Putting an accident into perspective

November 1, 2001

Bruce Landsberg has served as executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation since 1992.

Invariably, after an accident the news media will ask the questions they think the public wants answered. To the insider, many of the questions seem inane and obvious. Occasionally, they are designed to trap, especially if the producer of the piece wants a good story rather than the facts. That is a rare occurrence, of course, but it does happen. Often the timing is such that a local accident occurs and is splashed across the front page just as you're scheduled to introduce a friend, neighbor, or acquaintance to the joys of flight. I had an opportunity recently to discuss a mishap with a local media person and also to explain it to a friend who was going to take a first flight. Perhaps the dialogue will be helpful.

Why do accidents occur in general aviation?

Why do accidents occur in any mode of transportation? Usually someone involved makes a bad judgment call. In some cases the accident is skill-related. Sometimes errors in judgment place pilots in situations that require more skill than they have. It's not uncommon for relatively experienced automobile drivers to drive faster than road or traffic conditions would dictate. Pilots sometimes fly into conditions that are beyond their ability to cope, but unlike road condition and traffic density, the flying environment is not nearly so easy to read. We see multiple errors made in cars, boats, airliners, and, yes, even in media stories. Humans make mistakes.

Is GA a safe industry?

Relative to what? When all you look at is failure, any industry can seem like a disaster. Nothing is said about the millions of flights that arrive safely, because that is not news. The reason GA accidents are newsworthy is because there are so few. I pointed out to my interrogator that in his own newspaper, the day before, there were three auto accidents including one with two fatalities. That garnered about eight column inches on the second page compared to the GA accident that covered the entire top half of the front page with pictures and commentary that flowed onto back pages. Rare events gather headlines while common events do not.

A statement that ASF makes in the Nall Report, our annual review of the safety picture from the year before, is an excellent reminder. The U.S. Supreme Court has said, "Safe is not the equivalent of risk free." There will be mishaps in any mode of transport including walking and cycling. GA is not as safe as the airlines—for the same reason that small boats are not as safe as ocean liners and cars are not as safe as buses. The laws of physics regarding speed and mass are generally unforgiving when sudden stops are involved. GA and the airlines both operate in the same medium—air—but they have different machines, different operations, and good reasons for doing so.

What can be done to reduce accidents caused by pilot error?

What can be done to reduce accidents from any kind of human error? Some journalists think they have discovered a nefarious plot or universal truth that pilots are the primary cause of crashes. When machinery is used for critical functions, it is overdesigned to prevent faults. When equipment fails, it is reengineered to prevent recurring problems. Gradually, equipment is removed as the source of the problem.

Reengineering humans isn't widespread at the moment. Humans make mistakes, and the pilot is typically at the end of an error chain that may have been started by and helped along by several other people. Many times we are the primary architects of our own disasters, and aviation is no different than any other human activity. People make mistakes in every pursuit. While training and practice will reduce occurrences to a low level, it's almost impossible to eliminate them. Now, having dodged the bullet with platitudes, what could really be done?

Weather is one of the biggest challenges facing GA. VFR pilots stumbling into the clouds makes headlines. If you aren't rated for clouds—don't do clouds (see " Wx Watch: Cloud Busting," page 145). Provide better forecasts and nowcasts to help pilots make better weather decisions and the accidents will drop. If pilots can be assured that a particular course of action will have a bad outcome they are less likely to do it. Our present weather prognostication system has a fair amount of ambiguity, so some pilots are inclined to push it. A few don't make it. Better forecasts and weather dissemination are improving the weather-related accident picture.

Low-level maneuvering flight that results in crashes is not one of the better uses for aircraft. High and fast, in most cases, is safer than low and slow. Low-level maneuvering flight was the leading accident phase of flight in 1999, according to the NTSB.

Periodic training to maintain proficiency is essential. The vast majority of pilots do a good job as measured by low accident rates. Could it be better? Yes. The point must be made, however, that the GA accident experience is steadily improving and has been since 1946. Last year was the best ever. There will be occasional setbacks and high-profile disasters, but overall it is getting better.

What can be done to reduce accidents caused by mechanical failure?

There aren't very many mechanical failures. Typically, less than 15 percent of our accidents are caused by a mechanical flaw. In a few cases the owner has skimped on maintenance, but this is an exception. Well-maintained aircraft are among the most reliable of all human machines. The regulations generally do a good job of prescribing what should be done. The aircraft certification system and good routine preventive maintenance have eliminated most hardware failures. Again, there are exceptions but these are individual flaws, not systemic faults. When there is a hardware failure that has the potential to become widespread, the airworthiness directive system comes into play.

What initiatives is the industry bringing forward to improve safety?

This is a great question and one that I always relish. Your association and safety foundation have one of the most robust, tangible programs for pilot education and awareness imaginable. AOPA Pilot reaches more than half of the pilot population alone. AOPA Flight Training reaches new pilots and many CFIs. ASF's InstructoReport is sent free to every CFI quarterly.

Electronically, between AOPA and ASF, there is much more than can be listed here, but a few key items are free runway taxi diagrams, online courses, airport information and instrument approach procedures, weather, and safety articles. There are tens of thousands of pages available. ASF materials are available to all pilots, regardless of AOPA membership.

ASF annually conducts free safety seminars in conjunction with the FAA throughout the country on topics such as collision avoidance, spatial disorientation, weather, and GPS, just to name a few. We offer low-cost do-it-yourself programs to those locations that we can't get to. More than a dozen safety advisors, single-topic pamphlets, as well as several aircraft safety reports are available free. ASF distributes well over 100,000 advisors every year.

Considerable staff time is allocated to working with NASA, the FAA, and the NTSB to coordinate efforts and improve the safety picture. We provide technical data, operations experience, and educational perspective to many government deliberations.

For the past several years ASF has distributed tens of thousands of free videos to new private and instrument pilots to help them fly more safely. Name another industry that has been so proactive. Recent topics have included solutions to getting lost, dealing with crosswinds, and weather decision making.

We are not alone. Other industry organizations and the FAA are working alongside us to help pilots fly more safely. By any measure, GA is putting forth a major effort to maintain and improve the safety record. That is not to say that the job is done by any measure. When there is an accident, we pause to consider the loss, figure out what happened, and look at additional preventive measures. Seldom is the system at fault. Occasionally, an individual makes an error and that's where the education effort comes in. We need to reach more pilots, more often, with more useful information before a faulty decision leads to a tragedy. Most pilots recognize that there is some inherent risk in flight and the record shows that, as a group, we fly responsibly and safely.

See also the index of "Safety Pilot" articles, organized by subject.