Safety Pilot: An airline of one

What's the best you can offer?

November 1, 2012

Bruce Landsberg

This summer the NTSB held a forum because the general aviation safety record continues to be under scrutiny by the FAA, the NTSB, and the industry itself. I co-chair the GA Joint Steering Committee (GAJSC), an FAA/industry group that has existed for more than a decade. The GAJSC was formed to look at data and make realistic recommendations on how to improve GA’s safety record. Our desire to prevent all accidents will always overshadow the available resources, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying. However, the need to make rational choices is imperative.

During the forum NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman cited two VFR-into-IMC accidents in her opening remarks and noted, “Along with our lessons learned, [we] have to reach all pilots—not just the safety-conscious ones watching the forum in the audience or online. If the general aviation community is to learn from past experiences, everyone should be at the table. Because the reality is, we see the same bad things happening over and over.”

After analysis, the GAJSC chose loss of control as the priority with focus on two significant fatal accident factors: buzzing and VFR into instrument conditions—both of which were mentioned by the NTSB during and prior to the forum. So, we’re thinking alike; however, there are different thoughts on how to address this challenge. The real question, in my view, that should be asked is: Did the system fail, or is the failure because of a lack of individual responsibility and judgment? In 2009, the latest year with complete data at this writing, there were 27 fatal VFR-into-IMC accidents for the year. Two accidents a month, albeit regrettable and preventable, don’t seem to indicate a systemic problem when spread across tens of thousands of VFR flights per month and more than 200,000 private pilots.

Do pilots truly not know the risk of buzzing or VFR into IMC? Industry and government expend significant resources to attack the problem in various ways. The examples of those efforts are numerous and it’s impossible to prove they aren’t working. How many more accidents might we have had without those programs?

Accident is an unforeseen event. But the outcome in many fatal crashes is predictable—the result of egregiously bad judgment on the part of the pilot. “Reaching the unreachable” was a phrase used during the forum. The truly unreachable are just that. How far should we go to teach those who may also be unteachable?

Personal flight is another area where safety is always the responsibility of the pilot—it can be no other way. Hersman refers to personal aviation as “an airline of one,” which is a great idea, but the airline system is built upon no single-point human failure and an infrastructure that GA cannot support—the activities, the aircraft, and the operational environment are totally different.

What about increased stringency on private pilot test standards? The existing standards and regulations will ensure safe operations if pilots will but adhere to them! Two buzzing accidents were cited in the forum (a Baron and a Cessna 337). I have a hard time seeing that as a fault of the system, or a sign of inadequate regulation or education. No amount of additional regulation/education will eliminate all judgmental errors in an activity like personal flight. The ability to assess a pilot’s judgment on a practical test or during a flight review will not be particularly effective because humans modify their behaviors when being watched. (Think cop at the roadside with a radar gun.) The same applies to judgment evaluations on practical tests or flight reviews; a pilot will always behave conservatively on a checkride.

There are things that can be done that don’t involve more government intervention, and the hard reality is that all our interventions will have limited effect on the unteachable. The Air Safety Institute has invested more than $30 million in the past decade in live seminars, online programs, Pilot Safety Announcements, quizzes, and accident case studies to help those who choose to be helped. The messages are direct and sobering—and we’re not quitting.

Comparing GA’s safety record to the airlines is meaningless. The only valid comparison to the airlines is for the GA segment that operates like the airlines—crewed turbine equipment flown by professional pilots. In that arena, GA matches or exceeds the airlines on a regular basis. Because we allow people the freedom to fly without the massive oversight system that is essential to protect the airline passenger, there will inevitably be a significantly higher accident rate. This is true in all other activities involving personal transportation and recreation, so it comes down to Chairman Hersman’s “airline of one.” Your life and those of your passengers ultimately rest with you. Don’t they deserve the best you can offer?