11 min read

After 22 years at the helm of the AOPA Air Safety Institute, well-known safety advocate Bruce Landsberg is retiring. His replacement, George Perry, comes to the job with a diverse aviation background, including 20 years as a US Navy fighter pilot. He’s no stranger to general aviation though, from learning to fly as a teenager to owning a Mooney. We spoke to Perry about his approach to safety and his hopes for general aviation’s future.

George Perry AOPA

George Perry is the new leader of AOPA’s Air Safety Institute.

Many pilots have landing on an aircraft carrier on their bucket lists. You’ve done that already so what aviation adventure is on your bucket list?

Carrier Landings are a double edged sword. Landing on a carrier in the daytime during good weather is just AWESOME! There’s no greater thrill and nothing else even comes close. It is absolutely the most exhilarating thing you can do in an airplane. At night, it’s a whole other story. Each and every night carrier landing is scary even in the best of conditions. When the carrier deck is moving or the weather turns bad, it can be downright terrifying. After commanding a Superhornet squadron, I decided the time was right to leave the high octane world of carrier aviation, but my love for flying will always remain.

There are several adventures on my bucket list. First and foremost is getting my tailwheel endorsement, and flying in and out of some back country grass strips. I’d also like to start flying seaplanes again since it’s been 20+ years since I’ve done that. The part I love the most about GA flying is the freedom. Adventures are more fun when shared and GA flying allows me to take friends and family along. Something I couldn’t do when I was flying Navy fighters.

What lessons did you learn as a Naval Aviator that translate to flying a Mooney?

Actually I learned to fly in a Cessna 152 as a teenager. So my flying began many years before I entered the Navy. The lessons I learned flying GA aircraft helped me immensely during my initial flight training in the Navy. Many of my Navy peers started military flight training having never flown before. So my experience learning in the T-34C was comparatively easy.

After 20+ years of flying in the Navy and GA in my off time, there are many things that do translate well from military to GA flying. As a Mooney owner the first thing I would recommend to any GA pilot is continual education. The military continually trains in order to stay sharp. For GA pilots the internet provides an easy conduit to a host of online learning resources, so there’s no reason not to stay sharp. In fact the Air Safety Institute has over 300 learning modules online that are completely free. Just like in the military, I believe a good pilot should never stop learning.

Next is having the proper safety mindset and making decisions that always err to the side of safety. In the Navy we called it Operational Risk Management or ORM. Aviation is full of buzzwords and acronyms and ORM is one that pilots should take to heart. The principles of ORM guide pilots and help them make sound go/no-go or go-back decisions. ORM teaches us to ignore external pressures and only focuses on information that pertains to flight safety. This can be hard for a GA pilot with a business need or a family to get back to. So ORM helps pilots make the right choice despite those external pressures.

Last is proficiency. Flying is a perishable skill, much like a foreign language. If you use it often, you become proficient. If you don’t, then you’ll need some instruction to get back on step. I make a point to fly as often as I can. If life intervenes and my proficiency slips, I adjust my personal limits and mission parameters accordingly so that my proficiency levels match the flight conditions.

Some pilots think general aviation safety has plateaued, and there’s not much we can do to improve our accident record. Do you agree?

I believe that GA is as safe as the pilot who walks to the airplane. So there will always be room for improvement. I also believe, in general, there are three types of pilots in GA. The first group are the ones I don’t worry too much about. These pilots take training, proficiency, and continual education seriously. They fly regularly and make recurrent training, and staying sharp on the latest aviation innovations, a very high priority. As such this group enjoys an incredibly good safety record.

The second group are typical pilots you’d expect to meet at every airport across America. They are conscientious and work hard to stay proficient, but sometimes life gets in the way and time doesn’t allow for all the training and education they’d like to stay sharp. I think there are areas where the Air Safety Institute can help. This group wants to learn and has the desire; we just have to make learning fun so they’ll be motivated to take additional safety education and flight training.

Then there are a very small number of “outliers” who don’t set aside time to train, sometimes bend the rules, make bad decisions, and occasionally engage in high-risk behavior. As a community, we’ve got to figure out intervention strategies to prevent these high-risk pilots from becoming statistics. Mothers Against Drunk Drivers did this quite successfully in the 80s and 90s. We’ve got to figure out how to do this today for general aviation. So yes, I think there’s lots of room for improvement in GA safety.

New technology or basic flying skills – which is more important for safe flying?

The simple answer is both have merit, but more importantly, a pilot should be current and proficient in whatever kind of airplane they fly. Newer technically advanced cockpits with lots of glass and sophisticated autopilots offer some advantages, but they also come with their own set of challenges for proficiency. So the way I answer this question is that a pilot should work hard to maintain stick, rudder and systems skills. Looking at it that way might be a bit different than maybe some have thought about it in the past. A safe, proficient pilot should be good at both disciplines – basic flying skills and using the technology they fly with.

