6 min read

In the late 1950s or early 1960s, I went to a gathering at the Basin Harbor Club in Vermont. The purpose was to meet the first administrator of the brand-new FAA, retired General Pete Quesada.

Not one to mince words, Quesada told us that general aviation safety was awful and that in a year he would orchestrate a 25-percent improvement in the record. He was strong on resolve but didn’t offer many specifics.

Needless to say, the record did not improve. That was more a reflection on the nature of the activity than on Quesada. The Draconian measures he would have taken to mandate safer skies just wouldn’t fly.

Airbag in airplane

Can seat belt airbags save lives?

In the over half a century that has passed since then, the FAA has rediscovered the fact that the general aviation safety record is not good many times. Each time, they come up with things that need to be done to shape us up. In the latest utterance the FAA proposes, for older airplanes, seat belt airbags, angle of attack instrumentation and two-axis autopilots.

There is no definition of “older.”

Somebody in the FAA should have known that even most newer GA airplanes do not have airbags or AOA indicators. Virtually all newer airplanes do have autopilots but so do a lot of older ones.

It should be embarrassing for the FAA to display such a lack of awareness but, hey, at least they are trying.

Let’s look at what FAA proposes.

Years ago the FAA mandated that all new airplanes include shoulder restraint systems. There was concrete evidence that this could help. I sat through some pretty gory slide presentations at safety meetings and after looking at the results of face to instrument panel collisions, I was convinced. It is interesting that at the same time the potential benefits of crash helmets were also demonstrated. Nobody bought into this though it was fun to imagine how we would decorate our helmets.

Would airbags be as beneficial?

In the vast majority of general aviation accidents there are either fatalities or no injuries at all. Accidents causing serious injuries occur, for sure, but they are a much smaller part of the picture.

Airbags have saved a lot of lives in cars but auto and airplane accidents are quite different. There is more speed involved in most airplane crashes and there is also usually a vertical deceleration component that is lacking in most car crashes.

I don’t think that airbags would likely make much difference in most fatal general aviation accidents. They could make a difference in the outcome where there are serious injuries. For that reason alone, they are worthy of every consideration as might the installation of shoulder restraints in older airplanes that do not now have them.

AOA indicator

Angle of attack indicators are increasingly affordable – should they be in more airplanes?

Managing angle of attack (AOA) is a critical element in flying safely but it isn’t emphasized in training. Make no mistake, though, it is real, and a pilot who understands only airspeed control is lacking in basic knowledge.

When I was instructing, mostly in the mid-1950s, I put a lot of emphasis on students understanding angle of attack. This was critical in the lower powered airplanes with not a lot of margin between cruising and stalling speed. When you read this, remember it was AOA as taught by a 20 year old flight instructor at a time when most instructors ignored the subject.

I told students that the angle of attack in level flight was the difference between where the nose is pointed and where the airplane is going. Power back and slow down and the nose might be high but the altimeter steady or showing a decline. Push that difference between where it is pointed and where it is going up to about 18 degrees and the airplane would stall.

That was easier to demonstrate if the airplane had a vertical speed indicator.

The plot thickened in level turning flight where the relative weight increase because of g-loading resulted in an increase in angle of attack. Most pilots are aware that the stalling speed increases a bit in a 30-degree bank and a lot when the bank becomes even steeper as the g-load in a level turn increases but this was difficult for a kid to teach to GI-Bill students. Still, I tried to get them to understand that while the stalling speed might vary based on conditions, the stalling angle of attack is a constant.

In virtually all the low speed loss of control (stall/spin) accidents, the pilot was pulling back on the elevator control when control was lost. Back stick increases angle of attack. A pilot should not need instrumentation to tell him when angle of attack is encroaching on the stalling point but maybe the number of this type of accident suggests that pilots need help even though this should be relatively easy for a pilot to visualize.

While I was doing this, the CAA (now FAA) actually had a Piper PA-11 fitted with a crude angle of attack system. It had, I think, five lights and as the angle of attack increased more lights came on. Light them all and, boom, the airplane stalled.

I actually had an angle of attack indicator in my Piper Pacer in the 1950s. It was built by Safe Flight, the company that still does things like that, and it showed angle of attack on an instrument. It had a tick mark and when the dial was on that, the angle of attack was presumably right at the value for CLmax (maximum lift). If the dial was to the right, the angle of attack was less, to the left it was more. Max performance climbs and short field approaches were flown with the needle on the tick mark.

