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Aviation weather and night flying testimonyAviation weather and night flying testimony

Statement of Phil Boyer
Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association


Aviation Weather and Night Flying

July 22, 1999

The tragic loss of three lives in the flight of John F. Kennedy Jr. off the coast of Massachusetts last week has brought the issue of weather and judgment, and how they affect the safety of general aviation, to national attention. We offer our condolences to the families and mourn the loss of our fellow pilot and AOPA member, John Kennedy Jr., his wife Carolyn, and her sister Lauren. Of course, nobody knows the causes of this accident yet, so discussion of specific causal factors is premature. There are many possibilities to consider, including weather, decision making, equipment or structural failure, even a bird strike. In any transportation accident, such as Little Rock that you have just been discussing, there is usually a sequence of events, none of which might cause an accident alone. This must be left for the NTSB to determine. Such will be the case over the coming months, as this committee is well aware. One possibility of the sequence of unfortunate events is that takeoff was delayed, and weather data obtained earlier was obsolete by the time the flight commenced. We don’t know if Mr. Kennedy requested updated weather information or pilot reports. I bring up this possibility only to demonstrate that a series of events, none of which individually involve irresponsibility, inexperience, or deviation from regulations on the part of the pilot, can combine to cause accidents despite careful preparation.

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AOPA President Phil Boyer

As you know, Mr. Chairman, the majority of general aviation flights are conducted under visual flight rules (VFR). VFR involves navigation and control of the aircraft largely by sight, and it requires suitable weather conditions. The airspace below 10,000 feet, where most of general aviation flies—VFR conditions require a minimum of 3 miles visibility. A VFR flight must also remain 500 feet below or 1,000 feet above any low-altitude clouds.

To deliberately fly in instrument meteorological conditions, a pilot is required to have an instrument rating, which requires additional training and a flight check. Reports indicate that John Kennedy was rated for visual flight only, like the majority of general aviation pilots.

A VFR-rated pilot is allowed to fly at night. Under the right conditions, flying at night is appropriate and safe. In good weather, cities, TV towers, and other aircraft are easier to see. The air is smooth, there is less air traffic, and it can be one of the most enjoyable times to fly. It also requires pilots to be keenly aware of weather conditions.

The AOPA Air Safety Foundation’s Nall Report on general aviation safety trends, based on information from the NTSB, shows that daytime VFR flights (.88 fatal accidents per 100,000 hours flown) and night VFR flights (.76 fatal per 100,000 hours) conducted in 1997 have very similar fatal accident rates. Accidents rates under instrument conditions (flying in the clouds, without visual reference, and/or totally within the control of the FAA air traffic system) are higher both for day and night and include VFR pilots attempting flights for which they were not qualified. To keep this tragedy in perspective, we must remember there were thousands of successful VFR flights last Friday night, including some into Martha’s Vineyard.

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AOPA members Congressmen John Cooksey
(R-La.) and Charles F. Bass (R-N.H.)

To account for changing or uncertain weather conditions, day or night, private pilots are trained to avoid poor visibility. However, recognizing that weather forecasting is an inexact science, they are also trained to escape poor visibility conditions if they are encountered inadvertently. In the wake of this accident, some have suggested that night-VFR training or regulations be reviewed. However, the Federal Aviation Administration substantially stiffened the requirements for night flight privileges two years ago in August 1997, and we understand that Mr. Kennedy was certificated under these new regulations. These improvements in training and certification should equip VFR-rated pilots with the skills and judgment to make night flying safe.


The Nall Report revealed that in 1997, 38 of the 46 fatal weather-related general aviation accidents, or 83 percent, were caused by VFR flight into instrument meteorological conditions (IMC). Today’s rigorous training requirements for private pilots reflect a greater emphasis on weather than in the past. A minimum of 40 hours of flight training is required, although most applicants take 60 hours or more before they are ready to meet the practical test standards. A knowledge or written test is administered prior to solo flight and again prior to certification. All pilots must undergo and pass a medical examination by an FAA-designated medical examiner. A practical test with an FAA inspector or designated examiner will typically last half a day with both oral testing and flight testing. Of particular interest to the subcommittee, night regulations have become far more stringent. Prior to 1974, no night training was required. Beginning in 1974, the rules required at least three hours of night dual instruction, including 10 takeoffs and 10 landings. In 1997 they were strengthened again to add a cross-country flight of at least 100 nautical miles total distance. This was inserted to allow student pilots an opportunity to experience flight at night outside of the populated and well-lighted airport area.

An additional three hours of instrument training ensures a basic level of competency to operate an airplane solely by reference to instruments. The objective of all this specialized training is to prepare a pilot to escape from an inadvertent encounter with instrument conditions, usually by making a 180-degree turn to fly back into clear weather. Specific skills include straight and level flight, constant airspeed climbs and descents, turns to a heading, recovery from unusual flight attitudes, radio communications, and the use of navigation systems and radar services appropriate to instrument flight.

