March 1, 2001
By Bruce Landsberg
General aviation's safety record continues a gradually improving trend. Every year, the AOPA Air Safety Foundation publishes an annual safety scorecard for GA fixed-wing aircraft weighing less than 12,500 pounds. The Joseph T. Nall Report is named after Joe Nall, an NTSB member who was killed in an aircraft accident in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1989. The 2000 edition that looks at 1999's GA accident picture was just published and is available on AOPA Online. Overall, accidents were up slightly, fatal accidents were down slightly, and fatalities increased marginally. This was against the backdrop of increasing flight hours, resulting in an estimated accident rate that is the lowest since recordkeeping began in 1938. Although the annual decreases are small, they show that a combination of improved technology and pilot education appears to be working. It's hard to know for sure, but the bottom line is that the trend is moving in the right direction.
To make the report both timely and accurate, we balance between the need to review the greatest number of fully completed accident reports and the need to publish the report as promptly as prudent. Traditionally, final accident reports make up the majority (more than 80 percent) of the data, with the balance of preliminary reports included for completeness. We believe that this practice has not significantly changed either numbers or percentages of the overall analysis in any particular area.
To verify that assumption, a comparison was made between the projections included in the 1999 Nall Report and the end result once all of the final reports were complete, which was late last year. In almost every case, the pattern and the relationships between accident categories remained identical. For example, the projection for fatal maneuvering accidents was 18.8 percent. The final tally came in at 19.7 percent. The fatal weather accident prediction, based on pilot-related causes, was 21.9 percent and the verification was 19.2 percent. Investigation of fatal mechanical/maintenance accidents frequently takes longer and is an area where we had expected some variability, but the projections did not change greatly and none of the relative positions changed significantly. The concept seems to work and we'll continue to keep score. The usual caveat applies: There will be some minor changes until the 1999 tallies are complete, which will be several years from now.
A few GA pilots continue to have accidents that defy logic, especially when they fall into the category of "normal flight operations." Everyone understands that certain types of flying, such as aerial application, firefighting, and some types of law enforcement, involve risk that the average pilot does not face. Personal flying, people using airplanes for travel and recreation, still has a disproportionate number of mishaps. Considering the nature of GA, that should not be surprising. The flexibility that is the trademark of our activity, the freedom to travel where and when we please, puts an additional burden on pilots to use that freedom wisely.
In general terms, little has changed significantly since last year. Low-level maneuvering flight and weather remain the two largest fatal accident categories, as they have for the past decade. Weather came in this year as the number-two fatality producer, with 27 mishaps. There has been a marked improvement in weather-related accidents and while we won't call it a trend yet, the hope is that pilots are heeding the message that VFR flight into instrument conditions is not a life-prolonging activity. There were two flights involving professional pilots who attempted visual flight with ceilings of less than 100 feet. Makes you wonder. Pilots worry about ice and thunder, but clouds, fog, and low visibility claim far more lives. The good news is that weather-judgment accidents dropped from 65 in 1998 to 36 in 1999. That is a big percentage drop but there is also an element of chance in this business, so we'll wait a bit before bragging that weather judgment is no longer an issue.
Is more study needed in this area? Perhaps, but the psychology of many of these accidents defies logic. What is needed is for both new, inexperienced pilots and complacent, old graybeards to fully comprehend the risk of a particular activity and decide that no matter what the mission, their lives and those of their passengers are worth more than any schedule. ASF invested in a massive education campaign during the past five years on weather decision making. We have conducted more than 1,000 free seminars and given away thousands of videotapes and Safety Advisors on the subject. These efforts continue with the ASF SkySpotter campaign to encourage pilots to submit a pilot report on every cross-country flight. This improves our ability to forecast and nowcast the weather significantly (" Safety Pilot: Following the Fronts," February Pilot). The information you provide may help another pilot make the right decision—on those days when you're uncertain about flying, a good pirep or two helps immeasurably.