S-Tec 55X autopilot

Increased use of autopilots is the FAA’s third suggestion for improving GA safety.

All airplanes do have a form of AOA instrumentation in the stall warning indicator which simply tells you that the AOA is nearing the stalling point. Actually, by regulation the stall warning is supposed to sound five knots above the stall even though the stall warning itself is based on angle of attack and not airspeed.

So, would angle of attack instrumentation help to reduce the number of stall/spin accidents? I don’t know but the fact that most of the certified airplanes in these accidents have stall warning systems suggests otherwise. It seems to me to be more of an area for education. Also, the criteria for the stall warning to sound might be revised upward and relate to angle of attack instead of airspeed.

Finally, the FAA suggests more autopilots for older airplanes. I don’t think there are many airplanes used for IFR that don’t have at least a basic autopilot, and this is as it should be. As for airplanes used for VFR flying, autopilots are nice to have but they don’t make much contribution to reducing the risk. Of the three areas, this one seems mostly beside the point.

So, what do you think of the FAA’s call for airbags, angle of attack instrumentation, and autopilots in an effort to improve the safety record?

Richard Collins
42 replies
  1. David Reinhart
    David Reinhart says:

    The problem with most of these initatives is that they ignore the fact that useful load on most light GA aircraft is marginal to begin with and adding all the safety “stuff” just makes the situation worse.

    The Skyhawks built since the production restart are excellent examples. They are definitely more crashworthy than 1980’s variants. They have high-G seats, better shoulder restraints and many are equipped with Amsafe airbags. They also have a much lower useful load than their couterparts. It’s not just the growning of America that makes these essentially two place plus baggage aircraft; the extra safety gear and fancier interiors have a lot to do with it.

    All this to improve safety in an aircraft that already had the lowest fatality rate following engine failure of any in the fleet and one of the lowest overall. Where is the sense in that?

    • Sage
      Sage says:

      Great incite, I have always wondered why when there are four adults in a four seat plane there is only room for ten minutes of fuel. I think a 200 lb per seat with a full fuel load should be a minimum goal of a manufacturer.

      • John
        John says:

        I don’t agree at all with Sage. It would be nice to have heavy haulers as the ‘standard’, but not everyone needs, wants, or cares to accept the expense of a Cessna 206 or whatever. Somewhere in this picture is something called “PIC responsibility”. If the FAA nanny must mandate every airplane fly with any conceivable load… we can ground every transport category aircraft ever built or that ever will be built. Perhaps, as a novel approach, we might expect pilots to do a W&B as part of every pre-flight. Requiring a “200lb per seat [design load] with full fuel load” represents very shallow thinking.

  2. John
    John says:

    I think the FAA’s call is ridiculous, arrogant, and further evidence that our government needs to be severely reduced.

  3. Steve Phoenix
    Steve Phoenix says:

    I’m pretty much in the camp that believes more gizmos are not the answer. If people were content to fly a slow airplane that looked like an AG plane, then perhaps some improvement could take place in the CFIT/low altitude loss of control scenarios. Beyond that, it seems that taking amateur pilots out of the decision loop would be the most probable area of improvement. Maybe that’s where the UAV thing is going. Doesn’t seem like it would be much fun, but maybe it will be to the next generation.

  4. Tom Yarsley
    Tom Yarsley says:

    As usual, Dick’s analysis is spot-on.

    Regarding AOA, sensing is easy; presentation of the sensed information in a useful manner has been elusive. My preferred presentation is to integrate AOA information with airspeed information. In a “glass” display, simply ( ! ) slave the display of the positions of the bottom of the green and white arcs to coincide with the indicated airspeeds at which the stall will occur. The relative distance from the displayed actual value of IAS (the “needle”) and the instrument-face value of IAS at the stall displays the available AOA margin. And the rate-of-closure of the difference provides a cue for the urgency of the current changing value of AOA. This is information that any modern autopilot uses to take preventive action in pitch – where prophylactic action is required based not so much upon the actual value of airspeed or AOA at any instant, but upon the direction and rate-of-change of the value. When that rate is large, there’s insufficient time to wait around until the value of airspeed or AOA exceeds some arbitrary “trip-point value” – whether it’s at the high end or the low end of the airspeed/AOA envelope.

