Air Facts turns 80: some things have changed, some have not

February 1, 1938 – February 1, 2018

The February 1, 1938 issue of AIR FACTS was the first. My father, Leighton Collins, wrote the whole thing. The subject was flying safety, with emphasis on stall/spin accidents. AIR FACTS was the only place anyone was even talking about safety. That was a taboo subject that was considered bad for business.

Within a couple of years, the magazine was evolving into what it is today, written by staff with a heavy emphasis on reader contributions but with a continuing interest in helping pilots manage the risks that lead to accidents.

Air Facts page, 1938
From the first issue of Air Facts, 1938.

I read recently where the retiring FAA Administrator, Michael Huerta, made mention of the fact that the 2016 fatal accident rate had hit a new low, at less than 1.0 per 100,000 flight hours, and that it looked like 2017 would be even better. The rate had been stagnant in the 1.20 range for 20 years so that would be progress.

I have always been skeptical about the per 100,000 hours business because nobody really knows how many hours are flown. By another measure, though, I think I have verified that the record might indeed be getting better. When considering certified piston-powered fixed-wing airplanes flying in the contiguous 48 states, a few years ago there were 160 or so fatal accidents where in 2017 I came up with a preliminary count of 112. Avgas production has dropped by about 20-percent over that time, so there is less flying but the drop in accidents is at least a bit greater than the drop in avgas burn.

To illustrate how far we have come since AIR FACTS was started, the numbers quoted for fatal accidents per 100,000 hours in 1938 ranged from 16.6 to 30. Compared to the current rate, that was quite a slaughter. I have mentioned it before but in that same period the rate in airline flying has gone from 2.0 per 100,000 hours down to a virtual zero. In private flying, stall/spin accidents were the number one bad guy then and now.

On the 80th anniversary of AIR FACTS’ founding, I see two good questions:

What have been the major factors in the safety record improvement over the years and in particular the last couple of years?

And,

Is there any way to reduce the risk even more?

It is tempting to give technology a lot of potential credit for improvements but a look back throws a bucket of water on this. The record improved from as bad as 30 down to the 1.20 range before all the new high-tech equipment became available. That is not to say there will not be future improvement related to higher-tech but I think that is open to question.

High-tech has had a large role in the improvement in airline safety, why not in private flying?

Apples and oranges is the simple answer. The only real similarity between airline and private flying is that we both use air and airplanes. They do two-pilot procedural flying, most of us do single-pilot random flying. They have strict rules about periodic and thorough training, we have to spend an hour with an instructor every couple of years.

The airplanes are a lot different, too. The certification standards and performance and equipment requirements for transport category airplanes are far more demanding than those for private airplanes. I did, though, once do a study to see how many private flying accidents would be prevented if our airplanes met transport category standards. The number was surprisingly small.

The most substantial improvement in the safety record came when technology was slowly evolving and actually barely moving forward. The big tech leap came with the introduction of the Garmin G1000 in 2004. Could that have finally started showing promise 12 years later?

G1000 cockpit
Are glass cockpits safer? Maybe…

There will be studies done on this and I think they will show the primary benefits of equipment like the G1000 to be the replacement of vacuum power for gyro instruments with solid state electronics, terrain information, and traffic information to be the most beneficial. Better situational awareness is also a big plus as is the recent introduction of overspeed and underspeed protection and the inclusion of a wings level feature on autopilots.

Of course, nobody even imagined 80 years ago that equipment like this would find its way into our airplanes and the pilots of that day would probably say that every bit of that was actually available then, in the form of the pilot’s brain. Trouble over the years was that some pilots’ brains worked a little better than others.

Speaking of the pilot, I have always thought that much of the improvement in safety, or actually in risk-management, came because of changing attitudes on the part of both the pilots and the aviation industry.

Pilots of today are far more risk averse than those of old, mainly because the general public is more risk averse. When I was young and wild (1947-1955) no attention was paid to crashworthiness in cars or airplanes. Safety belts in airplanes were the sum total of the safety equipment and they were mainly to keep your head from hitting the ceiling in turbulence.

The fact that I laid waste to a fairly impressive list of cars and collected only one scar suggests that being lucky helped.

There was also an attitude in the old days that might have suppressed risk aversion. It was best illustrated to me by a drill sergeant I had in U. S. Army infantry basic training. He said, If you hear the bullet whiz by your ear, that means it missed. Don’t give in another thought. If it doesn’t miss, you’ll be the first to know. Either way, you have nothing to worry about.

I still feel that way about most everything but doubt that many younger folks do.

Back in those bad old days, a common comment after flying was, cheated death again. The words to Wild Blue Yonder, the Air Force song, included (and in some forms, still do), we live in fame go down in flame, hey, nothing can stop the Army Air Corps.

I think the message is clear. Pilots of old did not have a death wish, but they were comfortable with the risks to the point that they could even sing about it.

There’s a YouTube video that captures the essence of how we felt about the risks of flying and other things in the late 40s and early 50s. It was made at a much later date but was relevant to the earlier time. If you have seven minutes, you might find it to be informative as well sort of fun.

The farther we got away from World War Two, the more that attitude receded while the safety record improved, slowly at first but by about 20 years ago it started, at 1.20 fatal accidents per 100,000 hours, reflecting the values of a newer generation of pilots.

From 1938 to 1947 the airplanes did not change much but starting in 1947 we began to get the airplanes that most are still flying today. These airplanes are much more capable than the earlier ones and should be safer, but, guess what, the stall/spin accident has been number one on the list for the whole time, for the past 80 years. There are a lot less of them now, but there are still more stall/spin accidents than anything else.

