Plane crash
4 min read

Pilots are an interesting sub-species of human. Although every pilot has his own unique traits, there are certainly some strong stereotypes that apply to almost all aviators. Unfortunately some of these characteristics are diametrically opposed to safety.

When we examine it, many of the attributes that lead people to flying also cause us problems once we get our licenses. Things like competitiveness, over-confidence, impatience, goal-orientation, and self-reliance all show up, sometimes with disastrous results.

Plane crash

We stink at safety because we are human.

Why is this a problem? It doesn’t take a PhD to see that the vast majority of accidents are pilot-induced and it has been this way for a long time.

Now that we humans have been identified as the weak link in the chain, the industry went to work and has since coined the term “Human Factors.”

Human Factors has been batted around the FAA since the late 1970s (FAA order 1000.31 & 9550.8). Make no mistake, it is a complex subject, but I offer my simple definition:

Human Factors is the science of creating systems that are human-error resistant and/or tolerant. Systems include aircraft hardware, software, checklists, procedures, and policies. Human Factors design accounts for, and sometimes even anticipates, human-error.

The reality is there are so many tentacles to Human Factors that it would take volumes to explain it thoroughly.

So with over three decades of industry awareness and research, what’s the story with all these pilot-induced accidents?

The bad news is Human Factors, and many of its spin-off benefits, have just not trickled down to most GA cockpits. Why?

For starters, the research and the solutions are focused on commercial flight decks; that makes sense: large craters are a bigger problem than smaller ones. But now that the big boys have their act together, the regulators are turning their attention to us. They are wondering why general aviation airplanes are drilling holes in the ground at a rate of over one a day. Good question!

The predominate answer is the same–Human Factors. As a beneficiary of Human Factors methodologies in my day job, I am certainly an evangelist for this approach; however, implementation in the GA community has remained elusive. Understandably so, doing risk assessments, chanting safety mnemonics, and doing two-crew challenge-and-response checklists in your Cub isn’t what most of us signed up for.

Terms like Situational Awareness, Plan Continuation Bias, Threat and Error Management and Crew Resource Management are not in the vocabulary for most private flyers and that’s ok. Most of it is just old fashioned common sense anyway. The problem is we don’t consistently apply common sense and, when we don’t, the system doesn’t trap it.

What is the solution? If I knew, I would bottle it up, sell it and retire to a nice grass strip with a fleet of airplanes.

I will offer a couple of thoughts:

safety seminar

Does your airport have a culture of safety?

We all know that most of the folks who are disassembling their machines across this great land aren’t getting the message that articles like this intend to convey. So maybe we can apply a little peer influence. I didn’t say harassment or snitching, rather a more subtle approach, like bringing these folks into safety conversations, leaving an article or two laying around for them to find, or just plain-old leading by example. If it’s really bad I leave it to you to handle the overtly careless or reckless among us.

What if we change the culture to one that is more safety oriented? Maybe organize a safety standdown at your local airport or put on a safety seminar–talk it up–create some buzz! If everyone is mindful of safety it’s hard not to get sucked in, at least a little. Even a small influence might make the difference between shiny-side-up and worm dirt. If all of us did something small like this, it will move the needle incrementally.

We’d love to see your thoughts and ideas in the comments below.

If we don’t make some improvement to general aviation safety, the regulators, who are not motivated by protecting your personal freedom to fly, will be compelled to “help” reduce the rates–not something anyone wants.

So to answer the question: “Why do we stink at being safe?” It’s because we are human.

Now you know why the UAVs are on their way, but that’s a topic for another article.

Brent Owens is a professional pilot and creator of


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17 replies
  1. Bradley Taber
    Bradley Taber says:

    Leading by example is best way to go about I am working towards becoming a fresh new young flight instructor. My students will be taught safety as being their up most concern during any phase of flight. People need role models and being a good role model will make a major difference! I became a pilot because, I am procedure oriented person that emphasizes safety and efficiency. So if you’re a CFI or even a private pilot you’re still a role model for anyone at your local airport. So I like I always say. Have fun and fly safe! :)

    • Brent
      Brent says:

      That’s the right approach. The more folks that “walk-the-walk”, the better we’ll be collectively.

  2. Robert Morris
    Robert Morris says:

    I have had a wonderful career in aviation as a Pilot hobbyist and a career A&P mechanic I have worked on everything from single engine to Jumbo 747-400 and held Taxi and airworthiness release on the later. I knew in my profession one wrong turn of a screw could lead to the men/women flying as well as the passengers on board could be fatal. Most of the pilots I worked with diligently shared in this awesome responsibility, Due to health and safety concerns my own flying is now restricted to MS flight sim on my desktop. I still however very much keep abreast of my passion and love of all things aviation which brings to light the old saying “They’re old pilots, ther’re bold pilots. but. there are no old,bold pilots. Be safe and keep the shiny side up always.

  3. Robert Morris
    Robert Morris says:

    Unless of course you are a professional stunt pilot/test pilot then I say “Godspeed” and remember the word professional.

    • Brent
      Brent says:

      Sounds like you had a great career! Thank you for keeping those big birds flying!

      Good advice too. Many of those saying are written in blood, they are far from cliches.

  4. Meredith
    Meredith says:

    Nobody’s perfect, but I could recommend some military techniques to help mitigate human factors which might be easily adapted to GA flying. One, a detailed brief before a flight covering the plan, risk factors and contingencies goes a long way towards improving situational awareness. Two, a detailed debrief covering how the flight went and your opinions on what happened. It’s important to discuss with your flying partner what went well and what made you uncomfortable; plus what you could both do better next time (check egos at the hangar door). While many pilots fly solo on a regular basis, you can still use these techniques by creating a plan and mission checklist for each flight (brief) and writing in a flying journal after each flight (debrief).

