The 2010 edition of the Air Safety Institute’s Joseph T. Nall Report, the most comprehensive annual review of general aviation safety, is now available on the Air Safety Institute website. While the news about commercial GA operations was unexpectedly good, significant concerns persist in most types of non-revenue flights.
“The Nall Report is, first and foremost, a teaching tool,” said Bruce Landsberg, president of the Air Safety Institute’s parent organization, the AOPA Foundation. “Those who choose to be safe by learning from others’ mistakes and avoiding risky flight operations have an above-average safety record. It’s perfectly logical. GA flying is as safe as the pilot chooses to make it and there can be a wide continuum.”
The current Nall Report is based on 2009 accident data—the last year for which enough accident investigations have been completed to provide a reasonably complete picture.
The safety record of commercial GA flights—those conducted for direct compensation, including crop-dusting, helicopter external load, and Part 135 cargo and charter flights—showed substantial improvement in 2009. The number of accidents on commercial fixed-wing flights decreased by one-third from 2008, and the two fatal accidents—both on agricultural application flights—represent an 88-percent decrease from the previous year. There were no fatal accidents on fixed-wing charter or cargo flights in 2009.
The commercial helicopter accident rate increased slightly from 2008, but is still dramatically better than it was as recently as eight years ago. The overall rate of commercial helicopter accidents has decreased 71 percent since 2003, from 8.2 accidents per 100,000 flight hours to 2.38. The fatal accident rate has been reduced by 85 percent (from 2.14 to 0.32) over the same period. There were four fatal accidents on commercial helicopter flights in 2009, resulting in 16 deaths, which is in the middle of the range for the preceding decade. Fourteen of the 16 fatalities were the result of only two accidents: Eight died when a helicopter transporting workers to an oil rig crashed in the Gulf of Mexico, and six were killed in the sightseeing helicopter that collided with a private single-engine airplane over the Hudson River near New York City.
Noncommercial fixed-wing flight activity continued to decline in 2009, dropping 10 percent from its 2008 level. The number of accidents also decreased, but only by 5 percent, while the number of fatal accidents increased 4 percent; accident rates were the highest since 2005. Noncommercial aviation includes not only personal and pleasure flying, but business and corporate travel, flight instruction, positioning and ferry flights, and all other operations conducted under Part 91.
Within these overall results, there are bright spots as well as areas of concern. Fuel mismanagement only caused half as many accidents as it did ten years ago, and the number blamed on bad weather—traditionally one of the deadliest accident categories—dropped 22 percent from the year before. However, the number attributed to mechanical failures jumped 19 percent; in 2009 they made up 17 percent of all noncommercial fixed-wing accidents, the highest share in more than a decade.
Amateur-built aircraft continued to have significantly higher rates of both fatal and nonfatal accidents than comparable type-certificated aircraft, suffering particularly from greater numbers of documented mechanical failures and unexplained losses of engine power. More than half the fatal mechanical accidents occurred in amateur-built airplanes.
Personal flights accounted for less than half of all noncommercial fixed-wing flight time but more than three-quarters of all accidents and nearly 85 percent of fatal accidents. Not surprisingly, nearly all of the accidents involving private pilots (94 percent) were personal flights, but personal flights also accounted for the majority of accidents involving commercial and airline transport pilots: 60 percent of all accidents involving commercial pilots were personal flights, as were 67 percent of those involving ATPs.
Noncommercial helicopter flights were the only segment of general aviation where activity did not decrease significantly in 2009. Their record, too, has improved substantially in recent years: The fatal accident rate has dropped 48 percent since 2000, from 1.97 to 1.03 per 100,000 flight hours, and the overall accident rate of 7.40 is down 41 percent from its recent peak of 12.62 in 2002. The year 2009 saw 13 more accidents but five fewer fatal accidents than 2008. Personal flights in helicopters also carried disproportionate risks, accounting for 7 percent of all flight time but 33 percent of all accidents. Instructional accidents were less than half as likely to be fatal as accidents on other noncommercial helicopter flights.
The analysis from the Nall Report helps identify safety trends—good or bad—and training opportunities where the Air Safety Institute can focus its efforts. It is available online, and hard copies are available by sending an e-mail request.
The Air Safety Institute, a division of the AOPA Foundation, is the world’s largest nonprofit general aviation safety organization. Originally known as the AOPA Air Safety Foundation, it was founded in 1950 solely to help general aviation pilots improve flight safety. Since that time, the general aviation total accident rate has dropped by more than 90 percent.