The FAA claims that "aging general aviation aircraft impose an increasing threat to safety." And they said over and over again at last week's Aging GA Aircraft public meeting in Kansas City that they have to be "proactive." But their belief doesn't align with the facts.
The data, in fact, shows that for GA aircraft weighing 12,500 pounds or less, the problem of mechanical or maintenance failure due to age is actually declining. That data, distilled from 20 years of AOPA Air Safety Foundation accident records, was the cornerstone of AOPA's presentation to the gathering - a presentation calling for education, rather than more regulation.
"Don't apply airline standards to general aviation," said Luis Gutierrez, AOPA director of regulatory and certification policy. "We need affordable solutions, not heavy-handed regulations that would force owners to retire their light GA aircraft."
AOPA's review of the accident data conclusively demonstrated that the number of accidents due to mechanical or maintenance failure has declined since 1983, while the average age of the fleet has gotten older. The number of structural failures has remained fairly constant.
"If age in and of itself were a safety problem, you would expect the number of accidents to increase as the fleet ages," said Gutierrez.
Accidents caused by structural failure account for less than one-third of one percent (0.3 percent) of all GA accidents. And when those accidents are closely examined, many were caused by maintenance failures or aircraft abuse.
For example, in the T-34 accidents, where the aircraft were used in simulated aerial combat, the NTSB determined that the aircraft were flown outside of their structural limits and had exceeded their G limits multiple times. One of the accident aircraft had not been updated with structural reinforcement as required by an airworthiness directive.
"We can find practically no evidence that well-maintained GA aircraft flown within their operational envelopes are failing unexpectedly, regardless of age," said Gutierrez.
AOPA argued that aging aircraft safety can be maintained through owner and pilot education rather than regulation. "Each new level of regulation brings unintended consequences and often limits the affordable and safe use of the aircraft," Gutierrez said. He noted that AOPA was in the preliminary stages of developing an online course to introduce pilots to maintenance issues with older aircraft and provide them with multiple resources to help keep their aircraft safe.
AOPA also said that the FAA shouldn't accept without question manufacturers' data. The agency should also review operational data and field service history, and check with the users, before issuing non-emergency airworthiness directives.
"Zero risk is an unattainable goal that can only result in the grounding of thousands of serviceable, safe aircraft," said Gutierrez. "Give the owners information, let them make an informed decision.
"Safety is absolutely the most important thing, but absolute safety can only be achieved by regulating our aircraft out of the sky."
March 27, 2006