Simpler is safer

December 1, 2000

At a recent International Council of Aircraft Owner and Pilot Associations conference it was fascinating to find that there are more similarities than differences in the general aviation safety challenge. My presentation was about the complexities of GA safety and how we often take something that is quite simple and proceed to make it complicated. Many people, regulators, and media types equate GA with the airlines. We all fly in the big iron in all kinds of weather, and everyone is familiar with it. The simplistic model is that because GA and the airlines both fly airplanes in the same airspace, they should have identical safety records. It is amazing to some people that they don't. Yet, when you make the comparison between small boats and ocean liners, they grasp the differences immediately.

The airlines generally use multiengine, turbine-powered, pressurized equipment; GA flies predominantly unpressurized single-engine piston aircraft. The airlines fly high above most of the weather while GA slogs through, under, or around it. On-board weather radar, hot wings, or deicing boots make the problems of flying around boomers and cold clouds easier.

Pilots in GA range from newbies to some as senior as any air carrier types, but generally our experience and training are less. The airports where GA typically operates tend not to have all the services, lights, or precision approach aids that commercial transport requires. The safety records, by any standard of comparison, must be different because the flight activities are different. This short list of differences can be greatly expanded. Some would make GA like the airlines in terms of requirements and it would be safer — it just wouldn't be GA anymore.

There is risk associated with flight, and yet some of us let people believe the old line that the most dangerous part of the flight is the drive to and from the airport. That's true for the airlines but not for us. Certain GA flights under certain conditions are extremely hazardous. The whole purpose of ongoing training and a gradual seasoning process is to age the pilot toward perfection while avoiding the acute-angle impact with the ground. The same can be said of almost any human performance activity, be it skiing, scuba-diving, or riding a motorcycle or a bicycle, for that matter. Where and how you choose to operate make a big difference.

After an accident, the pilot is blamed in about 85 percent of the cases, and AOPA Air Safety Foundation research shows that in the overwhelming number of events there was a pilot on board. Self-evident, but who is responsible? Having been on the marginal end of a few less-than-stellar examples of aeronautical decision making, I confess some humility in judging my fellow aviators because: 1) all the analysis is done afterward; 2) most or all the information is available; and 3) a group of "experts" often takes five days to make the choice that a pilot had five minutes or, in a few cases, five seconds to make. There are four things that will make GA absolutely safe, but unfortunately no one knows what they all are. But we have a pretty good idea about three of them. Some involve behavioral change and some are systemically induced.

First is preflight planning, including weather decision making. There are many things we could improve here, but let's start with the official information. Sadly, many pilots are not interested in meteorology and really only care whether they can make the trip safely. Most people take up flying for the adventure, romance, and fun, not to study weather. That interest develops later if one wants to move beyond the novice level.

So, should we teach pilots to think like meteorologists or meteorologists to think like pilots? I submit that the latter may be easier. It is easy to understand that a VFR pilot must remain clear of clouds and still have enough altitude to avoid terrain and obstacles. It's not as easy to understand how the Coriolis effect creates the hemispherical circulation or how temperature and dew point come together to create the low ceilings that are hanging over the mountains and blocking your VFR trip. Weather decision making is the most difficult and variable factor we deal with in aviation. Providing the pilot with a clear and accurate picture of the weather, especially using graphics and having the good or bad news verified by other aircraft, means that the certainty of the prediction is much better. This is much harder to do on the front end, but the simplicity in interpretation will result in fewer accidents and more trips completed safely.

Low-level maneuvering flight, where pilots either hit an obstacle or lose control of the aircraft because of a stall, ranks second on the list of self-eliminating behaviors. Unlike weather, the results of hitting a tower or flying at too great an angle of attack are easily predictable. However, some pilots fail to understand basic Newtonian physics. Every year, ASF's Nall Report shows too many fatal accidents attributable to maneuvering that included buzzing, tower shortening, wire clipping, and stalls at low altitude. Most of these were because of ignorance, poor skill, or egregiously bad judgment.

Item three is a big one and affects everyone on every flight. Distraction comes from multiple sources, and it can be merely a nuisance or cause the loss of life. It all depends on how you choose to manage it. On a recent 500-mile trip my DUAT printout exceeded 25 pages and, when taped together, extended more than 24 feet across the floor! The weather was only part of it. The notams were largely irrelevant, with dozens of items such as unlighted towers 10 miles from the destination airport at 150 feet agl. Laser light shows hundreds of miles from my route were included, as were temporary flight restrictions. There was a security notice regarding flights over Iraq. My trip from Frederick to the Atlanta area, in spite of using GPS to travel by the great circle route, would not pass remotely close to the land of Saddam Hussein, even with the most paranoid of lawyers worrying about the government's liability.

