NTSB shouts – will anyone listen?

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recently held a much-publicized meeting in Washington that focused on general aviation safety. The message was clear: the board views the GA accident rate as unacceptably high, and they want action. Their first step was to release five Safety Alerts targeting the leading causes of accidents.

NTSB Safety Alert for GA
The NTSB issued five safety alerts targeted at GA pilots.

The question is, will anyone listen?

The overall tone of the meeting was one of frustration: “Because we investigate each of the 1,500 GA accidents that occur in the United States every year, we see the same types of accidents over and over again,” said NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman. “What’s especially tragic is that so many of these accidents are entirely preventable.” The board is admitting what most pilots already know–we aren’t inventing new ways to kill pilots.

Indeed, the five Safety Alerts cover familiar territory:

  • Is Your Aircraft Talking to You? Listen! – A surprising number of accidents involve powerplant issues where the pilot knew there was a problem and chose to fly anyway. The NTSB urges pilots to conduct a thorough preflight inspection and not to defer critical maintenance.
  • Reduced Visual References Require Vigilance – VFR-into-IMC is the focus here, and it remains a leading cause of GA accidents, year after year. The alert predictably suggests getting a good weather briefing and having higher minimums at night no matter what the weather.
  • Avoid Aerodynamic Stalls at Low Altitude – This focuses on low level stalls, especially in VFR weather. The alert reminds pilots that stalls can happen at any airspeed and any attitude, and notes that many of these stalls happen due to distraction or inattention.
  • Pilots: Manage Risks to Ensure Safety – This safety alert is a broad endorsement of formal risk management and aeronautical decision-making processes. Whether it’s evaluating one’s medical condition, planning in-flight diversions or respecting personal minimums, the NTSB is urging that decisions not be made under pressure.
  • Mechanics: Manage Risks to Ensure Safety – The blame isn’t all on pilots, as this alert focuses on mechanics. It urges mechanics to follow manufacturer instructions, pay attention to fatigue and have a second set of eyes inspect critical systems after work has been completed.

There’s nothing earth-shattering here–don’t fly in bad weather, don’t stall and don’t fly into a mountain. The NSTB is developing supporting materials for each Safety Alert, including a series of five videos. In addition, each alert offers a number of links to more information, from online courses and advisory circulars. But even with all this material, most of the suggestions for improvement (know your airplane, don’t let passengers pressure you into making a trip) are much easier said than done.

Defining the problem is one thing, but changing pilot behavior is quite another. In particular, will the pilots who need to hear these warnings most be the ones who listen? As Hersman said: “You can have the best accident prevention strategies in the world, but unless they are communicated effectively to people who need to know and who will benefit the most, they won’t save a single life.”

The complete presentation is worth reviewing, and can be viewed on the NTSB’s website.

16 Comments

  • One big problem here is that NTSB is led by an evil witch who wanted to ban all cellphone use in a car, period (hands-free included). So, clearly, the risk-reward is not considered and NTSB only cares about the risk. Fine, but then the driving and flying public has to supply the balance by tuning out the shrill shrieks of safety nannies.

  • This is about a useful as the media attention to the North Korean sabre rattling going on right now: few, if any, are listening.

    All of this stuff from the NTSB is only helpful if you can reach the audience who needs to see it. In my humble opinion, the vast majority of GA pilots will never even know that they exist. Why, they either don’t have computers or don’t read NTSB stuff. I know that I don’t even know how to get on the NTSB website and won’t take the time nor make the effort to do so.

  • I think we r missing the point here…
    As long as we continue to self police ourselfs more and more pilots will die. It’s like asking the averege driver not to pull a u-turn where it’s not allowed.. Without repercussion there is no order. Give ATC more authority, let them help keep us alive. The price we pay in reduced freedom will pay off imidietly . And for pilots 70 and up, stop freaking out about ‘authority’ and ‘big brother’, … At the end it’s our lives we r trying to save.

    • Not sure what would be gained by giving ATC more authority? They are generally our friends and a valuable segment of the aviation system, but be assured they already can and do report any observed infractions to FSDO for enforcement action…

      Controllers in general are not pilots, private or otherwise and their insight into any in-flight situation is limited by 1) what you tell them and 2) what they can see out the window or on their radar screens…

      So if you’re having a problem or just doing something less than routine, like manuevering to stay clear of clouds, having a non-pilot, or even a pilot-rated controller suddenly take command of your aircraft and giving you “orders” from a distance, could very easily make your situation worse and in my opinion, is not a good idea…

    • ATC won’t help matters. And repercussion? Not sure what repercussion is worse than dying. Pilots are flying into the ground on purpose. Not sure if there is a right answer but I know adding rules etc. will not help.

        • My point was this: we need to stop believing that pilots will do the right thing just because they are scared of Dying, This concept is not working !

          Allowing ATC to requier a pilot to divert to another airport becouse his intended KXYZ airport is just out of his skill level because of bad weather and low experience will probably save his/her life. Today they can only suggest, and we ignor if we feel like it… This is the core of the problem.

          It’s like telling the avarege driver that he can oporate a formula one car at 150 mph just because he has a license… That guy will kill himself in minutes. Bottom line, we need a daily policing force to keep us in check. It will cost us some freedoms, but it may just save our lives.

