Guilty before trial

Safety Pilot

December 1, 2006

Bruce Landsberg has led the AOPA Air Safety Foundation since 1992.

Aviation was, once again, in negative headlines this fall after the Cory Lidle crash that occurred after an apparent sightseeing trip up New York City's East River corridor. The instant experts and pseudo-experts were out in force in print, in the electronic media, and, of course, on the Web. These "experts" seldom fail to meet low expectations for accuracy, and most of their recommendations are increasingly restrictive and, in some cases, astoundingly naive in their impracticality. It was, however, especially disappointing to see some pilots reporting for media outlets — people who really should know better — assessing the accident investigation with prejudged solutions.

To quickly recap, Lidle and his CFI flew Lidle's Cirrus SR20 up the East River corridor, which is a dead end because of Class B airspace on all sides. They attempted a tight turn and either flew into the building or mushed/stalled into it. Mechanical issues have not yet come to light. The corridor has been described by many as the East Coast equivalent of a blind or "box" canyon, surrounded by clearance-required airspace and tall buildings. To the unwary this is a fairly high-risk situation — more on that later. Both pilots were killed, but there were no ground fatalities, as is usually the case in general aviation aircraft-into-building accidents.

I've picked apart an article by a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, Scott McCartney, who is a part owner in a Cirrus aircraft and who you would think, of all people, would be savvier about his comments and the negative image they form in the minds of the uninformed. He straddled the fence, attempting to present a balanced view. But I've done what any closed-minded anti-GA reader would have done and focused on his negative GA statements. All quotes in this column are from McCartney's article.

Garbled facts

The article started with garbled facts by noting that there have been 21 fatal Cirrus SR20 accidents since 1999. The AOPA Air Safety Foundation's Accident Database shows only eight. McCartney innocently lumped the SR22 into the mix, which some may not feel is a substantive error. However, the SR22 has a different type certificate with some notable distinctions — more power, longer wings, significantly different performance. Would that have made a difference here? Probably not, but the error is the same as saying the Cessna 172 and 182 are identical — they aren't. If you stick with SR20s, one fatal accident per year doesn't seem to indicate a major problem with the model or the pilots flying it.

I am sorry for Cirrus. Its marketing, by any measure, has been highly successful, such that the company has become a major player in a piston-aircraft industry that has trundled along for decades with limited innovation. And innovative Cirrus is now a major target. At press time an estimated 611 SR20s and 1,739 SR22s had been produced. That's a lot of aircraft and a lot of exposure. There is a vibrant owners group and, as with any highly successful product, the detractors pick on design, construction, and the fact that Cirrus models have a parachute. Would the parachute have made a difference? Probably not in this case, but the parachutes are credited with saving more than 20 lives in several other accidents. The parachute is not a panacea, but then I'm hard-pressed to think of any safety device that serves in all circumstances. (See "License to Learn: Parachute Systems," page 50.)

Indicting an entire industry

"It may be the trap of too much cool technology, or simply overconfident, financially successful people feeling invincible and getting themselves over their heads," wrote McCartney. How does a single building crash turn into the indictment of an entire activity? Doesn't this same denunciation apply to fast cars, hot boats, and motorcycles? In other personal and recreational activities, the industry and its users aren't singled out solely as the culprit. I would also point out that no other personal transportation/recreational business goes as far as GA to advance safety in as many ways nor does it have anywhere near our level of training or certification. Visit our Web site to see all the free courses, available DVDs, and 200-plus free safety seminars that are scheduled annually. Most (probably all) GA publications discuss safety or flight technique in some form. Accidents are down roughly 90 percent since the Air Safety Foundation began in 1950. GA's fatality record is about on par with that of motorcycles, and although we should never stop trying to improve it, you won't see many high-profile bike riders publicly remonstrating Harley Davidson, Kawasaki, or bikers in general for providing us with organ donors made from unskilled riders.

The human condition

"All fatal crashes investigated by the NTSB so far have been blamed on pilot error," wrote McCartney. Although this statement isn't quite correct (one of the accidents cited previously involved a Cirrus flight-test aircraft with a control jam that resulted in the loss of the test pilot), McCartney correctly states a fact that applies to the human condition — pilots are almost always the architects of their own disasters, as are humans in every form of similar endeavor.

Human weakness is not unique to pilots. It applies to every man-machine relationship with the possible exception of certain software programs where humans may actually be more reliable. When a product is shown to be defective it is usually fixed quickly or litigated out of business. In aviation, it may be litigated out of business even after it's been fixed. Think about cars, motorcycles, boats, bicycles, power tools, ad infinitum — all are far more reliable than their operators. Humans remain stuck in version 1.0 and will be for the foreseeable future. Some humans work very well and others occasionally malfunction — we are just not consistent as a group and in a performance activity that will have an occasionally spectacular negative outcome. That doesn't mean we give up or stop trying to do better, but perspective is critical.

McCartney goes on to say, "There have been numerous examples of newly minted pilots crashing near their homes." How did he ever come to that conclusion? Accident reports seldom have pilot certificate dates on them. There are anecdotes, to be sure, and some of the incidents they relate are tragically bad, but on a percentage or even a numerical basis the stats will not come anywhere near close to supporting the "numerous" assertion. This kind of speculation is extremely damaging and provides much ammunition to those who would take us out of the air.

As a closing thought McCartney suggests, "If there's a lesson to be learned from Mr. Lidle's crash and changes to be made, it's this: Pilots need to work harder at keeping themselves safe." Now there's a helpful recommendation! Without the benefit of "hindsight bias" (look that up on the Internet — you'll be amazed at our ability to pre-confirm something we didn't know) that invariably comes after such an event, most people would not have said, in advance, that Lidle or his CFI was ill-prepared for their flight. Lidle had just completed training several months prior, well inside the time frame most professional pilots use for recurrent training. McCartney disdained the two-year period on the flight review, but it didn't apply in this case. Lidle had hired a professional he trusted to assist him. How much harder should we reasonably be expected to work in a noncommercial, recreational activity?

Zero accidents

If you truly believe that zero accidents is the only acceptable goal, then let's ground all the aircraft, park all the cars, and cancel all surgery because none of these activities will ever be without risk and subject to occasional human mistake. The danger of looking only at accidents is that we will never see the benefits that come from the activity — only the negative.

There are possibly some systemic faults including the terminal area chart. According to McCartney and many others, the East River corridor was a trap — characterized as a box canyon. If that information was widely known (it apparently wasn't to Lidle or his California-based CFI) and operationally significant, wouldn't it make sense to place a prominent warning on the terminal area chart about confined airspace and the possibility of a stall?

That said, in more than 100 years of aviation, this is the first time ever a general aviation aircraft struck a building in New York City. By any reasonable safety standard, that's an impressive record. To have this writer and others like him use this accident to take apart GA's safety record is disingenuous. A very dangerous aspect of this is that most readers don't have the opportunity to ask questions to make an informed opinion.

There is no doubt that some pilots are poorly skilled or have abysmally poor judgment, and we should make every reasonable effort to train them or eliminate them. However, the constant and public self-flagellation by pilot writers saying that the system is broken, well intentioned as it might be, is more destructive to our freedom to fly and has less effect on the errant pilots than the authors seem capable of understanding. If you want to make a meaningful contribution, wait until the investigation is complete before deciding what should be said and done. In the interim, fly as if your life depended upon your skills — drive safely too!