The just-released AOPA Air Safety Foundation 2000 Nall Report shows the general aviation accident rate continuing to decline, with a new record low set in 1999. The achievement comes despite a dramatic increase in estimated hours flown.
"Although the annual decreases for general aviation pilots are small, they show that a combination of improved technology and pilot education appears to be working," said Bruce Landsberg, ASF executive director. "The trend is moving in the right direction."
The GA accident rate (accidents per 100,000 flight hours) has been declining steadily since 1994 and overall shows a decrease of more than 90 percent since record keeping began in 1938.
The AOPA Air Safety Foundation's 2000 Nall Report is a comprehensive examination of all accidents from the previous year involving fixed-wing GA aircraft under 12,500 pounds. It documents specific safety problem areas.
Low-level maneuvering flight and adverse weather conditions were the two largest fatal accident categories for GA pilots in 1999, unchanged from previous years.
Approximately half of all maneuvering-flight accidents caused fatalities, often with aircraft crashing out of control or colliding with terrain, wires, or other structures. Another 25 percent were attributed to "loss of control," including two of the three fatal maneuvering accidents in multiengine airplanes.
"Although the natural tendency is to think of all maneuvering accidents as simply pilots showing off with low-level thrill flights, some of these accidents occurred during legitimate activities such as aerial application, banner towing, and law enforcement," pointed out Landsberg. "These operations require low, slow flight and considerable mission-related division of attention. These operations carry some inherent risk and demand skill and vigilance from the pilot."
Flights into adverse weather conditions were even more deadly, with 75 percent of weather-related accidents involving fatalities. Most weather-related accidents involved aircraft striking objects or terrain at high airspeed or crashing out of control, sometimes after a pilot-induced structural failure.
The ASF 2000 Nall Report did find a silver lining in 1999's statistical cloud: a marked decrease in the number of weather-judgment accidents, from 65 in 1998 to just 36 in 1999.
"While we won't call it a trend yet, the hope is that pilots are heeding the message that continuing VFR flight into instrument weather conditions is not a life-prolonging activity," observed Landsberg.
He also noted that flight hours, FAA certificates, or advanced ratings aren't necessarily a cure-all for bad judgment. Two of the fatal weather-judgment accidents in 1999 involved professional pilots who attempted visual flight with ceilings below 100 feet.
Of the four main types of flying categorized in the 2000 report, flight for personal reasons was by far the largest single type of operation—45 percent of all GA flights—but also accounted for 68 percent of all accidents and 67.5 percent of fatal accidents. In fact, personal flights resulted in more than their share of fatal accidents from all causes except for landing.
Business flight (aircraft flown by owners and renters for business purposes) continued to do well, accounting for almost 16 percent of flight activity but only slightly more than eight percent of fatal accidents. Flight instruction also had a very good year in 1999, with almost 18 percent of flying hours but only about five percent of the fatal accidents.
The last category, often considered inherently risky—agricultural application, sometimes referred to as crop dusting—accounted for only 2.8 percent of fatal accidents during 1999, despite logging 5.6 percent of total flying hours.
The oft unexpressed fear of flying companions—sudden pilot incapacitation—continued to be rare in 1999. A total of three fatal accidents followed pilot heart attacks, while a fourth accident with minor injuries was caused by motion sickness incapacitation of a front-seat passenger.
In 2000, ASF reinstituted a full schedule of Pinch-Hitter courses around the country, offering ground school instruction designed to ease flying companions' fears by acquainting them with the basics of aircraft operation and offering tips for bringing an aircraft safely back to earth.
Mechanical and maintenance issues accounted for 15 percent of all accidents, with just under half attributable to engine or propeller problems. Fuel management issues were blamed in 3.9 percent of all general aviation accidents but accounted for only 1.6 percent of fatal accidents. Most occurred because the pilot simply allowed the aircraft to run out of fuel (fuel exhaustion) or failed to get fuel from the tank to the engine (fuel starvation). ASF is developing a safety program addressing fuel management, expected to debut in late 2001.
Only two accidents in 1999 were attributed to fuel contamination.
"The majority of accident causes involve an element of human factors or pilot judgment," observed Landsberg. "ASF has invested in a massive education campaign addressing decision making, focusing on weather decision making during the past five years.
"We've conducted more than 1,000 free seminars and given away thousands of videotapes and Safety Advisors. The efforts continue with the current ASF "Skyspotter" campaign to encourage pilot reports."
Pointing to the remarkable decrease in weather judgment accidents during 1999, he cautioned, "But there is still much to be done, and ASF's motto of Safe Pilots, Safe Skies remains our watchword."
The 32-page Nall Report is presented in an easy-to-read format. Critical information is highlighted in yellow. Statistics and graphs clearly portray safety data and trends.
More than 80 percent of 1999 accident data used in the 2000 Nall Report was final by the time of publication, with some preliminary reports used for completeness. A comparison between preliminary reports used in the 1999 Nall Report and final reports issued late last year showed only minor changes in percentages, and no change in relationships between categories.
The report honors former National Transportation Safety Board member Joseph T. Nall, a general aviation pilot, flight instructor, and ground-school operator. Nall was killed in a Venezuelan air crash during an NTSB inspection visit there in 1989.
For a free copy, write: Nall Report, AOPA Air Safety Foundation, 421 Aviation Way, Frederick, MD 21701. The 2000 Nall Report is also available without cost on AOPA Online.
The AOPA Air Safety Foundation is the independent, nonprofit organization chartered in 1950 to improve general aviation safety. The majority of ASF funding comes from individual pilots themselves.