    But good autopilots don’t stall airplanes – clueless pilots do. Unless the Agency intends to mandate the installation of an essentially autonomous autopilot that literally will take control of the airplane away from a clueless pilot, their calls for more-widespread installations of autopilots are unlikely to affect the incidence of unintended stalls at all.

    • Gabriel S.
      Gabriel S. says:

      and crashing, that should be illegal as well, just like committing suicide is a crime!

  5. G.
    G. says:

    As a student pilot, I can say that more “gizmos” would not necessarily be helpful. However, there were no counter arguments in this piece; If you are to criticize an effort to improve safety and save lives (something that literally everyone should be backing), there should have been some counter-points or other suggestions. After all, these are just initiatives that the FAA is putting out, not mandated law.

    Personally, I believe education is the solution. We need better flight schools, more responsible instructors, and a better network for students to get in contact with help when they need it. The FAA should be putting more resources towards this as I believe that there is still much work to reduce GA accident rates.

    • John
      John says:

      And when the FAA puts more resources towards “improving safety” what resources should the FAA reduce to fund their efforts? Yes, ‘better flight schools, more responsible instructors, and a better network for students to get in contact with help when they need it’ would all be nice, but I don’t believe it should be the government’s reponsibility to make these things happen. I’m in favor of more freedom and more personal responsibiity; that’s what flying means to me anyway.

      • G.
        G. says:

        Hi John,

        The fact is, the FAA is the largest body currently watching over GA activities, and I think it is important for this to be maintained. Look at countries without a large body governing aviation, such as areas of Africa and the Middle East. The quality of maintenance, training and services are far from acceptable, and the accident rate shows. I’m not for huge government intrusion into what the average GA pilot does as a hobby or part time, but there still has to be a body in place to find solutions to problems that smaller organizations would be unable to fund themselves. Perhaps a major overhaul is in order, but we shouldn’t completely disregard the FAA.

  6. David
    David says:

    I’m a new instructor and coincidentally most of my first lessons so far have been teaching students slow flight and stall recovery.

    I asked a few to do a basic power off recovery and most of them had no idea what to do. All you need to do is pitch the nose down, generally 1/3 from the horizon works well, reduce AOA to break the stall and let the speed come back up before levelling off. I feel teaching this stall recovery technique first better cements the idea that the stall is caused by exceeding critical angle of attack, and that reducing the angle of attack is how we recover. Power is mainly to help minimize loss of altitude in recovery. So perhaps something as simple as teaching power off recoveries first could help.

    I’m glad I read this article as it reminded me I do have to base stall lessons entirely around Angle of Attack, and keep the students focused on thinking about where it is at all times. I also think every pilot should read the book “Stick and Rudder.”

    I’m not sure angle of attack indicators would help too much, by the time they are warning us we are likely already in trouble – especially in the steep turn to final stall/spin accidents. Like everything else in flying we have to think ahead of the airplane to anticipate corrections, not correct after the airplane does something we don’t want it to.

    • Steve Phoenix
      Steve Phoenix says:

      David: A problem with teaching stalls in the airplane is that we have to do it at a safe altitude. Most stall/spin accidents do not occur with the entry at 2 or 3000 feet. A low altitude entry at a few hundred feet incites a lot different reaction from the suprised pilot. This is where integrating a good visual simulator into the training program might be of significant benefit. The Red Bird people might just be on to something here.

      • David
        David says:

        That’s why it’s very important to always relate where we would actually typically see a stall if we ever got into one in normal flight, and why prompt recovery is so important. The simulator could be a good supplement for that, doing so in a safe environment though it would not replace training in the real aircraft.

  7. AfricanEagle
    AfricanEagle says:

    A great article. Technology can help, but it can’t substitute the basic knowledge of how to fly and aircraft correctly.

  8. John
    John says:

    I’ve talked w/ several FAA inspectors and the FAA historian office about helmets. So far I’m unable to locate many studies that discuss their efficacy. You mentioned that in the 70’s or thereabouts the FAA presented lots of information about helmets as a means of preventing face plants… Where is it? Do you have any copies of those briefings knocking around someplace? Your statement “…that at the same time [as shoulder harness benefits were demonstrated by the FAA] the potential benefits of crash helmets were also demonstrated…” is really interesting. It’s not surprising that “Nobody bought into this though”. I fly SAR and it’s amazing to me that there’s zero interest, nor any support from SAR organizations for aircrews to purchase, own, or even use helmets while flying at 1000 feet AGL (or less) in mountainous terrain.