          My 2c

          • Just because someone is an air traffic controller does not mean they magically have the ability to fly our airplanes, to know our skills, abilities and experience level, or to evaluate the weather we are seeing real-time out the windshields…

            The majority of controllers are not pilots and although excellent at what they do, they are not equipped to make those decisions for us… And, controllers are people too, prone to the same slips, errors and omissions as the rest of us…

            When we fly in the national airspace system we are assumed by ATC, and by other pilots to be competent and capable (until we prove otherwise)… If one continually flies in a reckless fashion he will either get grounded, get better, or get dead… Just depends on his luck…

            There is a great deal of personal responsibility required to be an aviator, and flying comes with an inherent level of risk… So, one can do everything (in their control) correctly, even perfectly and still die… If someone does stupid things, with an airplane, with a car, or even with a lawn mower, there will be consequences, period…

            The Formula One analogy makes no sense because we pilots HAVE BEEN trained and ARE licensed to fly airplanes… If one elects to abuse his pilot privileges by flying beyond his knowledge, skills and abilities, then again, there will be consequences…

            One point I agree on is that pilots won’t always do the right thing, anymore than car drivers will, or ship’s captains will, or train engineers will… That’s the plus and the minus of living in America; the freedoms to pursue happiness, and to be stupid…

            Some may advocate for non-pilot government-employee policemen in their cockpit, but I’ll respectfully and heartily decline, and instead choose to trust my training and experience, and I will own my PIC personal responsibilities…

    • Well if reduced freedom in the name of safety is ok, then why not stop those pesky small aircraft from flying privately all together? Then there will be no accidents due to pilots making bad decisions. Sheesh! I will live with the risk and responsibility on my shoulders. I don’t need the nanny state to protect me from myself!

  • There’s a certain segment of pilots who won’t get the message, and there’s little or nothing we can do about it.

    I used to share an airplane with a gentleman who earned his pilot license a year earlier. He hadn’t subscribed to any aviation publication, read any books or visited any aviation related web sites since getting his license, or before for that matter.

    I constantly reminded him that flying is a lifelong learning commitment, and that earning his license is only the first step. Meanwhile, he “accidentally” flew into solid IMC twice – once with his family on board, he refused to carry charts or aerodrome directory on board, once tried to convince me to cut into our fuel reserves on a night xcountry (we would’ve been down to 15 minutes if he had his way), fried a cylinder after skipping a walkaround and failed to discover a birds nest,and finally, he could never seem to remember how to work the engine analyzer or program a flight plan into the GPS. His wife was wise enough to refuse to fly with him after only a couple flights.

    After all of this, I could never convince him that flying was a risk management activity and he needed to add some tools to his tool kit. Aviation is chalk full of pilots with more money than brains. There’s nothing you can do for some of these people. It’s sad but true – it doesn’t bother me one bit when one of these guys drills a deep hole in the ground.

  • I am certainly NOT in favor of more rules and regulations, but if more restrictive rules for GA appear to be inevitable then we should get ahead of the issue with some positive suggestions…

    As reported in the article, VFR into IMC is the number one killer of our foolish brothers… I’ve been flying small planes for nearly forty years and I will admit that the dumbest things I ever did with an airplane occured while trying to stay VFR in marginal weather… That was before I got my Instrument ticket; in fact that’s WHY I got my IR (scared myself once too often)… I can only thank God I did most of my early flying in the flat midwest…

    Today we have the light-sport license, or VFR-light rating which allows more people to fly, just with greater restrictions… Since you absolutely cannot legislate common sense and good judgement, what about creating an IFR-light rating for Private Pilots as a way give them a fighting chance if (or actually when) they find themselves unable to maintain VFR?

    Lots of details to work out, of course but something between the minimal hood time from the PPL requirements and the full blown Instrument rating may be a way to reduce the mortality rate and does not unfairly restrict the rest of GA…

    Whaddaya think fellow aviators?

    • Here’s another idea. How about making it a requirement that one has to have an instrument rating in order to fly an airplane that is equipped with gyros? That would leave the VFR pilot with a very clear and simple decision process; maintain VFR or die. The removal of temtation could produce the desired result as well as lower the cost of aircraft and training.

  • The truth is, the analysis is never sufficient to help find a cure. Compare this to health warnings and “leading causes of death”. First off, the fact is, everyone is going to die, the fatality rate is always 100%, so the “objective” is how to prolong life as long as possible? The problem with that is, not everyone wants to prolong their life as long as possible. Secondly, the cause of death is always 1) your heart stops, 2) your brain stops or 3) your lungs stop. Everything from every disease from cancer to pneumonia eventually leads to one or more of those three things stopping. If the analysis ends there, you can never target a “root cause” for the problem. They come up with five causes, but why? What causes everyone from a 100 to a 25,000 hour pilot to have these five common quirks? There was even an accident where two ATP pilots flew into the side of a mountain in day VFR. There is no good reason for that and spending millions of dollars to try and find and answer is a waste of time. There is no rule you can pass, no regulation you can write, no law you can enforce that would have kept those two pilots from flying into the side of a mountain. Something jointly took their attention from flying, simultaneously, when they are drilled daily, professionally and successfully, until now, in making sure this never happens. These were professionals. The analysis and solution has to go beyond what the NTSB is doing now to fix this.

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