So who's responsible if I miss a critical notam? Conventional wisdom and regulation say that the pilot is, but in a more realistic world it may be tough to find that vital item when it's buried in 25 pages of minutiae. The system can be improved. When notams were first conceived, the system probably worked very well, but they have since evolved — primarily to avoid liability. What's wrong with that? When the legal aspects of avoiding all risk take precedence over providing reasonable life-saving information to the flying public, we've got the priorities wrong.

Do we have too many regulations? Things could be simplified with four core regs: 1) Don't hit the ground or an obstacle. 2) Don't hit another aircraft. 3) Don't fly VFR if you can't abide by 1 and 2 above. 4) When flying IFR, see number 1. Certainly there is need for clarification and definition, but have we gone too far in closing loopholes? Additions and changes to regulations typically are more focused on blame and litigation than on accident prevention. Some common sense in the application of the rules would sure help.

A favorite topic is computerization in the cockpit and our new navigation systems. Good designs will revolutionize how we fly, while poor ones will lead to distractions and accidents. Several years ago, I wrote about the culture clash in the cockpit using GPS with multifunction keys and layered menus to get to core navigation functions. Our European, African, Asian, and South American friends are struggling with exactly the same problems, and many think that the next generation of simplified nav gear can't come soon enough. The good news is that the manufacturers are listening, but if they listened faster we might avoid some IFR approach accidents involving complex GPS equipment.

The panacea to complex equipment design is more training. It is a popular Band-Aid for poor human factors engineering, and it is always easier to hang more responsibility on pilots. If a system is complex, then the pilot should spend more time learning it. Perhaps the engineers should spend more time designing the complexity and system-induced traps out of it at the outset. We should not absolve the pilot from learning, but a study that ASF did about two years ago compared programming GPS and VOR equipment to perform exactly the same functions. It took the average pilot two to four times as long using GPS. So, we've gained considerable capability but it comes at a significant price. The true miracle of GPS, being able to go anywhere with ease of programming, is coming. New systems will not command such a high learning curve to operate if we heed the lessons of the past that distraction and complexity are dangerous.

A study that has been repeated a number of times showed that when automobile drivers were asked about their skill, they all invariably rated themselves above average. Nice theory. It is my observation that in aviation we sometimes design the system for the top half of the bell curve — the normal distribution of human abilities. If you really want to improve safety, then systems, rules, and aircraft should be designed with the less capable in mind. Call it dumbing down the sport if you wish, but most of us would admit to an occasional bad head day, and if the circumstances came together in just the wrong combination you wouldn't be reading this now.

The concept of aeronautical Darwinism is one way to look at it. Charles Darwin theorized that the smartest or strongest of any species survived, and thus the gene pool was continually improved. In our business, that concept has yet to be proven since many people by the time they learn to fly are often done with life's reproductive role, so perhaps genetics is not the sole determinant of safety. However, there are actions taken by a few of our fellow pilots that sure give Darwin some credibility.

What's the old saying about what to do in an emergency? Aviate, navigate, and communicate — in that order. Simplify and survive. Suppose we started making that the mantra of aviation. More people would be able to participate and we could lower the accident rate. Capt. Bob Buck, who wrote the book Weather Flying, has flown everything from DC-2s to 747s, and his advice has always been to look for the simple way to accomplish an aeronautical task. He was on Cessna's design team when it built the Citation, and it was the first bizjet to win single-pilot certification. The Citation also won the Collier Trophy for Cessna because of its outstanding safety record. That was due in large part to the "simple is safer" philosophy.

The concept of risk education is also simple. Let pilots see what has happened before and be sure that they understand the consequences. Be sure there are alternatives and that distractions are kept to a minimum. The right decision will be made. Usually. The hedge is there because there are no guarantees in life, with the two exceptions of death and more government.

One point that everyone should understand — a single accident or even a few accidents do not necessarily mean that the system has failed, despite what the attorneys might debate. An individual may have failed. We understand and accept that reality in tens of thousands of automobile crashes annually. In aviation the bar is set much higher, and it is our responsibility to fix systemic faults and learn from the individual faults such that the problem is always the other guy's. From rules to equipment, to official flight information, and to weather — keep it simple. Safe flight will follow.


See also the index of "Safety Pilot" articles, organized by subject. Bruce Landsberg is executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.