    • Dick Collins
      Dick Collins says:

      A Dr. Reals in Wichita did the work I knew about on this, back in the 1960s. I don’t remember a published work other than an article in FLYING that I had one of our staffers write. It would be hard to find,

  9. Arpee
    Arpee says:

    The Air France tragedy shows that it isn’t more cockpit information that’s needed, it’s a set of ingrained reactions to given parameters. If they make an aircraft that automatically shoves the stick and throttle(s) forward when the stall warning goes off then we’ll have to teach students to yank it back before hitting the terrain.

    • Tom Yarsley
      Tom Yarsley says:

      Autonomous aircraft are the (near) future. If we really want to improve safety, we have to remove the number-one cause of accidents from the control loop – the human pilot.

      • David S. Reinhart
        David S. Reinhart says:

        Bull. It was the automation on 447 that said “I give up” and dumped it back in the pilots collective laps. Would you want to be in the back when something like that happens again with no pilot on board?

        Yes, the crew blew it, too, but honestly any freshly minted Instrument pilot knows the importance of instrument cross-check and would have figured out what was wrong. Don’t know what’s going on? Do what Bob Buck preached for years: Level attitude, power set for Va, take a breath and figure it out.

        We get tested on instrument interpretation during both the knowledge and practical tests, we’re drilled from our first hours as a student pilot, let along IFR training, to *not* trust the instruments and cross-check them against each other and (VFR) what we see out the window.

        I’ve never liked Airbus products for this reason and never fly in them unless there is absolutely no alternative, even if it means paying more for my ticket. Fly with no pilot? Never.

        • Tom Yarsley
          Tom Yarsley says:

          Not bull. The problem with the automation on 447 is that it was designed to include humans in its control loops. An autonomous system would not include that provision – it would have no ability to cede control to anyone. That’s an entirely different proposition.

      • David
        David says:

        I read an article from an old magazine from 1967 declaring automated pilotless airliners were 3 years away. Hasn’t happened yet, never will. Computers and their code are made by people and are subject to human error as well. I trust myself or another pilot with decision making abilities and a desire to survive over a computer that only decides between a 1 or 0 based on how it was coded irregardless of the situation.

        • Tom Yarsley
          Tom Yarsley says:

          We already fly in certificated aircraft that have a computer as the ONLY means of moving the vehicle’s control surfaces. Any assertion that such aircraft are “human-controlled” is delusional.

          • David Reinhart
            David Reinhart says:

            Maybe you do, I don’t and I don’t think Airbus should ever have been certified with the software it has.

            Even with the 787 Boeing’s philosophy is different. The pilot’s aren’t as isolated from the actions of the aircraft and that makes a big difference, and a positive one, to me.

            If Sully had been flying a Boeing he may have been able to return to LGA. Why? Because the engine control logic on the Airbus will roll the engines back to zero in the kind of event they experience *and won’t let the pilot power back up*! In a Boeing he may have been able to nurse enough thrust out of the engine for a return. Maybe not, and the airplane may still have ended up in the Hudson, but he would have had another arrow in his quiver. And it would have been the person with a real and personal interest making the decisions, not some software engineer sipping wine with his dinner in Toulouse. It’s like with ATC & pilots: When the pilot screws up, he dies. When ATC screws up, the pilot dies.

          • John Townsley
            John Townsley says:

            Several accidents and near accidents demonstrate that it isn’t the “every day” anamolies that require extremely creative and well trained humans. It’s the unusual events… like the DC10 that suffered an impossible loss of all hydrolics on approach to Heathrow in the UK, the B747 that ran out of fuel and became the famous Gimli Glider, the Airbus involved in AF 447, etc. etc. etc. I tend to believe we’ll see fully automated cockpits with a control link to some ground or satellite station where problem solvers might ‘save the day’ should an anamolie beyond the aircraft’s software occur. Whether it’s next year or in 15 years… it’s coming. But, we’ll still see crashes and there will still be fatalities. we can’t foresee every bad thing, and we must remember that 20% of accidents have a “maintenance root cause…” Of the Maintenance caused accidents, some proportion – maybe as many as half – are actually caused by an error of ommission or and error of commission by a mechanic…

