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Safety Spotlight: Costly mistakes

Common mishaps that drive insurance rates higher

We pilots can do more to lower aircraft insurance rates—a lot more—and we could do it without a major overhaul to how we operate. We just need more focus, more consistently. Those were my big takeaways from spending time with insurance carriers earlier this year, working to understand recent rate hikes.

To be sure, insurance rates are complex and involve some dynamics beyond the control of most GA pilots, and there are some age-related trends that AOPA is working to understand. Tom Haines recently wrote about some of those dynamics (aopa.org/pilot/insurance2020). But I want to come at the issue from a different angle. Author Stephen Covey wrote about the “circle of influence.” What can we GA pilots do within our circle of influence to positively affect the insurance issue?

NTSB accident reports and trends help us to understand the most serious accidents, but insurers cover incidents well outside of NTSB purview. In fact, most aircraft incidents resulting in insurance claims do not have to be reported to the NTSB. The dynamics of the business side of insurance surprised me. To be clear, I didn’t conduct a scientific study. These observations are from conversations with and some limited data sharing from insurance companies.

Not surprisingly, our most expensive accidents, as measured by insurance payouts per accident, are controlled flight into terrain and crashes on approach. In-flight breakup and weather-related crashes are also among the most expensive per incident. These claims typically include complete payout for hull coverage, and liability and loss of life payments. However, they are not the most costly to insurance carriers because, thankfully, they are infrequent. The most costly accidents are less expensive per event, but their volume creates more drag on the profit and loss statement.

Our most costly problem in GA is gear-up landings and gear collapses, although their cost per incident, $70,000, is lower than the more catastrophic accidents. Gear-ups are a hidden issue in GA accident statistics. These almost never meet NTSB reporting criteria, so the only way to get a true feel for the actual number is to review insurance claims. Gear-up landings are the second most-claimed incident. The overwhelming number of gear-up landings are inadvertent, meaning that through distraction or some other complicating issue, the pilot forgot to extend the gear. The cause behind gear collapses is more difficult to discern, but a significant problem is pilots mismanaging the landing gear handle while on the ground, such as after maintenance procedures, or mistakenly grabbing the gear handle instead of the flaps lever or some other knob.

Our second most costly item to insurers is loss of directional control on the ground, including ground loops. Although taildraggers are a strong contributor to overall insurance payouts in this category, the issue is not exclusive to taildraggers. We lose control on the ground in nosewheel airplanes at a surprising rate.

Hard landings rank third. Ranking fourth in overall cost to insurers, but first in number of incidents, is prop strikes, topping some $30,000 per occurrence. Cranking with tow bars attached; taxiing into berms, fire extinguishers, hangars, automobiles, other aircraft: We’re creative in the items we find to strike with our propellers. A prop strike almost always generates a complete engine teardown and rebuild.

It surprised me that dramatic fatal accidents and liability aren’t the costs dragging down P&Ls and contributing to rate hikes. It’s hull coverage, much of which can be reduced by more focus in the cockpit in three ways:

1. Committing to establishing and reinforcing our personal procedures to make sure the gear is down, most importantly in times of distraction. The notion that there are “those who have and those who will” is fundamentally wrong and statistically inaccurate. Worse, it communicates a defeatist attitude that has no place in aviation.

2. Pledging not to perform cockpit tasks while taxiing. None. Do them before leaving the chocks, at the end of the runway, or after exiting the runway. Come to a complete stop, perform needed checks, and then taxi.

3. Landing on speed. Excessive speed is frequently the catalyst for ground loops and loss of control on the runway. We often get away with being a few knots fast, but if we normalize the deviance, it is likely to bite us one day. Be exactly on speed over the threshold.

We’re in what industry experts call a “tight” insurance market. If history repeats, in a few years the market will soften. Until then, we can focus on our circle of influence and reduce aircraft damage claims through greater focus in the cockpit.

Go fly. With focus.

Email [email protected]

Richard McSpadden

Senior Vice President of AOPA Air Safety Institute
Richard McSpadden was appointed executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Institute in February 2017 and was promoted to senior vice president in July 2020. He currently leads a team of certified flight instructors and content creators who develop and distribute aviation safety material –free of charge— in order to advance general aviation safety industrywide. ASI distributes material through a dedicated YouTube channel, iTunes podcasts, Facebook, and a dynamic website. ASI material is accessed 12 million times annually. A native of Panama City, Florida, McSpadden started flying as a teenager and has logged over 5,000 hours flying a variety of civilian and military aircraft. McSpadden is a commercial pilot, CFII, MEI with SES, MES ratings and a 525S (Citation Jet Single Pilot) type rating. He taught his son to fly, instructed his daughter to solo in their Piper Super Cub, previously owned a 1950 Navion that was in his family for almost 40 years, and currently owns a 1993 Piper Super Cub. McSpadden holds a degree in Economics from the University of Georgia, and a Master of Public Administration from Troy University. He is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Air War College. Prior to joining AOPA, McSpadden had a successful career in the information technology industry, leading large, geographically dispersed operations providing business-critical IT services. McSpadden also served in the Air Force for 20 years, including the prestigious role of commander and flight leader of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds flight demonstration team where he led over 100 flight demonstrations flying the lead aircraft. Additionally, McSpadden currently serves as the industry chair for the General Aviation Joint Steering Committee.

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