After nearly three decades of flying general aviation aircraft and serving my country in the cockpit of F–14 and F/A–18 fighters, I now have the privilege of joining AOPA to lead the Air Safety Institute.
Years ago I was a young Navy pilot preparing to return from a long combat deployment. The high-stress flights formed an especially close bond among the pilots. With the deployment soon ending, my roommate, Bill Dey, and I were eager to begin new jobs. Bill was to become an F–14 Tomcat demonstration pilot, and I would be an F/A–18 Super Hornet instructor.
Bill was an exceptional pilot and skilled aviator. After getting settled into our new roles, he began performing airshows. In June 2000, just six months after returning from combat, Bill was killed performing a routine airshow maneuver. The crash was attributed to pilot error, as he had entered the maneuver too slow to recover. I couldn’t believe it. He was too good to make this mistake. In addition to the grief I felt from the loss, I realized that if this could happen to Bill, it could happen to anyone. That was the first time I had lost a close friend to an aviation accident and, until that moment, I had the false belief accidents only happened to “less professional or unqualified” pilots.
Becoming a pilot and flying are journeys. For some the journey starts as a child, staring skyward. For others, it starts with a decision to tackle a new challenge. Whatever the reason, the freedom that comes from flying resonates among an elite group. Those who claim membership in this elite group proudly call ourselves pilots. Framing the qualification in such an exclusive way is deliberate—the significance of being a pilot is something to be proud of. It’s an achievement that ranks at the top of one’s great accomplishments.
Membership in this group also comes with some hefty responsibilities. The people we fly and those on the ground depend on us to practice our craft safely. Experience teaches us that there are quantifiable steps one can take to minimize the risks in aviation. With that as a backdrop, AOPA and the Air Safety Institute’s core missions are to promote aviation safety, inform the pilot population, and inspire potential new pilots to take the first step.
The past few decades have shown a steady improvement in GA safety, but we can never stop improving. Future progress is an all-hands effort. Existing pilots are fundamental to safety and keeping GA viable. Regardless of the type of flying, the safest sectors in aviation have three things in common: Recurrent training, adroit decision makers, and highly proficient pilots. How do we set the conditions to make GA even safer than it already is? The good news is that the first step is not complicated, nor is it difficult.
First, each member of our elite group should include recurrent education as part of his or her routine. To help make education readily available, the Air Safety Institute has more than 300 products that cover an array of aviation topics, designed for all skill levels. Every course, quiz, video, and webinar is completely free—not just to AOPA members, but to anyone with a computer and an interest.
Next is sound decision making that incorporates a safety mindset. This is an area where pilots should do their best to match their skill, knowledge, and experience with the desire to fly. Operational risk management helps guide decisions and uses criteria that most pilots understand intuitively. If the conditions exceed acceptable levels of risk, then a decision should be made to postpone or alter the flight plan until conditions improve. Every pilot makes these types of decisions (go/no-go/go back) routinely.
The final part of the journey toward increased safety is proficiency. Being proficient comes from practice, so get out there fly—and have fun. There’s no substitute for “hours in the saddle,” even when that means flying a simulator instead of an airplane. Keeping stick, rudder, and systems skills sharp are just as important as regular education and training.
Take advantage of any opportunity to fly with another experienced pilot. Sharing the experience helps magnify the positive effects. Also, flying is a perishable skill. For those who’ve taken a sabbatical, be sure to ease back into flying with a rusty pilot’s course.
The bottom line: Trained, well informed, and proficient equals safe. That’s the formula. Safety begins at the controls of every airplane—and with the pilot who flies it. Training, education, proficiency, and the decision-making abilities that come with the knowledge available from the Air Safety Institute can help improve GA’s safety record. It’s up to us pilots—as members of this elite group—to rise to the challenge, fulfill our responsibilities, and help make safety an integral part of our culture. It’s in the best interest of safety.
George Perry owns and flies a Mooney Eagle.