With that, I am a big fan of the safety innovations that technology has brought to the cockpit of general aviation aircraft. Specifically, a GPS paired with an iPad have been nothing short of a revolution. Having a moving map, airspace awareness, weather and traffic information available in the cockpit at relatively low costs is one of the biggest improvements we’ve seen in decades. So technology is great and something to embrace, but we can’t lean too heavily on it, because it can always fail. Basic stick and rudder skills should be solid back up when it does.

Can you teach an old pilot new tricks? By this we mean, can you affect change in how an experienced pilot flies? Are they open to change?

I’ll go back to my comments about three types of pilots. Some pilots (old ones included) are always going to be excited about learning. Learning something new is a lifelong process and they view it as part of the fun. Other pilots (no one reading this I’m sure) can be stubborn when it comes to learning new things. That’s human nature. I would say the way we teach old pilots new tricks is to make it fun, show them value and make it simple. Do that and you’ll find that even the most stubborn pilots will come around – eventually. So yes I think just about every pilot is open to change especially if they see benefit.

The other end of the spectrum is where GA’s future is. There are lots kids in high school and college who’d like to fly, are eager to learn, but just haven’t been given the opportunity to go up in a GA aircraft. I fly a young person whenever I can. As an “old” pilot, I find that taking someone flying for the first time opens new doors for them and rekindles my love for aviation as I get to pass on some of my knowledge and experience. Seeing a young person get excited about aviation is a real treat.

George Perry with F-18

Before coming to AOPA, Perry had along career as a Navy fighter pilot.

Can simulators really replicate what real-time flight is?

Yes, no, and it depends. Is that cryptic enough? Simulators are really good at some things and not-so-good others. So in that sense simulators will never fully substitute real flying. However simulators are superior in some regards, for instance: practicing complex emergencies, maintaining high levels of systems proficiency, and procedural based flight operations (instrument training) without the risk or expense associated with actually going flying. So simulators should be a part of the flight training experience. Just use’em where it makes sense.

Same question we’ve asked in all our interviews: are general aviation’s best days behind it?

Flying is fun and it provides a level of freedom that no other activity can so I think there’s good reason to be optimistic. Over the past few years as the overall economy has improved, we’ve seen a corresponding uptick in GA across the board. We aren’t out of the woods yet, as there are still headwinds to overcome, but AOPA is working hard to make sure there are more great years ahead.

With that, there are a lot of different factors that will influence how general aviation moves into the future, but the high costs and other economic realities facing GA are the most troubling and need the most immediate attention. I am hopeful the Part 23 rewrite does what the FAA has advertised it will do: allow new products on the market in half the time at half the cost while simultaneously improving safety. Time will tell. I am hopeful that once the economic conditions change and the business case supports either getting into flying or starting a business that services the general aviation consumer, we’ll see things start to improve. One thing is for sure, AOPA will not sit by and allow our government or the FAA to regulate our industry out of business. The folks at AOPA are fighting hard to help right the ship and protect our freedoms to fly.

You’ve been on board at AOPA for several months now. Any surprises about the scope of the job?

No real surprises, but challenges that I look forward to working through. For example: As you know, AOPA and the Air Safety Institute are not empowered to mandate. In order for ASI to facilitate improvements, we must influence and inform. We have to convince pilots that what we are saying has value and present it in a way that is fun and informative. Also, for General Aviation to maintain high levels of freedom, we have to take a balanced approach to safety. There are burdensome regulations and other control measures, that if put in place, would certainly improve safety, but come at a significant cost to the freedoms we hold dear. It’s my belief that AOPA and the Air Safety Institute can simultaneously maintain and protect our freedom to fly while engaging in educational outreach to improve the pilot knowledge base and increase our high levels of safety.

You have one flight left. Where do you go and what are you flying?

The devil on my left shoulder would strap on an F-18E Superhornet and go up for one last dogfight. The angel on my right shoulder would load the family up in my Mooney and fly down to my parent’s horse farm, for a nice home cooked meal!

Finish the sentence: the biggest misconception in general aviation is…

The misconception is: Little planes are unsafe.

Because mass media covers the rare occurrence of an aircraft accident in such a disproportionate way when compared to other more mundane forms for transportation, general aviation (light pistons especially) get a bad rap. I’ll put GA safety in into perspective this way: When driving down a two lane road, at night, in the rain, each of us is dependent upon a person we’ve never met, in the oncoming car, with over 100+ MPH combined closing speed, to stay in their lane. Most Americans do this routinely and don’t give these risks a second thought. I drive in these conditions too, but given the choice I am much more comfortable knowing that when flying, the only stranger I have to rely on is a highly trained Air Traffic Controller.

John Zimmerman
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