  10. David Dickins
    David Dickins says:

    The issue of general aviation safety is serious, and one that I think about every week when I leave my non-flying wife at home to get my flying fix. Relative risk assessments that compare fatalities per flight hour or per mile against airline or car travel (much worse than airlines but still far better than G.A.) really give me cause to pause and reflect on whether I am doing the right thing by continuing to fly. The rationale to justify such risky behavior is probably much like the one that all pilots use – it won’t happen to me because my adherence to proper procedures, training, currency, checklists etc. puts me in a different league from all those other pilots! Lately, a disturbing pattern has developed within the flying club that I belong to in San Diego (the largest in the country) that threatens the foundations of my personal risk denial. After four or five years with no accidents, the club has now had a slate of accidents in the past year that is continuing through 2013. What is most troubling is that the reasons are not apparent. There is no trend. Accidents are happening to low time pilots, instructors, VFR rated, IFR rated, young, old etc. Clearly something needs to be done but nobody seems to know exactly what to do. It looks like much more stringent flight review and check-out procedures are in the cards and we all hope that this works. I cannot see that any of the FAA fixes, on their own or as a group are going to measurably reduce the overall accident rate.

  11. Giancarlo Riolfo
    Giancarlo Riolfo says:

    Well, technology can help. But the focus must be on the man with the stick (or yoke) in his hand. There’s no hi-tech substitute to the pilot.
    About airbags: a plane is not a car and it’s impossible to design a crash safe cabin. Airbags are useless if you spin and crash, but in case of an emergency landing a better restraint system can make the difference. More than airbag equipped belts, I’m thinking about 4 points belts (lap belt plus shoulder harnesses). I’m used to this kind of restraint system and I don’t like 3 points belts.
    Anyway, if we want to improve safety, we have to look at the man.

    • Tom Yarsley
      Tom Yarsley says:

      Pilot error far and away is the leading cause of aircraft accidents. If we want to improve safety, we have to replace the man.

      • Edward Dolejsi
        Edward Dolejsi says:

        Tom, I suggest that you go and fly a simulator. You simply do not appreciate the facts that some of us fly for pure joy and the challenge of it. Besides, this topic is about GA safety involving human pilots.

        • Tom Yarsley
          Tom Yarsley says:

          In addition to instructing, I also fly for business and pleasure. And the topic is GA safety. You can’t address that topic without accepting that the human pilot is the weakest element of the safety regime. (And as the article pointed out, one of the FAA’s KPIs is more-widespread use of autopilot technology – leveraging machines to make human pilots safer.)

          I have no interest in telling anyone that they can’t hand-fly an airplane, if that’s what they want to do. But for many people, airborne transportation is just that – transportation. They want it to be safe, reliable, and fast. Autonomous vehicle technology will open up GA to widespread participation of non-pilot aviators – without shooting joy-of-flight-seeking hand-flyers out of the sky.

  12. Kennard Yamada
    Kennard Yamada says:

    The FAA is a prime example of big government idiocracy. If the FAA was serious about pilot and aviation safety they would be breaking their backs to find ways to reduce cost and increase pilot flight time. The safest pilots are frequent fliers but with costs skyrocketing, many a direct result of frustrating FAA oversight, it’s cheaper to eat at Ruth’s Chris than to taxi a plane around an airport. I personally believe that anyone in a position of decision making power within the FAA should be an active, current aviator with at lease a private certificate. Second, help aviation companies (airframes to avionics) find cost savings rather than wrap them in red tape (an STC should not take three years to get unless the product is garbage). Time in the air is a better safety measure than airbags, AOAs and auto pilots combined.

  13. A. H. Powers
    A. H. Powers says:

    I read Wolfgang Langwische’s (sp??) book Stick and Rudder before solo in 1955. I think his discussion of the AOA and stalling should be requiared reading for all pilots. That said, I have had a Huntington Angle of Attack indicator in my Robertson STOL Twin Comanche for about 40 years, and believe the system is well worth the $1000 I paid for it. (Those were much larger dollars in purchasing power than they are today, too ! The same system can now be bought for $450 in today’s dollars) I have the indicator mounted poking up through the glare shield when it is in my vision while on approach.
    I find that the simple straightforward movement of the needle does a good job of recalibrating the seat the pants feel of the airplane if I haven’t flown for a while.


    I use the Comanche as a Super Cub at times looking for cattle in hilly country and fly out of short strips.

