Informed opinion holds that the flight training industry is in trouble. This news might come as a surprise if you happen to work at an efficient, well-organized school where students reliably graduate to become competent aviators, but most of your colleagues around the country apparently aren’t so lucky. Experts, including some here at AOPA, note that everything from high cost to the student/instructor relationship feed in to an anemic completion rate, estimated at only 20 to 30 percent nationwide. (Could the two possibly be related, with unemployment stuck at 9 percent and rampant financial uncertainty?) But suggesting that inadequate training is the main reason pilots stubbornly keep on destroying aircraft and killing themselves in the process is a stretch. Actually, it seems like more than a stretch—closer to a complete non sequitur.
The suggestion may irritate some professional malcontents, but it’s fair to assume that the typical four-year-old, never mind anyone capable of passing an FAA written exam, can absorb this key idea: Crashing BAD. And most of the sport- and private-pilot curricula are devoted to learning how not to crash. This is why fixed-wing students practice things such as soft-field takeoffs, crosswind landings, and stall recognition and recoveries, and why helicopter students learn to operate in confined areas, on slopes, and from pinnacles. It’s also why they’re taught to compute fuel requirements, weight and balance, and takeoff and landing distances, not to mention how to avoid hitting things when they’re up there after dark. It’s hard to believe very many candidates get signed off for their checkrides without ever having been told that flight by visual references doesn’t work well when there aren’t any, that trying to slide between descending ceilings and rising terrain leaves nowhere else to go, or that three hours’ worth of fuel can’t be counted on to keep an engine running much longer than, oh, three hours. Almost all of them can read a watch and recognize a cloud when they see one.
So most pilots would prefer not to crash, and their training provides a pretty good set of crash-avoidance tools. Not everyone consistently thinks about how to use those tools effectively, but attributing this to instructional deficiencies seems a little dubious. We’re not dealing with six-year-olds on the monkey bars who need protection from their own exuberance. These are presumably competent adults, able to connect cause and effect and arrive at logical conclusions. If not crashing is the goal, and they’ve been taught to recognize things that make one crash, you’d expect them to use that knowledge to pursue that goal.
So why don’t they? Well, of course, most do. But spend enough time reading fatal-accident reports (and here at the Air Safety Institute, we wallow in them), and it’s hard to escape the impression that some elements of the aviation community don’t take those risks very seriously. These are people like the VFR-only pilot who took off into a 600-foot overcast and hit a radio tower, or the 20,000-hour ATP who flew into a mountainside trying to improvise his own GPS approach. They include the low-time King Air pilot who thought on-board radar should enable him to pick his way through a violent squall line and the knuckleheads who wanted to show off their skills by doing low-altitude aerobatics over the center of town. The Cherokee pilot who took off on a five-hour flight with the tanks half full but couldn’t decide where to make a fuel stop comes to mind, as does the guy who didn’t think a balky engine with low oil pressure was enough reason to scrub an instrument flight at night. It’s not that no one told them these weren’t good ideas. They just didn’t believe they could get caught.
Blaming the training process for this kind of decision-making is, at bottom, a demand that we force common sense into people who disdain it. And while it’s true that nonfatal accidents are as apt to represent lapses of skill as of judgment, surely at some point that stops being the instructor’s fault. Most of us are never any sharper than we are for our checkrides. The great majority of accidents, like the great majority of most flying careers, take place years later, by which time responsibility for maintaining those skills has to rest with the pilot. It’s just one part of the larger burden of being fit to be pilot in command. If you still can’t do long division at age 52, it’s time to stop blaming your fourth-grade teacher.
Most civilians never come as close to violent death as they do every time they get into a car. Veer a foot to the left on a two-lane road, and another ton of thundering metal is closing on you at 120 mph. But look around, and you’ll find no shortage of people who think this otherwise wasted time is best put to use answering email, eating lunch, applying makeup, or talking on the telephone—sometimes all four at once. A casual refusal to admit the reality of risk isn’t peculiar to aviation; it’s become ingrained in American life. Our best efforts to weed that out during training run up against the fact that freedom, including the freedom to fly, also includes the freedom to be foolish.