in a nearly level orientation at +/- 50 knots. So I truly never get real close to a stall.

        BTW, I have done lots of stalls in all configurations using a full motion Redbird simulator. Great tool.

        I am fine with AOA indicators although I still have not installed one. I am sure they are very useful.

        I am certain it is my fault that my point was missed. I’m not really writing as an experienced pilot. 800 hours is not very much at all.

        I’m writing for all of the wannabes, like I was for years.

        I am never going to be a professional pilot. I will likely never fly more than 250 hours in a year. I don’t come from a flying family. I am the only pilot I know well. I have only flown in a small plane when I was not pilot in command or a student pilot for a round trip Chicago to Osh Kosh – and I was in the back on the return. So I have never had the opportunity to learn by watching what other people do.

        My point is that as a new person coming to aviation there are many, many things that are confusing, the purpose and need for AOA indicators just one.

        I am always SHOCKED when I meet pilots or potential pilots who have never heard of Mr. Collins or his father.

        I rely on Mr. Collins for all things aviation safety. He has cleared up so many misconceptions and confusing things for me, just as he did with AOA indicators.

        I suspect there must be many people reading these pages who aren’t pilots but would love to be. One thing that is holding them back is fear.

        I just want all of you out there to know that if you study Mr. Collins’ books and the writings of his father along with the link above, Weather Flying by the two Bob Bucks and Langewich’s Stick and Rudder, I truly believe you know enough to fly safely – As long as you realize you just have a license to learn.

        At least it has worked for me so far. I have kept a safety margin in all things, including speed above stall and strived every time for the perfect flight.

        But I know it is only the next hour that counts.

        Thanks again,

        Mark

  • It is inferred/stated that the airlines took modern technology and ran with it to safety but GA was not able to make the technology work even though it was available. I think the half truth there is that it is inferred that modern technology means iPads and flat panels. These items do improve situational and environmental awareness but are definitely not the whole story. Most of us are still flying around in 40 year old airplanes, with minimal performance, that require monitoring carburetor ice, fuel systems, mixture control, ice accretion, propeller speed, and so on. If the airlines were operating DC-3s with flat panels, I don’t think they would be doing so well either.

    I think maybe a GA safety analysis needs to be broken into two sub-groups, like say, piston and turbine. It seems that the new Bonanza is actually a TBM 900 or a PC-12 or a Cirrus jet and the old fork-tail doctor killer is a relic. I would guess that the new “Bonanzas” are turning in a much better safety record than those of yesteryear.

  • I agree with Stephen 100%. How many VFR into IMC pilots would still be alive if they had a simple working wing leveler ? How many CFITs will never occur if a $500 glass panel device will start yelling in your ear ” pull up, pull up” ?, how many ILS approaches would end successfully if coupling the auto pilot to the glide slope would not cost a small fortune? Hell, how many of us still wish we had a shoulder seatbelt that dosent set us back two grand? .

    You want us to do better? Then focus on giving us the right tools. An iPad was not “given” to us, we had to make due with a cheap replacement because the damn glass cockpit cost like a new BMW!

  • Every professional Cert. I know of requires Continuing Education credits to be earned throughout the year. Why not the pilot certificate? We already have the Wings program but who participates….mostly safety minded pilots. Make the ground training portion mandatory. Get every pilot into the classroom a min of 3 hours per year.

  • So true!! As a physician I can say that technology has trumped the physician-patient relationship as well. More high tech is driving patient care, and there is less physician contact. Same is true when flying: high tech is doing the flying, and we pilots are along for the ride. We need to re-focus on our skills and not always rely on technology. The best pilot or physician uses technology as an adjunct to their skills, not as a crutch. Many thanks for the article!

  • In reference to insurance rates for pilots: I flew for the military 30 years and another 15 years commercially. I paid an increased premium for life insurance every year in the military and as a commercial pilot. Insurance companies use real time data when compiling their rates.

    AoA is a wonderful, real time indicator of your aircrafts flight regime if you know how to use it. Unfortunately, many fledgling aviators don’t have a hint how to interpret this simple indicator. The AoA indicator has been eliminated in some high performance GA jets.