  14. Cary Alburn
    Cary Alburn says:

    I have a 50 year old Cessna P172D. Among the many changes and mods I’ve had installed is 4 point BAS harnesses for the front seats and an Alpha Systems mechanical/analog AOA indicator.

    The harnesses speak for themselves–I don’t want my puss smashed into the various switches and dials on my panel, if I don’t successfully land after an engine failure. I’ve had one successful emergency landing when the airplane only had a belt, and I’m not interested in taking a chance with the next one, if it happens again.

    After a couple hundred hours flying with the AOA indicator, I’m convinced of its safety benefits as well as its overall usefulness. Although after 40 years and more than a couple thousand hours of SE flying, mostly in 172s and 182s with a smattering of other SEs, I’ve developed a pretty good seat of the pants feel, still the AOA is very helpful when the airplane is fully loaded, for slow speed maneuvering, for reduced speed approaches when lightly loaded, etc. Too many people can recite the mantra that a stall can occur at any airspeed and at any pitch angle without understanding what that really means–the AOA indicator brings that home.

    I think teaching AOA in more detail (which would be aided by an AOA), together with 4 point harnesses, rather than 3-pointers or airbags, would go a long way toward reducing the GA accident rate and consequent injuries.

    I doubt that autopilots would have any material effect on the GA safety record, since few of the NTSB reports that I’ve seen describe events that could have been handled better by an autopilot.


  15. Craig
    Craig says:

    The problem isn’t gadgets in the aircraft, rather the “skills” of the nut holding the yolk. ‘Back in the day’ on USN flight grade sheets there were three items at the top for every hop; Airmanship, Emergency Procedures, and Headwork. In my experience it became abundantly clear that the greatest of these is Headwork (judgement). I also experienced a huge decline in the USN mishap rate in the time frame 1973-1995. The most significant driver of that improvement was emphasis on pilot learning from mishaps and near-misses, essentially teaching good Headwork. This isn’t something you accomplish by mandate or rules. Rather, the pilot community must be sold on the implied professionalism, and provided multiple delivery methods for the information. The quarterly AOPA/FAA seminars are a start, but attendance seems sparse for our area. Ongoing hangar flying discussions, online communities, and any other way to get pilots “talking” to pilots on “what if” in different conditions, are the underlying method for improvement.

  16. Rick A
    Rick A says:

    Airbags in airplanes???? Autopilots in VFR machines mandatory??????

    About the only thing that makes sense in this list to me is an AOA indicator.

    That said, ADM is the only thing that will prevent accidents, even when you have an equipment failure like when my engine failed after it ate a valve.

  17. Gabriel S.
    Gabriel S. says:

    All the aircraft I fly have the AMSAFE airbag shoulder harnesses, but that’s only because once I got my private I have only flown newer aircraft (mostly Cirri – if that’s the appropriate plural of Cirrus).

    I have not flown those with the Cirrus Perspective that has the blue level flight button, but as theoretically brilliant as that button/concept is, it can’t save a guy that puts himself into a stall, by then it’s too late. The autopilot, however, can only do what it’s programmed to do, and it can fail even at that sometimes. Nevertheless, working right with proper education, it is the single biggest pilot workload reliever there is, and in conjunction with GPS coupling, therefore, when used correctly is very possibly the best safety automation development in the history of flying (IMO).

    Also in my opinion, the AOA indicator is a too-long absent feature in modern piston GA aircraft. It’s not that it will always save someone – to me the benefit is seeing the ever-increasing threshold danger of crossing the line, before it’s too late, and having that in one’s visual field constantly. By the time a stall horn goes of, in the low altitude stalls that are so often fatal, it’s usually too late to avoid the imminent stall that the horn warns about. In addition, just having an AOA indicator forces pilots to hopefully have a somewhat better understanding of AOA and stalls vs. ‘Vs speeds’, etc. That is logical and intelligent, and is likely a part of why ICON has it integrated into their panel for the A5 (that and the fact that the CEO is a former F-16 pilot as I recall, so he’s used to having one).

    Technology very probably can neither completely replace the human element nor assure that the human element can be saved from itself. It does have a benefit, but nothing has the ROI of education/teaching/learning, not in this game anyway. I have said it before here and will continue to say it – I don’t believe in the private pilot certificate. IMO, everyone should have to be IFR certificated, and proficiency check requirements should be more frequent, at least prior to logging 500 hours (350 or more of which should be as PIC). More scenario-based training in syllabi would be beneficial, too. These won’t eliminate accidents, but it will help reduce the accident rates of the biggest killers, like VFR into IMC. Those are something the FAA does have a say in.

