The great airplane chainsaw massacre

August 1, 2005

I probably irritated a friend who's in the airplane business by noting what a nice bunch of chainsaws he had for sale. The metaphor referring to a useful but potentially dangerous tool fits airplanes quite well. Almost anyone who has ever used a chainsaw can appreciate that they must be used carefully. But no one has yet designed a better, more convenient tool for cutting down trees or trimming large limbs. By its very nature, though, because it cuts fast and deeply, the potential exists to do extreme damage to humans in a variety of ways. Airplanes, by their nature, invoke very powerful forces of gravity and physics. They are complex machines that move swiftly and high above the Earth. They are used to very good advantage by mortals as long as that mortality is kept clearly in mind.

The people who sell the equipment — aircraft or chainsaws — assume that the potential user appreciates the inherent risk of the machine and will use it intelligently. In a few cases, the profit motive is foremost, and the new owner is sent off with little or no training and a "Y'all be careful now." In aviation, we generally go a bit further since federal certification is required and the potential for damage inflicted on others is greater than with the saw, although it rarely happens outside the affected aircraft.

I've been on several sides of this issue, selling the equipment (aircraft, not chainsaws) and providing training for it. The seller is under pressure to move inventory, and while there are ethics in the business to varying degrees, one can rationalize anything by offering a certain number of safety hoops that a potential buyer has to go through. In the majority of cases this works quite well. New pilots get the training they need and a periodic refresher to develop their skills. Most learn after some close calls that there are some things you just don't do with aircraft if you want to escape intact. This is called experience.

As an instructor and safety counselor, I've flown with people who didn't belong in a particular aircraft, usually one that was fast and complex. In a few cases they really didn't belong in any aircraft, and I politely suggested that they might find more joy (or less pain) in another field of endeavor. Getting them out of the system is devilishly tough because we rightly provide checks and balances to keep overzealous inspectors, instructors, and counselors from improperly infringing on someone's freedom. In most cases involving skill, the pilot can be brought up to standard with enough training to keep him alive, at least for a while. For a few pilots the skill level deteriorates faster than the experience or judgment quotient can ramp up. I don't have a good answer for this other than to ask those in positions of evaluation, "Would you let a family member ride with this pilot?" If the answer is no, then there's your answer — more training or out!

More often, we never see the continuing transgressions or lapses in judgment. Like with the chainsaw user alone in the woods, blithely sawing off a limb or sawing his limbs off, bad decision making frequently occurs in isolation where there is little opportunity for intervention. This is something the industry and the FAA have never quite come to terms with. We'll discuss that another time.

Back in my earliest aviation days, the instructor noted what a safe airplane the Piper J-3 Cub was, and explained that you were never going fast enough to do much damage to yourself or anything else. There is some logic to this, and in AOPA Air Safety Foundation's annual Nall Report, where we look at the state of general aviation safety, the lethality index of small, slow, fixed-gear aircraft is better than that of fast or heavy airplanes. The odds of having a fatal accident when the physics of mass and force are relatively small work in our favor. But just as small chainsaws can do extreme damage, so, too, can small aircraft. Sudden stops are just as debilitating, and even a minute quantity of avgas can start a very big fire.

So who has responsibility in the sale of useful but potentially hazardous equipment? My take is that this is a shared responsibility. The industry initially should provide appropriate training to get the buyer's skill level up to par. The regulatory system is designed for this and is mostly successful. Distinctions are made between high-performance aircraft, complex aircraft, high-altitude aircraft, multiengine aircraft, aircraft that require type ratings, and tailwheel aircraft, with other categories rounding out the field. One has to perform to satisfy a practical test or for an individual (examiner, inspector, or CFI) who will have at least some moral and possibly some legal liability.

There are currency requirements to provide a guide for proficiency. They properly do not guarantee proficiency since that is very much an individual requirement. Some pilots are proficient with only periodic practice that might approach regulatory guidelines. They tend to be highly experienced or rather gifted. At the other end of the scale are some who need to practice almost weekly to stay out of trouble. In a few cases they don't rise to the necessary level, turning aircraft into scrap material and making unfortunate headlines.

Individual responsibility comes into play after a pilot has run through the certification process and has been counseled, advised, admonished, warned, cajoled, and threatened by CFIs, counselors, friends, family, and possibly the insurance company. With good advice and some experience, most pilots get the picture and stay on the safe side of the proficiency-currency divide. A very few do not, and that's where the trouble begins. In the United States it is still a cherished freedom to take risk as long as you have been duly warned and don't involve others. We shouldn't be surprised when an occasional mishap occurs and should make every effort to inform and educate pilots about the true nature of an activity.

The chainsaw manufacturers don't publicize accidents involving their equipment, nor do other companies issue press releases detailing how someone came to grief using their product. It's bad for business. But rest assured that they generally include ample warnings in their manuals regarding how the equipment should be used and about not tampering with safety devices. It is true with aircraft as well — pilot's operating handbooks and equipment supplements are replete with death and destruction warnings. Commercially produced training manuals, CD-ROMs, and books provide lots of guidance on how to do it right. Aviation magazines, including AOPA Pilot and AOPA Flight Training, are loaded with safety articles and accident analysis. AOPA Air Safety Foundation seminars, online courses, DVDs, the accident database, Safety Advisors, special reports on the Online Safety Center, and other materials are very clear about the nature of flight.

The question that's always asked is, "How safe is general aviation?" The proper response is not that it's safer than automobiles — it isn't, at least in light piston aircraft. The correct answer, in my opinion, is, "It's as safe as you want it to be." Treat aircraft and chainsaws with the respect they deserve — live long and prosper.