    I have always been suspect of mishap ratios. Trying to compare one type aircrafts mishap data to another aircraft or group of operators is truly similar to comparing an apple to an orange. It is the common scale to judge where we are in our endeavor to lower mishaps to an acceptable level – whatever that is.

  • Richard: What do you think about the effects of the interaction of an ageing pilot population with a high tech operating environment?

  • Thank you Mr. Collins for a great article about a very important subject. Could it also be possible that the rate of accident increase because:
    1) the number of hours flown decreases due to a higher cost than earlier. If I fly 20 hours a year, I am less proficient than if I fly more than a 100 hours a year. Frequency is also important. If I fly everyday I am better than if I fly once a week on week end.
    2) I believe there is a rising danger with all safety goodies being added to airplanes and all computer gadgets being added to the cockpit. Not to criticize some concept of airplanes but pilots might be encouraged to take more risks if subconsciously they know they can always refer to the safety pin. It is like skiing with a helmet or without. A helmet gives you an increase sense of safety that you don’t really have if you are not cautious and you will take more risks.

    Our society is becoming more and more safety concerned, less responsibilities oriented with more government intrusion and regulation concerned.

    We must go back to old fashioned mentality flying while learning the full usage of all our beautiful cockpit gadgets. Less regulations would be welcome so we could launch more often into the skies and reduce the prohibitive cost of learning to fly from Private all the way to ATP.

    Thank you.

    Ed.

  • Why no mention that the GA airplanes with the most technology (Cirrus) have seen their fatal accident rate drop significantly in the past few years? (.74 per 100,000 hours in past 36 months).

  • We must also be careful what numbers we use when we look at this. How have total hours been trending? Down in GA. What about average pilot ages in GA? Up, near 50 now as I recall. What about age of aircraft? How old did you say it was in GA! Total accidents ratio to fatal accidents? What would GA look like vs say air carriers?

    I am not saying that these are the issue, I am saying that a few figures were selected and graphed (which just happen to make Air Carriers look really good… hmmm) but there are a lot more factors into what really goes on.

  • Might not the thesis be that modern production fixed gear single engine four seaters with fuel injected engines, improved safety protection (BRS, air bags, 26 G seats), improved electrics and gyro redundancy, benign aerodynamics and improved weather and traffic information – do enjoy a statistically robust improving safety record? The stubbornness of the GA safety record might be due to other factors, possibly the ageing nature of the fleet or the pilots themselves?

    There is no reason why private pilots who are current, flying in light IFR in modern, simple, production singles, avoiding the hazards of icing and convective storms, can’t deliver a safety record equivalent to that of Part 135. Trying to get a handle on this cohort of GA’s safety record might be a useful exercise. Then passengers can risk assess other types of GA operations and draw their own conclusions.

  • An interesting article, but it doesn’t bring us any closer to the answer of “why?”. The unfortunate reality is, although plenty of time and money is spent investigating crashes, the published results almost always are immediate causes, or at times contributing factors, especially when they are human factors – but rarely ROOT causes. Fuel starvation, or an inadequate preflight inspection, as examples, are not root causes. Until we understand the underlying root causes we will not understand the real problem(s).

  • Might be a little bit of, “The Sky is Falling” here. While Dick’s points re. the reliance on tech as magic bullets are valid, tying them to the fatal accident rate isn’t.

    Just pulling the data from the last 15 years (where the rate approximately leveled) off the chart, I get an average rate of about 1.29 and a standard deviation of 0.09. This means that 68% of the year’s rates should fall between 1.20 and 1.38 and 95% between 1.11 and 1.47. Granted, this is a small sample of only 15 but a rate of 1.4 is well within reason statistically. We need a much larger sample than one year to conclude this is a trend.

    Also, why would the rate suddenly jump from about 1.14 in 2013, the lowest rate in the last 15 years. Did we all get stupid and complacent in one year? Did significant numbers of new pilots who trained in glass cockpits make up a large fraction of the fatalities? I don’t think there is any evidence of either of these or any of the other reasons stated.

