May 6, 2004 - General aviation pilots set a record low for the number of accidents in a single year, according to the AOPA Air Safety Foundation's annual Joseph T. Nall General Aviation Safety Report [388 K; requires Adobe Reader]. The nation's most comprehensive examination of general aviation (GA) safety and GA accident trends is now available online. Printed copies will begin shipping soon.
The ASF study is based on National Transportation Safety Board reports on accidents during 2002 involving fixed-wing GA aircraft weighing less than 12,500 pounds - the majority of the GA fleet. Its findings are all the more encouraging because the low number of accidents eclipses the previous record set in 2001 when most of GA was effectively grounded for an extended period in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
"But there is a downside to the report," said ASF Executive Director Bruce Landsberg. "Accidents that simply should not happen - those due to fuel mismanagement and flights into bad weather, mostly under VFR - continue."
Pilot-related causes account for approximately three quarters of all GA accidents. Mechanical failure or error accounts for another 18 percent.
"In every form of human activity involving machinery, the hardware is invariably more reliable than the human operator," the report says. " This does not mean that accidents are inevitable, nor does it mean that just by trying harder, or by adding multiple layers of regulation, the safety record will improve significantly. It does mean that a thoughtful approach to every flight by every pilot with a realistic assessment of risk and appropriate training is essential" [original emphasis].
Just three phases of flight - takeoff, landing, and maneuvering - account for two thirds of all pilot-related GA accidents and nearly half of all fatal accidents.
Maneuvering flight - especially low-level maneuvering - remains the one phase of flight that produces the greatest number of fatal accidents. More than half of all accidents that occur during maneuvering flight involve fatalities.
Weather-related accidents have the highest probability of fatalities, with continued VFR flight into instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) the most deadly subset of all weather-related causes. While continued flight into IMC accounts for less than two percent of all GA accidents, nearly all of those end in fatalities.
This year's Nall Report findings also debunked two popular nonpilot myths. The chances of a person on the ground being hurt or killed by a GA aircraft are almost nonexistent. In 2002, only nine off-airport accidents caused injuries to people on the ground: Three of those involved fatalities. And the common public misconception that a light aircraft crash is tantamount to a death sentence was also dispelled. The vast majority of accidents in 2002 were fatality-free, as has been the case every year since modern recordkeeping began in 1938.
Data in the Nall Report guides the AOPA Air Safety Foundation as it develops safety seminars, interactive online programs, videos, and printed Safety Advisors. For instance, the recent "Maneuvering Flight" seminar was a direct result of findings in last year's Nall Report. A complete listing of ASF safety seminars and downloadable Safety Advisors are available online at www.asf.org.
"The Nall Report findings and the raw data that support them always raise a number of questions," said Landsberg. "If pilots continue to make the same mistakes, do we need to change training methods? Looking at the fatality statistics, most low-level maneuvering flight and many VFR-into-IMC accidents are not skill- or knowledge-based, but rather errors in judgment. Should we expect the training community to tackle what may be largely a psychological problem?
"Finding the answers to these questions is the Air Safety Foundation's mission."
Financial support for the Nall Report comes from the Emil Buehler Trust and pilot donors to the AOPA Air Safety Foundation. To request a printed copy of the report, call 800/638-3101 or write to the AOPA Air Safety Foundation, 421 Aviation Way, Frederick, MD 21701.
The AOPA Air Safety Foundation is the world's largest nonprofit GA safety organization. It was founded in 1950 solely to help general aviation pilots improve flight safety. Since that time, the GA total accident rate has dropped by more than 90 percent despite a large increase in GA flight hours. In addition to the annual Nall Report, the Air Safety Foundation produces live seminars, online interactive courses, videotapes, written Safety Advisors, and other aviation safety materials for free distribution to all GA pilots.