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Lessons Of The Past

"Little airplane pilots fly almost 27 million hours a year, and during the past couple of decades, the accident rate (per 100,000 flying hours) has declined by about 35 percent. Now that's something to be proud of. Over this same period, however, the fatality rate of has remained steady at around 20 percent. That means that one out of every five accidents, on average, involves one or more fatalities.

Today in the United States, there is an average of more than five general aviation accidents every day. On July 7, 1997, a date selected at random from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) database, there were 27 general aviation accidents. So, what are we supposed to learn from all these numbers?

What the Numbers Mean

If you were a new flying student, would it mean anything to you if someone said, "The U.S. GA accident rate for 1998 was 7.12 accidents per 100,000 flying hours?" Well, it was. How about if you heard that there were 621 general aviation fatalities in 1998? Also a correct statement. But what does that really mean to someone who is new to aviation and has no context for judging the numbers? Figures like these might turn on the statisticians, but I suspect they don't do much for most pilots.

But there are numbers that you can turn into valuable information for your students. What if someone were to say to you that two-thirds of all accidents happen during approach and landing and that it's been that way for years, regardless of what type of airplane you fly? You'd probably listen up. How about the painful fact that pilots cause about 90 percent of all the accidents? That means that when I get into the cockpit, I become my own worst enemy if I haven't kept up my skills and don't stay ahead of the aircraft.

Here's an accident report abstract from 1988. To me it means more than sterile numbers ever will. In part, it says, "... turning base to final, the aircraft overshot the windline [sic], steepened the turn, stalled, and crashed." Two serious injuries resulted. The report said that the airplane was not using the correct fuel, which caused the engine to run rough before the accident.

It doesn't take a lot of smarts to get something meaningful out of this narrative in at least three ways: 1) Regardless of problems with your airplane, fly a solid pattern so you won't overshoot final approach. 2) Rather than overshoot and do something risky to correct for it, go around. 3) Above all, stay coordinated in the traffic pattern. Cross-controlling can kill you. In this case, it almost did. Now you might find many more lessons in just those few lines of an accident report.

The information is definitely out there. Unfortunately, too few of us spend enough time looking at the accidents of others to see what lessons they might teach us. And too few instructors introduce their students to this resource. One reason might be that it takes a long time for the NTSB to finalize an accident report. We need to remember that the NTSB's emphasis is on getting it right, not on doing it quickly. Inaccurate records are often worse than no records at all, especially because crucial matters like liability, negligence, and other important factors often hinge on the findings. As a result, it typically takes a year or more for a preliminary report to become a final report.

With the increasing prominence of the Internet as a data-gathering tool, access to more than 44,000 accident reports filed in the NTSB database since 1981 is available at your fingertips. Access ( ) and follow the search options that allow you to look up accident reports by any number of criteria such as location, phase of flight, cause, and aircraft type. In addition to individual accident reports, many safety studies and statistics are available for you and your students to use. The object of looking at these figures isn't to scare your students, just to show them that there's something to be learned from someone else's mistakes and, when necessary, to drive home the point that failing to learn these vital lessons can have serious, or even fatal, results.

Lessons To Be Learned

Even though many of the reports will be more than a year old before they are finalized, they are useful to us. There is no such thing as a stale accident report. Mistakes are ageless, especially when we pilots just seem to keep repeating the same ones year after year. As an example, check out this list of the top 10 accident causes found in the current Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM):

  • Inadequate preflight preparation
  • Failure to achieve or maintain flying speed
  • Failure to maintain directional control
  • Improper level-off
  • Failure to see and avoid objects or obstructions
  • Mismanagement of fuel
  • Improper in-flight decisions or planning
  • Misjudgment of distance or speed
  • Selection of unsuitable terrain
  • Improper operation of flight controls

Nothing surprising on this list, is there? These items have not changed over the last 20 years. That should definitely tell us all something.

What We Have Learned

So what's the story here? Haven't we learned anything over these last 20 years? Apparently not much, even though most of us attend safety meetings, read aviation magazines, and think about safety. Why have we not seemed to profit more from the mistakes of those who have gone before us? Could it be that we simply don't take the time to check the record and think about what we've found?

Last December, a Cessna 182B crashed at 11,000 feet at midday in Colorado. These comments were in the preliminary report of that accident: "...A VFR flight plan had been filed for the personal cross country...Instrument meteorological conditions prevailed at the accident site...Several feet of snow were present...According to several witnesses who were driving through the pass [one-quarter of a mile from the crash site] near the time of the accident, they were unable to view the peaks of the pass due to low-level clouds...." Surely you and your students can think of some ways that this accident could have been prevented.

We often hear that most accidents are caused by more than just a single factor. That becomes obvious, even from review of the following relatively simple report of the crash of a Cessna 172R last fall.

Around midday, the aircraft loaded with three people struck rising terrain " the vicinity of Independence Pass near Aspen, Colorado at 11,948 feet above sea a narrow valley...." Density altitude at the time was calculated to be 14,100 feet msl. The crash occurred only 20 minutes after takeoff. "According to witnesses, the aircraft was observed to be flying up the valley leading from Aspen to Independence Pass...flying slow, in a climb, with a nose high attitude as it impacted terrain..."

As an instructor, try sharing a report like this one with a student who is learning about density altitude. Then ask, "Knowing what you do from this report, if you were the pilot of this airplane, could you have prevented this accident? How?"

A report like this one would be a great opportunity for you and your student to review mountain flying recommendations dealing with gross weight, temperature and time of day, aircraft performance, preferred or recommended mountain routes, and the importance of considering all of these factors while you're still safely on the ground. Regardless of what cause is ultimately determined for this unfortunate accident, which killed the pilot and injured the two passengers, there are a lot of lessons to be discussed and learned. Who knows-a little thought could prevent another fatality in the future.

The Bottom Line

Regardless of where wisdom originates or how we obtain it, aviation can benefit from a better-informed pilot force. The mistakes of others hold life-saving secrets for us. Abundant information is out there for the taking.

Textbooks and manuals aren't the only sources of information about learning to fly or staying proficient and safe. Instructors especially have a golden opportunity to serve their students by exposing them to accident reports and professionally discussing the lessons they teach. Accident reports are free. They are there to be used. How about more and better use of them as real lessons of the past?

By Walter D. Miller

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