    The high number of experimental aircraft in the fatality numbers is a more glaring problem but these types (I’m generalizing here, sorry) likely are willing to take on more risk in their passion. What would be their reaction should the FAA push for more inspections and regulation of that branch of GA? I can’t imagine it would be very positive.

    In any case, I don’t think the conclusions or speculations in the article have enough actual factual evidence to back them up. I’ll wait until the 2015 figures come in.

    • Joe,

      Good points about stats and natural variation.

      Also, the rate info from NTSB is premature … ASF in their annual Nall reports does not bother to report a rate for the most recent year because it takes at least a full year to verify the flying hours, and even then the flying hours are only a best estimate, not hard reported data. The 2015 Nall report says the total accidents dropped and fatalities increase some but that the total flying activity did not drop significantly.

      In other words, the NTSB reported GA accident rate figure of 1.4 is garbage.

  • Good article. I’m one of the ones who seeks out safety info. Think about it… I’m traveling ~ 120 knots and I’m thousands of feet in the air… how can anyone sane NOT be concerned with safety. Ultimately, though, I’ve found over the years that it’s nearly impossible to convince the folks who are most desperately in need of convincing – all any of us can do is be sure we’re paying proper attention ourselves, and try to teach by example. And put the safety info out there for folks, even if only two ever read it, maybe it’ll be the bit of info that keeps one of the two alive! 🙂

  • I always like reading your articles, Mr. Collins, but I am puzzled as to why half of the safety equation is often not even mentioned. The pilot side of the equation is usually the focus, as in your article here, but the other half is the airplane. I don’t mean the avionics, that is merely one interface between the pilot and the aircraft.

    Consider Loss of Control events, for example. The design of some aircraft make them easier to lose control of, or vice versa, and this has to be part of the root cause – I’m thinking of aircraft design features such as stall speed, stall behavior and the like. Occasionally an article on safety will look at the record of individual designs, and note that the Cessna 172’s of the world have a better record, but instead of focusing on its easy handling, slow speeds and benign stall behavior the author will often surmise that the safety is due to them being used primarily for training.

    I’d like to suggest that one reason why the safety statistics have been relatively steady is because we are still flying the same airplanes, and they have not become any easier to fly as a whole. The few new airplanes that are being added to the fleet have some advantages, but most are not that much different (with the new ICON a notable exception) in regards to their flying qualities. Certification requirements have not changed for Part 91 aircraft, but we do have relatively new LSA requirements which, due to slower speed and lighter weights, should lead to a safety improvement.

    I’d like to see safety studies that investigate the aircraft side of the safety equation. If it became clear that, say lower stall speeds and benign stall/spin characteristics significantly improved the safety of an airplane, as it seems it should, then that would provide a new avenue for improving the overall safety of aircraft. I’d love to hear your opinion on this.

  • Quiet frankly I sick and tired with all the safety talk and articles I am seeing. The FAA is run my lawyers and the output is more regulations. Has it helped with safety, yes, maybe for large commercial carriers, but not for the average pilot who just wants to fly. For the average pilot, we are over regulated, flying is getting too expensive, the flying environment is getting too complex, we are loosing airports and it is no longer any fun. The total cost of safety equipment, training, regulation compliance, is more that most people can afford. Aircraft which were easy to fly like Cessna 150, 172, etc, are not an option if you can’t get a third class medical. But, you can fly a smaller less safe “sports” category aircraft! And I might add, you can drive a truck and sixty mph, by a busy school yard full of children, no medical required.

    If you want more people to fly and have an interest is safety here are some of my thoughts:

    Simplify the regulations. Get rid of most of them for GA pilots flying below 10,000 feet.

    If the government wants to regulate, regulate the lawyers. Change the laws about frivolous lawsuits. Change the elements of proof for abuse of process. Put people who know something about aircraft and engineering on juries.

    Provide protection for manufactures of aircraft against frivolous lawsuits.

    Bring back simple low cost aircraft.

    Protect existing airports and allow new smaller airports for GA traffic.

