The March 18 ABC World News and Nightline story, “Many small plane crashes preventable,” turned a spin awareness flight with aerobatic pilot and 2006 National CFI of the Year Rich Stowell into a sensational, inaccurate segment on general aviation safety.
The piece inaccurately stated the number of GA accidents per year and the number of private pilots flying, and misrepresented safety training private pilots receive before earning their certificate.
AOPA Vice President of Communications Katie Pribyl wrote to ABC News producers, calling out the news organization on the story’s mistakes.
“To me, the entire report is a string of opinions without accurate supporting facts, offered as a news report and bookended by the scenes of crashes,” Pribyl said. The report aired after recent fatal accidents in South Bend, Ind., and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Pribyl provided facts on GA accidents and pilot training, pointing out the damage such an inaccurate story could do.
“Your report said that there are 475 GA fatalities per year, while the NTSB’s own number indicates there were actually 444 in 2011—the most recent year of official data. This number has fallen for the last 6 years in a row. Also, according to NTSB data, the fatal GA accident rate for 2011 was 1.17 nearly matching the 20-year low of 1.16 reported in 1999. These are important points to consider when gauging the safety of an industry—a mere mention that GA fatalities have been steadily decreasing would have been welcomed,” Pribyl wrote.
In addition, she said the reporter’s assertion that more private pilots are flying now than ever “is just flat wrong.” Private pilot numbers have been declining, with only 188,001 as of the end of 2012 versus 245,230 10 years ago, Pribyl explained, citing FAA data.
The story also claimed that private pilots do not receive stall or spin training, leaving viewers with the wrong impression that the recent accidents mentioned in the piece were the result of spins.
“This is problematic,” Pribyl noted, “first because these are still being investigated and secondly because both have a strong look toward being mechanical in nature—as reported by the pilots themselves.”
Pribyl also explained that private pilots complete stall/spin awareness training and are tested on the subject during their checkrides.
“Anyone trying to get their private pilot’s license must demonstrate during their checkride that they can meet the standards for identifying a stall and recovering from various types of stalls,” she wrote. “This is such an important part of initial pilot training that to suggest anything different is wholly inaccurate.”
In addition, she explained that pilots voluntarily complete recurrent training. The AOPA Foundation’s Air Safety Institute provides free online and print training materials for pilots on topics ranging from weather to runway safety to stall/spin awareness. Last year, the institute reached the GA community 1,771,597 times.
Finally, Pribyl encouraged the news outlet to turn to AOPA as a resource for factual information when producing GA-related stories: “I assure you that you find very realistic and frank experts here that have dedicated their careers to making general aviation safer.”