  18. Douglas M.
    Douglas M. says:


    I have no issue with FAA or other countries’ aviation regulators continuously striving to reduce accidents, injuries and fatalities by recommending additional avionics, equipment or instruments. They are just doing their jobs, advocating for the safety of the flying public.

    The obvious advantage of having an autopilot in any light aircraft, old or new, even those used strictly for VFR, is that it gives VFR only pilots a tool to extract their collective arses from unscheduled encounters with IMC. How often have we heard and read about LOC accidents caused by VFR pilots becoming disoriented in IMC in just a minute or two, despite being taught to fly on instruments during their private courses? Even a one-axis autopilot provides the pilot with the tools to avoic loss of control, either by using the wing leveler or heading hold, to maintain control of the aircraft and execute an 180 degree turn from present heading while maintaining altitude manually. Sort of a get out of jail free card, way better than the stall/spin/crash/burn/die scenario which occurs with most LOC accidents.

    As for shoulder restraints with air bags, if they can be dmonstrated to reduce the severity of injuries and/or reduce fatalities, why not do it? What do you have to lose, other than a one-time payment for the air bags and a few less pounds of useful load?

    As for angle of attack gauges,it’s another good tool for pilots to more safely fly their aircraft and avoid a LOC scenario, especially in that “doctor turn” scenario while turning final. Should pilots already know their stalling angle of attack and be correcting it long before such a departure from controlled flight occurs? Sure, but some pilots manage to screw it up every year despite their initial and recurrency training.If it AOA can be demonstrated to save lives, why wouldn’t pilots want it on their instrument panel?

    While these recommendations add more cost to an already expensive hobby, what is the alternative? Put your head in the sand as new ways to improve safety are developed? As Collins said, poeple used to hit the panel with their face before shoulder restraints became mandatory. How many hundreds or thousands of pilots and passengers have avoided injuries and disfigurements because of that change? Answer? Plenty.

    Of course, if flying becomes too expensive for you, there’s always boats, RVs, golf etc, plenty of ways to throw your money down a rat hole without ever leaving the ground.

    Safety first.

  19. Steve
    Steve says:

    So, what do you think of the FAA’s call for airbags, angle of attack instrumentation, and autopilots in an effort to improve the safety record?

    First, while all three items are useful, only airbags will provide any significant decrease in risk for those who’re prone to accidents in the first place. For those who’re not prone to getting into accidents (most GA pilots), it provides very little reduction in overall flight risk.

    Second, neither angle of attack instrumentation nor autopilots will significantly help those who’re prone to accidents, for one simple reason: They already have in their possession all the instrumentation required to avoid accidents in the first place. The problem is they don’t use that instrumentation well, if at all.

    Third, old pilots have a few key habits which allowed them to become old pilots. First, they’re risk-averse. That doesn’t mean they don’t engage in risky activities, as flying itself is risky. It means they take appropriate steps to minimize the risk. They use IMSAFE and other acronyms to keep themselves from getting into an airplane when it would be risky for them to do so. They are thoroughly familiar with both their aircraft and the aviation environment, and are proficient in both. This includes all aspects of aviation, from pre-flight to weather analysis to in-flight procedures, etc.

    Accident-prone pilots, on the other hand, lack in one or more of these key areas.

    Thus, my recommendation is to focus on capturing the words of wisdom from pilots who’ve flown in a variety of aircraft, under a variety of conditions, without getting into accidents. What are they doing right? Some of it may be luck, but once you’ve amassed a couple thousand hours, it’s NOT luck. It’s discipline, skill, and attitude. The FAA should write a book entitled “How to Become an Old (not bold) Pilot.”

    On second thought, I don’t think the FAA is up to it, so I’ll be writing that one, and this post is my public announcement of the title (copyright notice).

  20. tom
    tom says:

    Aviation Consumer recently did an article addressing improved crash worthiness. Their opinion included air bags & parachutes, but it also dealt with mundane stuff, like padded yokes, rocker vs toggle switches, three and four-point harnesses and reducing the number of potential missiles in the plane after a sudden stop. One contributor noted how the seat organizer emptied it’s contents on the crew, then bonked them on the head as the plane inverted.