    Stop the insurance companies from setting the flight standards for aircraft design and compliance standards for training. No one should be told that their BFR is going to take five hours because the insurance requires it.

    I could go on, but I think you get the point.

  • Regrettably, Mr. Collins is correct on all counts.

    Too many pilots ignore risk, and assume the best about technology. This is done because they don’t want to put forth the effort to achieve mastery of their machine.

    Some of these button-pushing pilot posers have slipped into the regional airline world, which is a concern.

    But, the real fun starts when we fail the autopilot in the simulator during training, and it completely separates the truly skilled aviators from the imposters. Sometimes, a couple of humbling sessions is enough to convince these budding airmen that they are truly in need of skill development.

    Others, unfortunately, have a ready list of excuses why their poor airmanship is not really their fault.

    My favorite response to one of them: Your sim partner can do it. you can’t. Why is that? Because you can’t. Accept that you need to improve.

  • “One more thought on angle of attack: It has been suggested that having the instrumentation enables safe flight closer to the edges of the envelope. To me, anything that pushes pilots closer to the edges of the envelope doesn’t decrease risk, it increases risk.”

    I love this statement! Seems to me that it also applies to the the misuse of NEXRAD in the cockpit.

    • Doug,

      I disagree with the comments on AOA is for pushing closer the edge of the envelope.

      In larger aircraft where AOA is more commonplace it is to supplement information for stabilized approaches and in steep turns when the aircraft’s AOA is approaching an unsafe condition.

      I have flown a C-182 with an Alpha Systems AOA installation for 12 years and found that improved consistency at all landing weights without ever needing to push closer to the edge of the envelope.

      • Hi Charles,

        Having flown AOA equipped for over 32 years, I agree that it’s a valuable asset in the cockpit.

        What I really like about Richard’s comment is the implied warning to understand the technology and be proficient with its use in order to mitigate risk. Likewise using NEXRAD as though it’s airborne live radar has led more than few pilots astray.

      • Charles,

        You’re correct. The main function of AOA indicators in the cockpit is not to warn the pilot of an impending stall. Stall horns and lights already do that, and apparently for many pilots it’s too easy to ignore a horn or light that tells them the airplane is about to stop flying until it’s too late (i.e, they’re lawn darting into the ground).

        The function of the AOA indicator is to provide the pilot direct information about the aircraft’s actual angle of attack – i.e., the ability of the wing to fly – in any possible configuration of bank, airspeed, gross weight, deck angle, etc.

        In other words, the AOA indicator is a training aid, not a warning device.

        If a pilot has an AOA indicator, and uses it diligently over many flight hours and maneuvers to explore the full flight envelope of his/her aircraft, then that pilot will learn to instinctively, via the seat of their pants and other sensory indications, know how to keep the sunny side up in all conditions.

        There is nothing inherently dangerous or risky involved with flying light aircraft at relatively high angles of attack, as long as the pilot is fully in touch with the aircraft and knows how to keep it flying at all times. There are times when pilots get distracted – by other traffic at the airport, by weather, by conditions or obstructions on the ground, or by non-piloting thoughts. A pilot who is highly attuned to flying his aircraft at the edge of its envelope will instinctively avoid going over the edge.

        So contrary to Doug’s statement, the pilot who never flies close to the edge is the most dangerous of all, because he/she has not developed the instinctual feel for the edge of the envelope, and thus will ignore the signals that he’s getting from the airplane that he is close, or over the edge, until a spin ensues and it’s too late to correct.

  • I stared flying in 1966, owned two C model Mooney airplanes over 25 yrs. First one had an Narco Omnigator and I flew all over the USA.

    Been renting in between and ever since. Now renting a C-182 since 2000. Price went from $69 to $160+ a Hobbs meter HR. so LESS flying.

    The rip off fuel prices are one of the big problems, what citizen would pay $50-$60 an Hr. for fuel to drive their auto?

    I too had to chastise myself for to much head down with my Nexus 7 when I first got it.

    Dick, I also have been wanting to Thank You for teaching me how to fly IFR, starting back in the 70’s. I have many of your books and videos.