One flight situation that always results in statistically increased risk is instrument meteorological conditions (IMC), and in night IMC, fatal accidents are nearly double the daytime rate. This paradigm never seems to change. Night IMC requires good equipment, good health and energy, good skill and training, and good alternatives. There are no surprises here and no shortcuts to improving the safety record.
Maneuvering flight tallied 64 fatal accidents, and this became the leading fatal accident phase of flight for 1999. The fatalities, for the most part, fall into the easily preventable category. Hitting towers, wires, other objects, and the ground itself in VFR conditions is generally inexcusable. Likewise, stalling an aircraft unintentionally close to the ground must be considered poor airmanship no matter how one tries to describe it. Low-level aerobatics in the wrong aircraft or in the wrong circumstances create headlines that GA just doesn't need.
This year because of increasing flight activity, ASF—in cooperation with the FAA safety program—will focus on collision avoidance. Seminars covering new and old techniques, along with explanations on some new avoidance hardware, are being conducted nationally by ASF. During 1999 there were 15 midairs, and seven were fatal. Unfortunately, the trend was up just slightly in 2000, with 18 midairs, 10 of them involving fatalities. In flight and on the ground, the need for vigilance continues.
An ASF/FAA fuel awareness campaign is also under way to reduce fuel exhaustion and starvation mishaps. Better than one fuel mismanagement accident per week, at 66 for the year, continues to prove that engines consistently need that liquid commodity. It's worth noting that only five of the fuel accidents (less than 8 percent) involved a fatality, which is well below the typical 20 percent of GA accidents that result in loss of life. My speculation is that the pilots involved were actively thinking about a possible or probable forced landing, had mentally reviewed the procedures, and an after-crash fire was highly unlikely. Perhaps the message to the rest of us is that preparing for the unthinkable has benefit. We don't recommend running out of fuel to test the theory, however.
Personal flight continues to be disproportionately represented in the stats. An estimated 48 percent of the flight hours resulted in 67 percent of the fatal mishaps (155 accidents). Business flight (aircraft flown by owners and renters as opposed to professional crews) continued to do well, with almost 16 percent of the activity and slightly more than 8 percent of the fatal accidents (17 accidents). Flight instruction had a very good year in 1999, with just below 18 percent of flight hours and only 5.3 percent of the fatal accidents (12 accidents). That good news was reversed in 2000 with a significant increase in fatal instructional accidents to 31. There has been speculation that the airline hiring boom is taking the seasoned instructors out of the system and mostly low-timers are left—with a resulting increase in fatal accidents. ASF has no data to refute or support that contention at this point. We will be watching this very carefully and will pass along the information when there is something to report.
Off-airport injuries are always a concern because of the high media and political interest. In 1999, there were seven accidents that produced four serious injuries. One of these later became a fatality, but it didn't meet the NTSB's definition of death within 30 days. There were 34 minor injuries, with 27 occurring in just one accident when a Bonanza crashed in downtown Newark, New Jersey, shortly after takeoff. Fortunately, this type of accident is extremely rare, but the effects on the national and political psyche are long lasting.
There were three pilot-incapacitation accidents and all were fatal after the pilots suffered heart attacks. ASF recommends the Pinch-Hitter ® Ground School course for frequent nonflying companions. Call 800/638-3101 or visit the Web site) for schedules.
Despite the age of much of the GA fleet, mechanical- and maintenance-related mishaps hover around 15 percent of the total. That number will likely increase by a percent or two once the final tally is in, but it shows two things. Good maintenance is a good investment, and as pilots we do far more damage to ourselves than our aircraft inflict upon us.
As always, our thanks to the FAA and NTSB staff, without whose efforts this report would not be possible. Contributions from AOPA, individual pilot donors, and our corporate sponsors helped to underwrite this annual effort, and we are most appreciative of their support. Let's make the coming year the best one ever for general aviation safety.
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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