December 1, 1999
By Bruce Landsberg
Last year's Joseph T. Nall Report played a major role in bringing perspective to the media and political conflagration surrounding the John F. Kennedy Jr. loss. AOPA and the AOPA Air Safety Foundation directed many reporters and pilots to the ASF Web site to get the facts — and to avoid getting lost in the hysteria of the moment.
ASF's annual review of the prior year's accidents is dedicated to the memory of Joe Nall, an NTSB member who died in 1989 as a passenger in an airplane that crashed in Caracas, Venezuela. The report is limited to accidents involving fixed-wing general aviation aircraft weighing less than 12,500 pounds. About 80 percent of the data used in the Nall Report comes from final NTSB accident reports; some fatal accidents take longer to investigate. Data based on preliminary information may alter some of the percentages, and users of the report should keep that in mind — although the major causal factor areas change little from year to year.
ASF just published the 1999 Nall Report, and GA had a good safety year during 1998. Key problem areas remain the same as in 1997. Visual flight into instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) and maneuvering flight are the leading fatality producers, as they have been for years. Landings produce the most accidents but with relatively few injuries. This isn't surprising because the difficult judgment problems are difficult to solve on an individual basis. Collectively, however, general aviation safety is very gradually improving.
For comparison purposes, in 1997 there were 1,642 accidents, of which 331 involved fatalities. In 1998, the overall accident number increased by 37, and there were 10 more fatal accidents. The good news is that fatalities were down by 48, to 619. The total and fatal accident numbers were 1,679 and 341, respectively. Hours flown, according to the FAA, in-creased by more than 1 million, from 25.5 million to 26.8 million. If that number is correct, then the rate also becomes the third consecutive record-setter — and GA concludes the year with the lowest number of fatalities since 1955.
Kennedy's accident prompted many comparisons, using a variety of statistics, to automobile travel. Some were correct and others were wildly misleading. Without spinning the numbers, let's look at some facts. GA has about seven times as many fatal accidents per mile as do automobiles. Flying in light aircraft is not safer than driving your car, but as with all statistics, the comparison should be put into context.
There is no free lunch. Airplanes travel two to four times faster than cars and generally get us to the destination in a much easier fashion than driving. That's one of the primary reasons we fly. However, should an impact occur, the average speed is much higher. Crash physics work against us, unfortunately. Double the speed, quadruple the impact; triple the speed, and the impact force goes up nine times. Add the vertical component introduced by altitude, and one has to marvel that aircraft protect as well as they do. On average, only one aircraft accident in five results in fatalities. To state it another way, the fleet flies almost 10 million miles before there is a fatal loss.
If the comparison were made between cars driven at high speeds off of short cliffs, the airplane might come out much better in the fatal statistics category. However, before you give up flying for bicycling, look at the rest of the Nall Report to see how easy and important it is to control risk. If pilots will heed a few simple precautions, the numbers above can change significantly. As with many other activities, a very small percentage of pilots cause a disproportionate number of accidents — particularly those that display fatal flaws in judgment. There are occasional exceptions in which a careful, well-qualified pilot will get into trouble. That's why recurrent training and a touch of humility mark the very best pilots; they realize that the sky is a wonderful place but not totally benign. Neither are the highways.
Was anything significantly different in 1998 than in previous years? Not really. Pilots' judgment regarding weather and maneuvering flight are the leading killer causes. Takeoff and landing mishaps keep the repair shops busy. A significant number of pilots still manage to run out of fuel. We have consistently reported here that no one has yet successfully substituted air for fuel, but the desire to try still infects too many.
As I wrote last year, some accidents really weren't accidents. An accident implies the unknown. Visual flight into IMC is guaranteed to result in a disproportionate number of fatal accidents. Seventy-two percent of the fatal "weather" accidents (39) occurred when VFR pilots failed to recognize clouds or loss of visual conditions. Weather is in quotes be-cause the weather did not cause the problem — pilot judgment did. When cheating on VFR, the probability of having a fatal accident increases fourfold to more than 83 percent — way above the percentage of typical GA accidents, which averages about 20 percent. Put another way, tangle with the weather, and there is a four out of five chance that the results will be fatal. What part of cloud doesn't the VFR pilot understand?
Some pilots are hellbent to get where they are going and, short of somebody's taking the keys, they will go. Others, having received overly pessimistic forecasts for years, begin to ignore them. Conservative forecasting is used to reduce government liability, and we'll look at that in a future column. However, when the weather really is bad, some pilots don't believe what they are told or even what they see. In many weather-related accidents, the pilot waited just a little too long to change his mind. For a significant number, a decision to divert only a few minutes earlier would have kept the flight out of clouds and out of danger.