  • I watched Youtube videos recently of collegiate landing and spot-landing contests. In both videos the winds were gusting strongly across the runways, and the contestants were fighting quite tenacious battles with their airplanes. Needless to say, I was shocked to see not one of the young pilots use cross-wind landing techniques. Every single one of them touched down in their Cessnas and Pipers while still in the crab attitude – some as much as (I would have guessed), twenty or more degrees. Are the schools not teaching the old rudder-kick-and-wing-down method anymore? I use this method in the Airbuses I fly; it works just fine. It actually gives me an excuse to use the rudder.

  • When pilots start talking about more training rather than more computers and more speed, general aviation will once again be more palatable to the masses. Great article. Thanks for writing.

  • I’ve been flying in general aviation for over 40 years and can safely say that the flying public has always had the wrong attitude toward flight safety. I know that this may sound a bit brutal but the fact of the matter is that this ‘wrong attitude’ is the product of ignorance, stupidity and poor judgement. The flying public is not reachable on this subject. They have demonstrated that year after year by turning in a lousy safety performance.
    If the FAA decides that they are sick and tired of this behavior, they will demand that currency and safety training be consistent with the airlines. Until then, be prepared for the continuation of stories on running out of fuel, flying into bad weather and pilots falling way behind the plane on approach.

    • Michael J. You may be right, train all pilots to be consistent with the airlines, and all you will have in the way of pilots are those who want to work for the airlines. In other words, look at the training in Europe. Is this what we want? Landing fees for every landing, total control of all airspace, and as for general aviation, and an aviation industry building aircraft only for the large carriers. People who just want to fly for the fun of it, “there they are, gone!” Sorry, I would rather have it the way it is. Yes we have accidents, but we tend to over exaggerate the numbers compared to the total number of people who fly and underestimate the advantages of a system not completely run by the government.

  • Flying is a skill that MUST be practiced. The reason the accident rate is going up is GA pilots are getting into situations they have forgotten or don’t know. And here is the problem—and as John Kings says, “What makes airplanes fly? MONEY.
    Even if you own your own plane it’s $100.00/hr. Add insurance, maintenance and hanger fees your pushing $200.00/hour. At 20 hours a month to stay current, That’s $4000.00. Cut that in half it’s still $2000.00 a month. Unless you have 20 to 30 grand to devote to flying per year (that can’t be deducted from income taxes) you should not be in flying. I tried flying on a budget with my very own Cessna 140. After 2 months in the hospital, no more flying on a budget.

    • Fred – your math is pretty fuzzy when it comes to the hourly flying costs that most private pilots experience, or what is necessary to remain reasonably proficient.

      To stay reasonably current for most recreational pilots, 50 hours/year (about 4 flight hours per month) is more than sufficient. You posit 20 hours/month to stay current – that’s ridiculous as very few private pilots flying recreationally or for light business use fly anywhere near 240 hours per year, or need to, or want to.

      Most of these simple four cylinder fixed pitch non-retractable aircraft cost not much more, or less than, roughly $100/hour wet to keep them flying. My Cherokee 180 burns 8.3 gal/hr at high speed cruise (about 150 mph) – fuel prices in my local area are about $4.50/gal, so fuel is $37/hour. The annual for my aircraft costs about $2,000 all in, figuring on replacement of the usual stuff that wears out (tires, batteries, filters, etc.) plus rebuilding mags and vac pumps every several years. That works out to about $40/hour at 50 hours/year. Or $20/hour at 100 hours/year.

      Insurance ($1M liability plus hull coverage) for reasonably experienced pilots flying such aircraft in the lower 48 will be around $500/year – or $10/hour at 50 hours/year, or $5/hour at 100 hours/year.

      Saving for eventual engine overhaul, assuming it’s done at the typical 2,000-hour TBO and at a cost of $18-20K (typical for a O-360 or O-320 Lyc or similar carburated engine under 200 hp), the engine allowance is another $9-10/hour.

      Throw in a hanger (not necessary – but always preferred) at $250/month, that’s another $60/hour – the single biggest line item for aircraft that aren’t flown a lot).

