On June 10, a helicopter flying in poor weather with a single pilot on board crashed on the roof of a New York City skyscraper, killing the pilot during what appears to be an attempted emergency landing. No one else was injured, though nearby residents were shaken. New Yorkers are understandably anxious about aircraft crashes inside the city.
Predictably, politicians arrived on scene and with scant information called for further restrictions on aviation. Such calls have become commonplace after an aviation accident, but since they stem from incomplete, sometimes inaccurate information, the demands are often misguided.
The immediate demands of the public, prodding politicians to move quickly, sometimes in front of the facts, don’t synchronize with the methodical and comprehensive investigations the NTSB and FAA undertake to determine actual cause, and provide recommendations that mitigate risks and occurrence of a similar accident. That demanding and painstaking work takes far longer than the public is willing to wait for reassurance.
Aviation accidents are typically dramatic events. They don’t occur very often compared with automobile, boating, bicycling, or other transportation and recreation modes. They also rouse a suppressed skepticism many have of aviation and a fear of airplanes falling from the sky. However, on average fewer than two people a year on the ground are harmed from an aircraft accident, compared to some 5,000 pedestrians killed by automobiles each year.
Still, aviation accidents are juicy items for media outlets. They gain attention, which helps sell papers or gain viewership, important elements to operating a business within the crowded and highly competitive media industry. The drama stimulates public curiosity, but quick news cycles run counter to deep, informed understanding of the accident and meaningful remediations. By the time the NTSB report is released, usually some 18 months after the accident, the public has long since accepted initial reactions and moved on, with an adjusted perception of aviation.
Meanwhile, in the midst of our quick reaction culture, aviation, and specifically general aviation, quietly continues advancing an impressive safety record. The 630,000 registered pilots in the United States produce some 25 million GA flight hours per year with less than one fatal accident every 100,000 hours. In 2008, the FAA set an ambitious 10-year goal of reducing fatal GA accidents by 10 percent over 10 years. Industry, associations, government, and individual pilots worked together and exceeded the goal.
The attitude among leaders in GA is that even one fatal accident is one too many. Thus, after every NTSB investigation, reports are fully digested to understand the causes and contributing factors to the accident in order to focus reforms in training, equipment, procedures, and culture. GA pilots are fully aware that should they be involved in a fatal accident, their every decision and action will be analyzed and made public to try to prevent such an accident in the future. These analyses can be brutally candid. Such candor and transparency are part of why GA has been so successful in reducing the fatal accident rate by more than 50 percent since the mid-1990s.
Early reporting from the June 10 New York City crash alleges potentially troubling decisions on the part of the pilot, who was not certificated to fly under instrument flight rules. Pressed for time, after delaying for weather and reportedly making statements about only needing a few minutes to go a short distance, he departed in low, ragged ceilings with visibility just over a mile. Pressure to go, known in aviation safety as get-there-itis, is a posture often present in fatal GA accidents. Flying in instrument meteorological conditions with only a visual flight rules qualification is illegal, but too often an ingredient in GA fatalities. The NTSB will eventually determine if both of these high-risk elements contributed to the NYC accident.
The crash became newsworthy in part because of its rarity. The hundreds of thousands of safe GA operations over New York City every year don’t make the news. The 34th Street Heliport alone from which the mishap pilot departed accounts for an average of 50 operations a day.
Every aspect of the tragic June 10 flight will be analyzed to determine how to prevent similar accidents in the future. In the meantime, industry leaders must help politicians and regulatory officials with information that establishes context, to resist pressure for quick, placating remedies that might not meaningfully impact public safety and could damage an industry that’s a cherished part of our national identity and is tied to a million jobs and more than $2 billion in economic activity.