Darkness increased the likelihood of tangling with weather. About one-fifth (five accidents) of the weather-related fatal accidents involving IMC and nearly one-quarter (19 accidents) of the approach accidents occurred at night. That is a higher percentage than the estimated amount of time spent in night flight (11 percent), but the raw numbers aren't that large. About 7 percent of all accidents occurred in darkness. Night IMC might translate into "It's more challenging." At night, more than ever, good judgment is required. Marginal VFR should be considered carefully in light of pilot experience, geographic area, and the potential for the weather to change. The overall fatality rate for weather-related judgment accidents was 83 percent.
Maneuvering flight comes in at number two for the fatal accident category. Thirty-two pilots lost control, according to the NTSB, and another 20 were involved in low and slow flight. Better than one aircraft a week fell into this category, which shows that an understanding of basic airmanship never goes out of style. Considerable time is spent in primary training teaching stalls and stall recognition. It is worth noting that the majority of fatal stalls occur at traffic pattern altitudes or below, and not at the rather extreme attitudes that are sometimes seen in contrived training scenarios. Distractions such as following traffic ahead, not allowing for proper drift correction, or reconfiguring the air-craft are enough to put some pilots over the edge.
Personal flights are consistently the most dangerous. An estimated 43 percent of all flying is done for personal reasons, and yet these flights resulted in almost three-quarters of the fatal accidents. This trend is well-established and doesn't change much from year to year. Contrast that with business flying (by business people who are not professional pilots), which accounts for about 13 percent of the hours but only 4 percent of the fatal accidents — or instructional flying with 22 percent of flight time and accounting for less than 6 percent of the fatal accidents. Apparently, business pilots may fly more capable equipment, be more willing to scrub a trip, or may simply have more experience. Likely, it is a combination of all of these factors.
Flight instruction, as mentioned, continues to have a good safety record. However, the exposure to risk is not quite comparable. Relatively little instruction time is devoted to cross-country, which is where fatal weather decisions are likely to occur. Here is an area to which CFIs and flight schools should devote more attention during training. Although it is impossible to make a direct correlation, more experience in weather-related decision making should result in a gradual reduction in some of the VFR-into-IMC scenarios that were discussed above.
Another group that flies very safely in proportion to its exposure comprises crop dusters. They contribute slightly more than 6 percent of the flight hours with just under 2 percent of the fatal accidents. There are several reasons. Flying three feet above the ground with a heavily loaded aircraft carrying toxic chemicals cannot be considered anything other than a high-risk operation. To the applicators' credit, they go about it systematically, survey the site for obstructions, and understand the risk — and their safety record proves it. There is another aspect to their high survival rate. Wire cutters on the aircraft, five-point shoulder harnesses, steel-reinforced cockpit cages, and the use of helmets make it clear that they fully expect to crash and are pleasantly surprised when they don't. If pilots who enjoy the thrill of low-altitude flight would take the same precautions, the number of maneuvering-flight fatal accidents would drop significantly.
Takeoffs and landings account for huge numbers of mishaps. About one-third of all airplanes are damaged or destroyed in these phases of flight. These accidents are seldom fatal because of relatively slow speeds, and they are nearly always skill-related. Crosswinds and misapplied eye-to-hand coordination are the factors here. Regular practice, particularly when wind is blowing across the runway, will help to reduce this type of mishap.
Areas of high traffic density around nontowered airports are the most likely places for two aircraft to come together. In 1997, there were 13 midair collisions, with 11 resulting in fatalities. In 1998, there were 14 midairs, again with 11 resulting in fatalities. Collisions tend to be random events. Careful scanning and following proper procedures for nontowered airports are the best defenses. Always anticipate that there will be other aircraft near an airport, and you won't be surprised. ASF's Safety Advisor on operations at nontowered airports offers comprehensive guidance on how to fly in that busy airspace.
After publishing the Nall Report each year, we look at ASF's mix of educational programs to determine where the emphasis should be made. The needs haven't changed much in the past several years, and ASF will continue to encourage more emphasis on pilot decision making regarding weather. We will also be addressing the issue of collision avoidance as a potential high-profile problem.
Links to the 1999 Nall Report, the Operations at Nontowered Airports Safety Advisor, and other safety publications may be found on AOPA Online. See also the index of "Safety Pilot" articles, organized by subject. Bruce Landsberg is executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.
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