      Total cost per hour for all of the above at 50 hours per year, you get 40 + 10 + 10 + 60 = $120/hour, or $6,000 per year.

      Double your annual flight hours to 100/year and the fixed costs stay the same, so the total comes out to 40 + 5 + 10 + 30 = $85/hour or $8,500 for 100 hours of flying time. That’s well more time than the average private pilot flies.

      This analysis also shows why it’s better to fly more than less for purely economic reasons, let alone for safety reasons.

      Quadruple your flying to 200 hours per year (near your number for proficiency), and it’s 40 + 2.50 + 10 + 15 = $67.50/hour or $13,500 per year. That’s a heckuva lot of flying, more than 4 hours per week, equivalent to 30,000 statute miles per year in a 150 mph aircraft, about double the mileage that the average person in the USA drives per year.

      One can obviously spend a lot more than this if you fly a higher performance aircraft, or you can spend less with lighter 2-place birds that sip less fuel or that can burn mogas, or forego a hangar (as many owners do)

    • 5 hours a month is pattern work, that’s not flying. At $175.00 per hour for a 172 rental that’s $10,500.00 a year. Mommy ain’t going for the kids in public school. Again, what makes an airplane fly, MONEY.

  • Fred, You are a genius! The fact is we will never get to absolute safety. The FAA is run by lawyers, they write rules and yet, there are still accidents. It is impossible for pilots to remember all the rules. The manufactures make better more complex aircraft/instruments, but pilots can’t keep up with the technology. Or we can’t keep up with the cost. Or, we just get sick and tired of all the bull S**t. If you don’t believe we are on a downward slope in flying just look at the publications: If you look at a fishing/hunting/biking/car/etc., magazine, you would see articles about people are having fun doing these activities. Read a flying magazine, all you see are articles about dangers to be avoided, skills you must have, equipment to save your life or new airplanes one can not afford. There was a time when we believed that new technology would make flying available to everyone. The reality now is that many airports can’t fill their hanger spaces.

  • What gets me (not negating your points about safety) is how this compares to boating.

    If you do the same math for 2014 against boating —

    The fatality rate was 5.2 deaths per 100,000 registered recreational boating vessels.
    This rate represents a 10.6% increase from last year’s fatality rate of 4.7 deaths per 100,000 registered recreational vessels

    • Well not quite the same math but the closest I can find in boating statistics … point being is 2014 seemed to have an uptick in bad risk management.

  • Horse hockey! The obsession with safety damn near killed aviation. The obsession with safety drove the use of most the gee whiz things you are criticizing for being a detriment to safety. We don’t want everyone to be a pilot because if they were that would mean it was as boring as driving today’s car. Using safety to sell aviation is like a pimp using condoms to sell sex. Quit it with the sky is falling safety stuff and move on. If it’s still going up in three years, then you can wring your hands over this silly subject.

  • Thanks Rich, I was beginning to feel that no one was agreeing with me in the belief that the FAA uses “safety concerns” to justify over regulation of aviation.

  • I couldn’t wade through all the comments, so if this has been covered, please excuse. Glad there are so many who truly know the problem. As a 55 year glider pilot and 45 power rated with added tow pilot endorsement, I learned stick/rudder in a real glider first! The pilots today fly complex aircraft to start with where the feet do little. Maybe introduction in glider flying should be a must. If the person isn’t interested in doing that type of flying or does very poorly, then maybe he/she should not go further. Even in the soaring community today, the cockpit is full of complex equipment and yes, the pilot has his head inside instead of looking outside. I could tell the air speed by sound, look at the horizon for attitude without an instrument! I feel we’ve lost the ability to teach by using too many instruments/glass to promote judgment. Glider flying will certainly do that!
    One comment on instructors, I live right next to a GA airport and watch the patterns flown by students/instructors, they still make huge patterns with no hope of ever getting to the runway should the engine develop problems, NO WAY! Instructor makes a little more money by creating a longer flight, but at what risk? Developing judgment,I think not. Thanks Dick for speaking the truth about the “new pilot”. They are missing the real reason for flying, “the love of it”!

