Safety Pilot: The sky is not falling, but...

November 1, 2008

Bruce Landsberg has served the Air Safety Foundation since 1992.

Loss of life in an aircraft accident is always tragic, but it’s tougher to explain when people on the ground are killed. Pilots know or should know that there is some inherent risk in flying light aircraft and take action to manage it. And understandably, some non-pilots are happiest when they have nothing to do with general aviation. So from a public perception viewpoint, it’s a really bad day when an aircraft kills or injures someone on the ground.

The odds of having an aircraft fall on top of you are remarkably small. Over the last five years there have been eight fatalities off airports and 17 serious injuries involving light fixed-wing aircraft. That works out to an average of 1.6 fatalities per year. Just to put this into perspective, that’s less than a third of the likelihood of dying from a venomous snakebite, and death by earthquake is far more likely. This is according to the National Safety Council statistics for U.S. residents. There are a few confounding factors, however, which we’ll get to momentarily.

The hard reality is that reality plays an increasingly small role in the world of media, round-the-clock news, sound bites, and local politics. Perception and agendas carry much more than their fair weight when the mob is aroused by some unfortunate event. As I’ve said before, there should be no politics in safety. Conversely, there is no safety in politics, and the eyes of communities are ever more upon us.

A 2006 crash has to go down as one of the biggest black eyes that GA has had in recent years. The term accident doesn’t really apply because that means that the outcome couldn’t be easily foreseen. In February 2006, a homebuilt Glasair II performing low-level aerobatics over a residential suburb of Sacramento, California, stalled and crashed into a single-family residence. A 19-year-old college student was killed, and two houses were destroyed. According to the NTSB report, “The witnesses said the passenger told them that he and the other pilot were ‘going to show you guys what flying is about.’ Several of the witnesses were on a nearby golf course and other witnesses were in the residential area surrounding the accident site. All of the witnesses said the airplane was performing aerobatics at altitudes they described as between 200 and 800 feet above the ground.”

AOPA and the AOPA Air Safety Foundation began receiving calls and e-mails on the disaster almost immediately as the media, in this case, accurately portrayed what had happened. There was no way to defend the apparently indefensible, so the best course of action was to remind local pilots about the hazards of maneuvering flight and show the local population that the vast majority of pilots are cautious and responsible. Within two weeks we conducted a local safety seminar, and more than 400 pilots turned out. Obviously, we could not discuss the specifics of this accident since the investigation was only in preliminary stages, but pilots were reminded that buzzing is really dumb. The seminar also addressed many other aspects of maneuvering that go well beyond Darwin Award antics. As for “showing what flying is about,” these two pilots didn’t influence anyone positively in the aviation or the Roseville community. When the final NTSB report came out, the aircraft was performing normally. There were no extenuating circumstances to justify what these two boneheads did.

Jump ahead now to August 2008 when a Cessna 172 with a CFI and passenger took off in what appears to have been instrument conditions near a beach resort in Oregon. The closest weather reporting station eight miles away was calling it 300 overcast and 2.5 miles in mist, with no separation between temperature and dew point. They made it just about a mile before striking two houses, killing three persons, and seriously injuring three other people on the ground. No instrument flight plan had been filed and, while that wasn’t the cause of the accident, it’s plausible to believe that the pilot was trying to maintain visual ground contact. It’s too soon to know if there were any instrument or mechanical malfunctions. However, VFR into IMC under these circumstances will also be very difficult to explain. We’ll soon know.

Shortly after that, two fatal accidents occurred near North Las Vegas Airport within six days of each other, also in August. The circumstances of the two mishaps are quite different. The first one involved an experimental aircraft on a proving flight that apparently lost power, crashed into a house, and killed two people on the ground as well as the pilot. In the second accident, a Piper Navajo pilot was lost as he attempted an emergency return to the airport after recent maintenance on the aircraft. He crashed into a house, but there were no ground fatalities.

North Las Vegas, a busy GA reliever airport for the air carrier airport McCarran International, is surrounded by housing developments that came well after the airport was built. It’s typical testimony to poor planning by local governments and creates a near-impossible safety situation for an off-airport landing.

Living off the end of a runway is much like living in tornado alley. The potential for a tornado hit to your home is higher than in other parts of the country but is still an exceedingly rare occurrence. I lived in Kansas for 15 years, flew all over the Midwest, and never saw a tornado, but they were around. An aircraft building strike off the end of a runway is slightly more likely than when buildings are located elsewhere, but far from certain. The odds of a particular property getting hit are extraordinarily small, so what are the odds of two building strikes at the same airport within a week? Astronomical, but it proves reality and perception can sometimes intertwine. If the bookies in Vegas were gaming this, the payout would be handsome indeed.

The Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) has had its hands full in dealing with the first crash and holding off knee-jerk reactions from some local officials and homeowners calling for a ban on experimental aircraft. Let’s first understand what happened and then figure what might be appropriate to allay concern over testing of experimental aircraft.

AOPA’s Airport’s Department has worked tirelessly with AOPA Airport Support Network volunteers to prevent incompatible land development too close to airports. Safety concerns and noise complaints are inevitable when residential areas and runways coexist too closely, but local zoning boards often can’t resist the pressure to build from developers and landowners. Take the money and run—let someone else deal with noise complaints and safety concerns long after the beneficiaries and dealmakers are gone. Now Congress is involved with a grant to establish a Safety Management System to “Help determine compliance with international standards and identify issues of concern.”

What can pilots do to alleviate this? Compatible land development is the real solution, and everyone should be engaged in that process, even when all you wanted to do was just fly your aircraft. Sooner or later, even if there isn’t an accident, it will become a problem. Prevention is far preferable to the cure. However, once the houses are built the focus must shift to accident prevention. Most pilots get it, and for those who don’t—send them a copy of this column. The collateral damage following ground fatalities is significant. Maintain the aircraft to a high standard and fly as if life depended on it. It does.