    The Cessna so-called ‘seat rail ad’ has put many kid thru college as mechanics fix the wrong problem. The focus is on the rails, but my experience with five C-182s was flat faced seat rollers that appeared to be latched, but weren’t really. $50 worth of rollers ended the insanity, and the revised AD addressed it with good drawings.

    I have mixed emotions about the new and improved Cessna secondary seat stop. It uses an inertial reel seat belt bolted between floor and seat, released by a cable attached to the seat handle. When installed properly per the factory paperwork it reliably fails to release with weight in the seat, trapping the crew member in a forward position. Being trapped in burning wreckage is my #2 worst nightmare, so we ‘field adjusted’ them to ensure they release both with and without weight in the seat. Despite their mandatoryness, some crew just disconnect them.

    The NTSB has a study that describes the evolution of automobile restraints. First came nothing and ‘diving for the deck’ a mythical presence of mind to dive for the floor a millisecond before impact. Then came lap belts, which often cause more damage than nothing due to the jack-knife effect as they were skewered on the steering column. Then we went backward for a while as NTSB allowed air bags in lieu of lap belts. The following year they backtracked and began the campaign to install bags and lap belts, then later 3-point harnesses. Today, everyone has multiple bags and children get strapped down like a Christmas turkey in the back seat. I often wonder at the stats on that: How many more parents drive off the road and test the restraints while consoling a distant child.

    Stats improved a lot for head-on collisions, not so much for side impacts. People still twist out of three-points, so a four or five point harness was developed but rarely adopted for cars.

    Several years ago Amsafe offered a discount to install airbag/belts in my Cardinal. I did the research and declined, partly because I would have to give up my B.A.S. inertial reel 4-point harness for their 3-point with bag and bone-crushing replacement cost. At the time, stats showed 4-point better than airbags, and I already had that up front.

    Going from memory, FAA or NTSB did a study comparing survival in a mythical ‘non-survivable’ aircraft accident, then compared that model to real wrecks equipped with airbags. The conclusion was: One additional person may have survived out of about a hundred wrecks using the AMSAFE system. Wrecks with four or more point harnesses had more survivors. I don’t recall the number.

    The problem is the vertical and side-load component. Airbags only work for straight-ahead impacts. Side-loading erased their benefit and in some cases may have contributed to additional injury when a bag forced a person’s head against a door or pillar. You have to add more bags for side loads, rear loads, inversions etc.

    So, are air bags worthwhile in a plane? Maybe. More study is needed!

    I’ll use this space to address the lip-service we pay to actually crashing an aircraft. Sparky Imeson’s “Mountain flying Bible” addresses it quite nicely. If you substitute ‘extreme condition’ for ‘Mountain’ you’ll learn a lot. The price and availability has gone up since he died, but there is an alternative free for the download by Googling ‘Mountain Fury’. Sparky wrote it for CAP, paid by the taxpayers. It does not address off-airport landings, but there is still a wealth of info there, and the price is right.

    A few gems: Most Cessnas fly hands-off, power off pretty close to the best glide speed just by trimming full nose up. It’s worth testing. Second: A little power is better than none. If you can get some it opens up options, so don’t give up, event if the engine sounds like a rock crusher. Try to land uphill. You cannot pick a spot if the ground is dropping away. Fly it until it stops moving. Aim for lots of little impacts with the wings, gear, tail etc, not one big one. Sacrifice he plane but save the cockpit. Different planes break-up in different ways. Go to a salvage yard and look at what your ride does: Strut-wing Cessnas that ground loop bend the wing at the fuselage so the door cannot open. You have to go out the other door. What does a wet-wing do on impact? Can you arrive high and hot and slip it to a spot landing? Better if you can. Do not bother with flaps. Too slow and most require battery power. Better the master and fuel are off the last few hundred feet of descent.

    Appendix-11 in Mountain Fury is Sparky’s ‘ten commandments of mountain flying.’ Appendix 12 is ‘dos and don’t of mountain flying.’ I have conducted incredibly productive classes where we simply discuss and tell war stories about them. The rest of the Mountain Fury book is either geek-squad stuff or supports the two appendices.

  21. Ralph
    Ralph says:

    FAA does it again. Total disconnect from reality. Auto pilots and AOA for older airplanes instead of better and more frequent training for ALL pilots.

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