  5. David Megginson
    David Megginson says:

    I agree with promoting safety, but we are working against the grain. People in general suck at being safe – look at obesity, alcohol abuse, smoking, gun accidents, distracted drivers, etc. Recreational pilots are acting as private citizens, so it’s no surprise that we act the same way we do in the rest of or lives. When people act in a position of responsibility to strangers – think bus driver, surgeon, or airline pilot – they’ll usually try harder, but the second they step out of that role, they go back to the way they were (think of the surgeon out for a smoke break between operations).

    • Brent
      Brent says:

      That is so true. That might have a lot to do with why there are plenty of high time pro pilots that have accidents “off duty.” Letting your guard down in an airplane is not good medicine.

      Since you brought up the medical profession, I have been approached by a local surgeon on training techniques, specifically simulation. According to him, the medical field is about two decades behind in that regard.


  6. Christopher Neuok
    Christopher Neuok says:

    I am a ground instructor and worked for a flight school for five years. The part of the article that is about being a good example is right on the ball. If we do not be safe, other people will see that, and learn from it; that it is ok to be unsafe. Not only the students who don’t know know how to fly, but even our own peers can be negitively affected. Other instructors.

  7. Brent
    Brent says:

    Great to hear from you guys who are on the front lines teaching this stuff. I obviously couldn’t agree with you more.

  8. Steve Phoenix
    Steve Phoenix says:

    Sorry, but this sounds like more of same. We need a really new approach; the old stuff just doesn’t work no matter how much we flog it.

    I propose that we abolish the NTSB and take the $100+million that they spend every year on salaries, nice hotels and dinners and spread it amongst the surviving pilots every year. That way there would be incentive to avoid crashing so you could collect your, call it “survival bonus”. This would have three positive effects I can think of:
    1) The NTSB would suddenly become less interested in the GA accident rate.
    2) More people would want to become pilots.
    3) The accident rate would probably go way down.

  9. Ron Amundson
    Ron Amundson says:

    This is a tough nut to crack.

    The safety by example thing has been going on since I started flying 30 years ago and just as it didn’t work then, it doesn’t work now. Perhaps even less now, being so much can prep work is done invisibly, or far from the airport (cell phones, ipads, ect). As a young pilot, we had a file of flight plans already to go for on demand service. To new students, the efficiency of such likely looked like we skipped preflight planning… ie, grab a file folder, call FSS from the office, file and go. To an outside observer, it would looked like no flight planning, no weight and balance, just a revolving door of pilots grabbing airplanes, but such was far from the case.

    The pre/post flight briefings or system safety checklists (PAVE, 5p’s, etc) sound good at FIRCs, but end up being mostly used by those least likely to get in trouble. The busy exec or physician who doesn’t fly enough is also least likely to use these types of aids no matter how much we try to preach on them. Rather, what seems to happen, is these folks go on for years without trouble, and one day, they either end up making a smoking hole in the ground, or scare themselves so much they sell their airplane and never fly again.

    I think there is something a lot deeper than current and past band-aid approaches to safety can suggest… it is a human nature thing for sure, but I’m not sure how to quantify it. Consider the Pinnacle 3701 crash, especially the captain’s background. What happened there is what I see in genav all too often. All the ducks are in a row, and accidents still happen.

    • Brent
      Brent says:

      I couldn’t agree with you more. It’s complicated and there doesn’t seem to be any single fix that will change things. It is going to take more of a cultural shift, both during and post training and even then, as long as the human is in the loop…


  10. SkyMachines
    SkyMachines says:

    We stink because we are old and don’t know how to compensate for it.

    We stink because we do inadequate preflight preparation (i.e., get “surpised” during the flight). There is very little excuse for being surprised by weather or airport conditions…the information was almost always available.

    We stink because we don’t practice risk management. We don’t calculate the risks before we fly.

    I could go on and on…

  11. Dave Hill
    Dave Hill says:

    Have you ever heard of the “Theory of Risk Homeostasis”? Basically it is the idea that the amount of risk remains constant in human beings. It is really a kick in the head to safety training and safety programs. In a nutshell it shows that the more a person applies safety procedures and safety training the more likely a person will take a greater risk. For example if you needed to change a light bulb in the kitchen but only had a rickety chair to stand on you would probably not risk standing on the chair to change the bulb. However, if you have a solid “safety ladder” the more likely you will climb higher than necessary to change the bulb because of a false sense of feeling safer. Yet a fall from a ladder just a few feet high can result in death. And because you have a “safe ladder” you will be less hesitant about changing out your bad bulbs and will most likely pay less attention to the task. A study of cab drivers who had “new safety brakes” on their cabs tended to drive faster and the cab drivers with the “safer” brakes were in just as many accidents as the cab drivers without the safety brakes. It is a simple fact that the safer we make aircraft and the airspace system the more risks pilots will take and the amount of risk will remain unchanged.

  12. RC Thompson
    RC Thompson says:

    When I was active teaching I turned away two students after a couple of lessons using some excuse (like my surgical schedule, etc). Both were taken up by another CFI. The first one I learned later soloed after some 40 hours (wouldn’t do what instructor asked him to do, so they came back another day to try it again in the students new aircraft ), passed his private at about 160 hours, and several months later the plane was up for sale. Wonder why?
    My reason was my determination of unrespectful attitude to safety issues, which was fundamental to my teaching approach. Too much confidence, or don’t need to learn that, just let me fly it how I want. I simply don’t understand that way of being. Maybe some folks just should not fly???

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