  • I am 61 years old and only in 2013 obtained my private pilot certificate and in late 2014, the instrument rating. My opinion is that CFI’s do not prepare us for the real world, but only to pass our check ride.

    There are, of course, exceptions because I have flown with a couple of great instructors…unfortunately, I didn’t know to fly with them when I was training.

    Some older instructors are limited in their experience to flying out to the practice area and doing steep turns and stalls, and of course touch and go’s. What we need to be taught and tested on regularly is airspeed, attitude and bank angle in the pattern. There are far too many crashes in the pattern that are avoidable and we just don’t spend enough time on those things.

    We, as certificate holders must also make this part of a practice routine that we do at least monthly, especially for those of us who don’t fly regularly.

  • Why hasn’t all the new technology had a positive impact on the accident rate? It’s possible that Dick put his finger on it with this paragraph from the article:

    “One more thought on angle of attack: It has been suggested that having the instrumentation enables safe flight closer to the edges of the envelope. To me, anything that pushes pilots closer to the edges of the envelope doesn’t decrease risk, it increases risk.”

    What may be happening is that as pilots have access to better and better tools for weather info and situational awareness (as well as AOA) they are at least subconsciously telling themselves that all of this info will allow them to operate in more difficult situations without higher risk. This may be particularly true of IFR operations. For example, a pilot with limited instrument experience might not be keen on attempting to shoot an approach at night with low ceilings if all he or she has is raw data on a CDI. Add a moving map display, possibly with geo-referenced approach chart, and all of a sudden it seems less risky, and it probably is. Why not give it a shot, then?

    In other words, what may be happening is that the technology is encouraging us to tackle situations that we might otherwise avoid. We have the same terrible accident rate (or even slightly worse), but at least we are getting more utility from our more technically advanced airplanes.

    • Elliott – the premise of the question asked (“Why hasn’t all the new technology had a positive impact on the accident rate?) is false. The accident rates have declined substantially in recent years with the advent of advanced technology aircraft. In particular, the most widely flown advanced technology aircraft- the Cirrus SR series – has declined the most, with an average rate under 1.0 and well under the average for all light aircraft.

      Most pilots today, however, aren’t flying advanced aircraft. Total sales of all Cirrus SR series aircraft is roughly 5,000 airframes in the last 15 years. Given that there are over 160,000 active aircraft in the US, the effect of a low rate in only 3% of the active aircraft is going to be small.

      There are of course lots of other aircraft that have varying degrees of advanced avionics, from the ubiquitous Garmin 430/530 series and its recent successors, to numerous portable GPS and tablets with cockpit weather, traffic displays, and even synthetic vision, and new improved autopilots. All of these have no doubt contributed something to the gradually decreasing accident rate (notwithstanding the bogus claim by NTSB that the rate suddenly increased dramatically in 2014, counter to the Nall Report’s statement that flying activity did not suddenly decrease in 2014).

      There is no proof – indeed, it is just an urban myth – that having better aircraft causes pilots to become more negligent. Not true. People are getting into trouble for all the old, repetitive reasons. They are flying into weather they shouldn’t (the old VFR into IMC scenario being biggest), and they are not flying the airplane (the old stall spin at low altitude), and they are running out of fuel. Those account for most of the fatalities, and they have always been part of flying malpractice, and likely will remain so until the day we have autonomous aircraft without human pilots. We humans are and always have been highly fallable.

      As Brutus said (according to Shakespeare) to Cassius 2,000 years ago, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in we ourselves”.

      • Duane,

        I can’t argue with your comments. The point I was making is that it is likely that for many pilots the availability of advanced technologies alters the assessment of risks associated with a particular flight or activity. For example, faced with a forecast of thunderstorms over a portion of his/her route, having not quite real-time NEXRAD images depicted in the cockpit might convince a pilot that he/she will be able to “see” and avoid (by sufficiently wide margins) the bad stuff enroute. The technology might thus lead to a “go” decision that would otherwise be “no go.” And I don’t think that there is anything wrong with that as long as the limitations of NEXRAD are well understood.

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