For years, the Air Safety Institute has reported that flight training has a better safety record than general aviation as a whole. Accidents on training flights are fewer and typically less severe than on the personal flights most students go on to make after their checkrides. But some kinds of training flights are safer than others, and ASI hasn’t published much detail about where the risks are concentrated. The results might not be what you expect.
In the 10 years between 2000 and 2009, the NTSB classified 1,899 fixed-wing and 398 rotorcraft accidents as having occurred on instructional flights. Contrary to what most fixed-wing pilots would assume, the outcomes of helicopter accidents weren’t consistently more severe. In fact, the share of instructional accidents that were fatal was almost twice as high in airplanes (10 percent) as in helicopters (fewer than 6 percent).
That’s not the only surprise in the accident data. Only 8 percent of the helicopter accidents (32 of 398) took place on student solos compared to almost 40 percent of the fixed-wing accidents (749 of 1,849). Helicopter accidents during dual instruction were almost equally divided between primary (43 percent) and advanced training (44 percent), but the risk of lethality was the same: 6 percent in student solos and dual primary, 5 percent in advanced dual. (A small number of accidents on solo flights by certificated pilots were also classified as “instructional.”)
In fixed-wing training, accidents on student solos were more common but less severe. Student pilots flying solo had 39 percent of all fixed-wing instructional accidents, but only 3 percent of them were fatal. Thirty percent of accidents occurred in primary dual instruction and 11 percent of these were fatal compared to 19 percent of accidents that took place during dual instruction for advanced ratings. Advanced dual led to 25 percent of all training accidents but 45 percent of the fatal ones.
Some of the reasons lie in the different types of accidents involved. It’s no secret that students have trouble landing—even more than most certificated pilots. Fully 65 percent of the solo accidents were landings that didn’t quite work out as planned, more than double the proportion of landing accidents in all fixed-wing GA. Almost half of those were losses of directional control, while another third involved low-altitude stalls. Add in accidents during taxi (4 percent), takeoff (11 percent), and go-arounds (5 percent), and you’ve tallied up 85 percent of the accidents on fixed-wing student solos. Once you get them safely away from the ground, students seem to manage pretty well.
These same four activities account for just over half the accidents in dual instruction, both primary and advanced. On the other hand, there were more than 15 times as many fatal maneuvering accidents during dual lessons, 16 in primary training and 31 during advanced compared to only three on solo flights, and 10 times as many fatal takeoff accidents (20 vs. 2). During dual lessons, 17 percent of takeoff accidents were fatal. In student solos, the figure is 2 percent.
Part of the reason, of course, is that CFIs are more successful at avoiding minor accidents—say, running off the runway and into a ditch—than are students left to their own devices. With fewer low-impact events, serious ones make up a larger share of what’s left. And most of flight training is dual; solo time probably doesn’t account for anything close to its 57 percent of all primary training accidents. Advanced training is more likely to be conducted in faster, more complex airplanes, and practicing eights on pylons is intrinsically less forgiving than doing power-off stalls straight ahead at 3,000 feet agl. Still, the contrast between the airplane and helicopter records might be enough to make fixed-wing operators wonder what the rotary folks are doing differently.
David Jack Kenny is manager of aviation safety analysis for the Air Safety Institute and an instrument-rated commercial pilot.