Safety Pilot

Bitten by sound bites

September 1, 2011

LandsbergNews flash! Sound-bite headlines are often misleading—not that the media or anyone would ever want to mislead, of course.

There are three aviation safety sound bites to strike from your repertoire (unless, of course, the objective is to obfuscate):

“If you can drive a car you can fly an airplane.” While most humans can become pilots with enough instruction, flight does require much more skill and judgment than driving a car.

“Flying is safer than driving.” But only when compared to the airlines. Light aircraft flight is quite a bit riskier, although it can be significantly improved by following the rules, periodic practice, and exercising good judgment.

“GA safety is 40 times worse than the airlines.” While the raw number may be accurate, the question is why this comes up at all—because, as with most bites, context is all-important. This is not to suggest any relaxation of standards; if we all flew to just private pilot specifications, as written today (see “Safety Pilot: Flying to Standard,” June 2011 AOPA Pilot) the accident rate would drop significantly. For a few pilots, the last time they met the spec was when the ink dried on their temporary certificate. In my view, CFIs should cover some critical items on most every flight review: stalls and slow flight, basic instrument proficiency, consistently safe takeoffs and landings, and some discussion on assessing risk.

Let’s assume that GA’s raw flight hours, the denominator, are accurate even though they are only an approximation. Actually, as recently as 2010, flight time for amateur-built aircraft was underestimated, thus inflating the accident rate. It’s probably not realistic to expect homebuilt aircraft to fare as well as certificated machines, but in many cases, the aircraft was incidental to some ill-considered act. The point is that a single number doesn’t illustrate complexity well. Comparing light GA to the airlines is like comparing watermelons to grapes, motorcycles to buses, or Jet Skis to cruise ships. About the only attributes the airlines and light GA share are that we both fly aircraft, vastly different in capability, and occasionally occupy the same airspace.

Where GA and air carrier operations use similar aircraft—jets—the safety records are similar. But GA’s diversity is the source of statistically stupid comparisons. Consider a single-engine piston aircraft flown by an inexperienced, lone VFR pilot operating from a short runway, with no weather-detection gear, no dispatcher to assess weather before and during the flight, possibly to a destination he’s never been to before.

For the airlines we have a professionally-crewed jet operating under IFR, flying out of an approved airport to another approved airport, by a crew that has been route checked, dispatched, and assisted by a team of professionals they can consult at any time during the flight. Airline aircraft fly over most of the weather, are pressurized, approved for significant icing, and have thunderstorm-detection gear. The vast majority are turbine-powered, equipped with at least two engines, and must be capable of aborting or continuing a takeoff on the available runway. En route, they must be able to divert to another airport regardless of distance or terrain.

Conversely, GA aircraft are vastly different from one another. They include the smallest amateur-built craft carrying one person to 15-passenger business jets. Add light sport machines, trainers, agriculture airplanes, banner towers, and aerobatic aircraft. Their missions are equally varied and often much riskier than flying from A to B.

Takeoff or landing is the most dangerous phase of flight for most flight operations, and is where about half of GA accidents occur. GA, as a group, typically makes many more takeoffs and landings per hour than the airlines, which dramatically increases the risk and the accident rate. And yet, some people still think the sound bite is valid? Does anyone compare the safety of driving in the Daytona 500 with a trip to the supermarket? Of course not! That doesn’t keep NASCAR from working diligently to improve its safety—and we shouldn’t stop either—but let’s quit using airline safety comparisons as a justification.

The paying public has the right to the highest possible safety in buses, ships, and airliners. GA passengers and pilots should understand that they are not afforded the same level of protection, any more than when they get onto someone’s motorcycle, small boat, or automobile. Ground fatalities, off-airport caused by an aircraft, are the source of great public angst but are rare—the risk is nine times greater of getting hit by lightning.

Where to draw the safety line in GA will always be debated because opinions and operations are so varied. There are pilots in our system who shouldn’t be flying and some who never should have been certificated in the first place—as in all other personal activities. How to fairly identify and remove them on a consistent basis is a vexing problem. The Air Safety Institute has more than 30 free online courses, publishes a quiz every other week, and offers about 200 free live seminars annually. What more should we do? Are you convinced that the government can make GA much safer than it already is, without a significant reduction in your freedom to fly? That’s really up to us, as pilots in command. So the next time someone tosses off the GA/airline safety stats for shock value, ask them if they equate the high banks of Daytona with the supermarket parking lot.

Tell me what you think ( bruce.landsberg@aopa.org).

Bruce Landsberg flies aircraft equipped with FDM but has yet to see any of his data. It could be interesting.