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Is GA safe?

Don’t let sensationalized analyses distort your perception of safety

Is general aviation safe? Like you, I’m frequently asked this question by friends and family concerned about me and the safety of their loved ones flying with me.

The short answer is: Yes, GA is safe. What’s more, it’s safer than it ever has been, trending even safer. Recent proliferation of general aviation accident analysis through social media distorts GA’s safety performance, resulting in more attention focused on fewer accidents. More people are more aware than ever of our accidents, so it feels like we’re experiencing more. We’re not.

People are less aware of the 26 million hours a year we fly safely. That’s more than 30 million safe takeoffs and landings. There’s no news, no dramatic analysis over non-events. Routine doesn’t drive clicks—those defibrillators in constant demand to resuscitate social media channels.

The AOPA Air Safety Institute reluctantly entered the social media analysis arena with our Early Analysis series that looks at recent, conspicuous GA accidents on our YouTube channel (@AirSafetyInstitute) and my TikTok account (@PropBlast). We initiated these out of frustration with the growing popularity of inchoate analysis by self-appointed doyens hunting “clicks” and prioritizing drama over fact. In some cases, the speculation from these analyses was flat out wrong and bordered on the absurd, but the posts drew clicks. Our Early Analysis series is an attempt to quench public interest in conspicuous accidents with level, deliberate analysis that sticks to known facts and offers insight on likely avenues the NTSB will pursue. We’ve learned that we can leverage interest in conspicuous accidents as an avenue to “reach the unreachables” with effective safety messages. We work hard to stay close to known facts and discuss safety issues the accident exposes.

Let’s put our general aviation accidents in some context. GA is tied to $247 billion in economic activity in this country and 1.2 million jobs. GA is a vital pipeline for skillsets of all types in military and airline aviation, but especially so for pilots. People travel from around the world to access the exceptional training and the freedom in this country to fly GA. Foreign governments send their most critical pilots here for training to fly their most precious dignitaries and fill their militaries. Americans Orville and Wilbur Wright first harnessed powered flight at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, and Charles Lindbergh became the most famous person the world had ever known when he departed U.S. soil in an American-built aircraft to cross the Atlantic. GA isn’t just a numbers game to us with important economic impact; it’s a deep source of American pride and identity.

GA encompasses a broad segment of activity. In general, if it’s not military or airline flight activity, it’s general aviation. We fly everything from light sport aircraft to Gulfstreams in activities ranging from international, trans-oceanic travel to local flights in and out of unprepared fields. Some 650,000-plus registered pilots in the United States access more than 5,000 airfields in 200,000 private aircraft.

Our fatal accidents must be assessed in context of the amount and diverse types of GA activity. Much of GA flying is recreational. Pilots joining with friends to camp in remote locations only accessible by GA aircraft; or pilots flying to a small airport just to drop into an airport café or stroll downtown shops. Some formation pilots fly just to join up with other pilots and fly in unison; some fly sightseeing trips over this breathtaking country. Often pilots are flying just to get airborne, gadding, with no particular destination in mind. Flying is tonic to most GA pilots, the sensation of flight rejuvenates them mentally and emotionally in ways indescribable to those not enraptured by the experience.

Our safety performance over the last several decades is impressive. We’ve dropped our fatal accident rate (our traditional measuring stick) to 0.73 per 100,000 flight hours, a historic record. That’s less than half of what it was in the mid-’90s. All evidence points to an ongoing, steady decline in the rate and fewer accidents amid more GA activity in the future.

No one—and certainly not AOPA—is arguing that 200 fatal accidents a year is OK. Our goal is zero. Some 75 percent of GA accidents still involve some type of pilot mistake. As far as we’ve come, we’ve got so much more we must do. Every fatal accident we prevent is more people around holiday dinner tables. And so, we will continue to press aggressively for even better safety performance.

So, when you click on the social media posts analyzing one of these tragedies, keep in perspective all the safe activity that occurs around it. Be deliberate about whom you give your “click” to, and look for the responsible voices that stick to facts and use lessons from the tragedy to prevent more.

[email protected], Instagram: SpadMcSpadden, TikTok: PropBlast

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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