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Phil Boyer offers visual aids to House committee.

A pilot is also required to recognize critical weather situations from the ground and in flight, be able to procure and use aeronautical weather reports and forecasts, and to employ aeronautical decision making and judgment. Additionally, he or she must know how to plan for alternatives if the planned flight cannot be completed or delays are encountered. All of this is currently written into the regulations. The instructor is required to endorse the pilot’s logbook that he or she had received all required instruction and has performed satisfactorily. The FAA examiner is required to verify the logbook entries and to test the applicant to standard on specific tasks. I have a copy of the practical test standards document for your records. During the practical test, the pilot applicant is required to demonstrate instrument proficiency as described above and to successfully recover the aircraft from unusual flight attitudes while wearing a view-limiting device that allows reference to flight instruments only.

Of course, the best way to avoid poor visibility conditions in VFR flight is to avoid flying into such conditions, or to cancel the flight when instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) are present or forecast to develop. There are many sources of information on current and predicted weather available. A pilot can call a flight service station (FSS) for a complete briefing, including recent conditions observed by other pilots. These reports are especially useful for flight over water because ground-based weather observations may not be available. A pilot may also obtain weather information by computer from the FAA or private sources before takeoff. A VFR flight plan may be filed to expedite search and rescue services. VFR flight following is available from FAA air traffic control facilities, on a workload-permitting basis. This entails radar identification of the particular flight, an assigned transponder code, traffic advisories, and coordination with other ATC facilities. The flight remains in constant radio contact. A radio call en route to a flight service station or on the national “Flight Watch” frequency, which is set aside for weather information exclusively, is also available to receive updated weather reports and reports from other pilots on weather conditions just encountered.

However, no amount of training or regulation can substitute for the essential role that pilot judgment plays in assuring safe flight. A pilot is legally and morally responsible for the safe operation of an aircraft, and only the pilot can account for unknown or changing conditions, his experience, and obeying the regulations.

As a result of these statistics and a desire to make rational decisions, the FAA and the industry, including air carriers and general aviation, have joined together in the Safer Skies Initiative under the leadership of FAA Administrator Jane Garvey>. This began last year. Specially qualified safety analysis teams, including AOPA and AOPA Air Safety Foundation staff, have been looking at various categories of fatal accidents including weather and decision making, with the objective of developing data-driven results. This will lead to logical long-term intervention strategies rather than regulatory “Band-Aids” based on emotional reactions to a current accident, no matter how compelling it may seem at the time. This process should be allowed to continue. The weather team has already completed the analysis and is working on the intervention strategies. Industry and the FAA have already implemented some of them. In continuing pilot education, the Air Safety Foundation has been a leader in weather education, offering over 1,000 free seminars over the past five years focused on the topics of weather and pilot decision making. Ironically, this month in AOPA Pilot magazine, there is an article on the Piper Saratoga and another on ditching an aircraft in the water. AOPA Flight Training magazine, aimed at students and flight instructors, also has an article on obtaining the instrument rating.

Pilot training is only the beginning of the path toward being a safe pilot. Experience and continuing education are essential, and each pilot must gain experience in a responsible manner. Just as a teenager with a new driver’s license shouldn’t drive on a crowded interstate highway on a rainy night, a pilot should build up flying experience that allows for safe flight appropriate for the conditions at hand.

U.S. aviation has recently achieved new milestones in safety. In 1998, the major and regional airlines experienced a fatality-free year despite millions of flights. The Nall Report shows that 1997, the latest year with complete data, had the lowest overall U.S. accident rate in the history of general aviation. Preliminary reports show 1998 continues that trend. Based on long-term trends and recent statistics, general aviation is safer than it has ever been. Night flying is an appropriate and safe part of general aviation operations. As with any activity, from driving a car to crossing a street, flying involves some risk. In 1972 the Supreme Court stated, “Safety is not the equivalent of risk free.” Regulation, training, certification, pilot experience, and judgment all play a role to make night VFR flying as safe as possible. AOPA believes the recently expanded requirements and training for night visual flight and the existing requirements for basic instrument skills contribute significantly to flight safety. Until we have seen the NTSB final report from this tragic accident, and the full report of the FAA’s Implementation Team (from the Safer Skies Initiative), we should resist restructuring the recently established training criteria or modify visual flight rules that have served us well for many decades.

I pledge that both AOPA and the AOPA Air Safety Foundation will expand our efforts in this area just as we worked with the FAA in the aftermath of the Quincy, Illinois, runway incursion of a commuter airliner and a business aircraft. However, you can be assured despite major ongoing education efforts by our organizations and the FAA, because of the tremendous media coverage of last Friday’s accident, there is not a single GA pilot who will undertake a night flight, or any flight for that matter, without seriously considering the weather and judgment issues that have been raised as possible causes in the past week.

Mr. Chairman, this concludes my comments. I would be happy to answer any questions.

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