B-17 crew
Their idea of risk management might be different from yours.

The aviation industry became, along with pilots, more safety conscious with the passing of time mainly because it was good business. Selling big-buck machinery is a lot different than selling hardware into a daredevil and romantic activity.

Having been part of it for the past 60 years, I must address any role that pilot education has played in improving the safety record. Guess what? I don’t think it has done a whole lot but I will qualify that with a passage from the March 1, 1938 issue of AIR FACTS.

My father wrote, That flying appeals to a certain element of society which is emotionally unstable is unavoidable, and there is no way to keep them out entirely. With regularity some of them, in spite of all we can do, are going to get down low, cut a dido, and spin in a last burst of glory.

I took that as a statement that safety education helps only those who want to be helped which is still true. The people who really need it are not going to show up for the seminars or read the articles or watch the videos. There is just no way to reach them so we have to be content to reach and teach the people who are open to the subject. I do think the safety record today is a lot better than it would have been had the increased emphasis on safety not slowly developed in the educational part of our business.

The government, in the form of the NTSB and the FAA and the CAA before the FAA, has given lip service to safety and there is no question that some technological innovation has been spurred by regulations made following accidents. Most of this has been with airlines and airliners but some attention has been paid to private airplanes, often with a lot more expense than was justified. The new crashworthy seats are an example. They are both heavy and expensive and I think nobody would buy them if they were an option

I don’t think the government has ever had an understanding of what people do with private airplanes (other than wreck them) so there has been a lot of regulating without understanding. This has hurt utility more than it has helped safety.

Some 80 years later, here we are. Compared with airline flying or automobiles, our safety record has improved a bit but is still nothing to brag about. Where do we go from here?

Because I can write with some knowledge about the past does not qualify me to gaze more than a slight distance into the future but I do have two thoughts. Two because I think private aviation has started going in two different directions and these paths are likely to diverge, perhaps rather quickly.

Flying for purposeful transportation is what led to the long-gone boom years for the type of airplanes used for travel. The number being built today is but a handful compared with the past.

Cessna 421
How much longer can some of these piston airplanes fly?

Because much of the flying in this area is being done by old, really old, piston airplanes, the increasing number of mechanically-related accidents that are happening today will recede as those airplanes cease to be viable.

The ones that do keep flying will likely join the relatively few new-production airplanes in becoming ever-more automated. The art will become one of operating airplanes as opposed to flying them. It is simplistic to say, but a person adept at video games might really fit in.

If AIR FACTS is to keep leading the charge for better risk management, then, more attention will be paid to flying the airplane through electronics and what pilot error accidents there are will come because the pilot screwed up on touching the screen, with technical malfunctions also causing occasional problems.

The other path involves pilots flying airplanes, more often than not for recreation. I think this will grow rather rapidly, mainly because it is both more affordable than the other path and infinitely more fun for the flying purists that will always be around in good numbers.

As far as risk-management and safety go, nothing has changed in this type flying in the past 80 years and nothing will likely change in the next 80. Pull back on the stick a little and the houses get smaller; pull back on the stick a bit more and they rotate and get bigger. All pilots have ever had to do, or will ever have to do, is develop a keen sense of angle-of-attack awareness to avoid that problem.

Finally, I think the following will be as true 80 years from now as it was 80 years ago: What could be more wonderful than aviating in an idyllic summer sky in a Cub with the doors open? It is hard to think about risk management when you are having that much fun.

Happy Birthday, AIR FACTS, and, thanks again Pop.

11 Comments

  • Thank you.

    Would love to see more old Air Facts articles. For those of us still FLYING NOT OPERATING small planes for transportation, they are a treasure.

    Thanks to all keeping Air Facts alive and relevant – I would say VITAL – to my continued education and safety.

  • Thank you for all you have done for the flying community. It’s cool to hear stories about the past and thoughts on the present.

  • Thank you and your Dad for sharing your knowledge. There is no question you have saved many lives, at least among those of us that read all we can find on aviation safety. I especially appreciate all you have written on weather. Flying is a perfect example of risk vs reward, and you remind us the rewards are priceless.

  • Great article and have loved all of yours over the years
    I found the quote, “The ones that do keep flying will likely join the relatively few new-production airplanes in becoming ever-more automated. The art will become one of operating airplanes as opposed to flying them. It is simplistic to say, but a person adept at video games might really fit in.” interesting and also a little scary. Probably very true, but wonder what then happens when the screen goes blank or freezes as we have all had with video games. About then, I would like to have that flying pilot around. Best wishes

  • I want to see this “fairly impressive list of cars” that you laid waste to!

    Thank you Mr. Collins for all you’ve done for aviation. I’ve been reading you since I was a young teenager and know I’m a better pilot because of your words.

  • Richard:

    Congrats to you and your Dad for your 80 years of keeping us aware of the enjoyment of flying and ways to make it safer.

    Whether recounting history or planning for tomorrow, flying is really mind game, not an action toy. Too few people think their way through a flight, rather rushing to experience it. Unfortunately the myriad new gadgets may have diverted us from the primary operating principles. My philosophy following 50 years of aviating experiences, mistakes, frights and learing:

    I will act as a professional whether flying a Cub or Boeing —
    – continuously learn everything there is to know about my aircraft and its environment
    – constantly evaluate all risks known or encountered
    – take the safer course of action, regardless of circumstances
    – reflect on my errors and train to correct.

    Keep the good words coming!

    John

  • I just love reading Air Facts articles, and having read this less than a week afer the Horizon Air Q400 incident… and having lots of hours at Microsofts digital yoke (as well as some real sailplane time)… well… videogames …

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