This week’s dispatch from the “good news, bad news” desk returns to the fact that flight training’s contribution to the general aviation accident record has remained steady for the past 20 years. The share of fixed-wing GA accidents that happen on instructional flights consistently runs between about 12 and 15 percent. The percentage of fatal accidents bounces around more, but is usually about half that due to the large number of relatively minor accidents on student solos (about 40 percent of the total). So if the good news is that things aren’t getting worse, the bad news is that they don’t seem to be getting better in any hurry, either.
It’s easy to see why the safety record of other types of flying remains static. Personal flights benefit--if that’s the word--from the widest latitude in standards and procedures. Individuals weighing the day’s combination of weather, equipment, payload, available runways, and the current state of their own training, health, and proficiency answer to no one but themselves until and unless something goes wrong, at which point the FAA or NTSB might get involved. Inevitably, given this diversity, there are wide differences in the degree to which their common sense and regard for self-preservation are up to the challenge. On the other extreme, corporate flight departments that emulate the airlines’ use of standardized procedures to operate upper-end equipment achieve similar levels of safety and reliability. Part 135 operators likewise seem to run into less trouble on revenue legs than when repositioning under Part 91.
Flight training occupies a somewhat uncertain middle ground. While generally lacking the resources of the Fortune 500 crowd, it’s still a professionally operated enterprise intended (at least in theory) to turn a profit, and exposure to unnecessary risks is largely self-imposed. Both students and instructors are encouraged to postpone a flight if the weather’s low, the aircraft’s acting strange, or they just don’t feel good, so it’s fair to ask whether this is really the best we can do. While the accident rate on training flights is about 60 percent lower than that of personal aviation, it’s also two-and-a-half times higher than the combined rate in all other kinds of aerial work except crop dusting.
So where can we look for improvement? We might start with the distinction between solo and dual accidents. An accident on a student solo involves the interaction between the adequacy of pre-solo training, the instructor’s judgment in signing the student off, and unexpected circumstances. Tighter standards for solo sign-offs might discourage some students from continuing, but would they reduce risks?
The earlier estimate that student pilots have 40 percent of all training accidents may actually be an understatement; the NTSB seems to classify many student solos as “personal” flights even though the accident narratives clearly establish otherwise. In 2009, for instance, 60 accidents on student solos were classed as “instructional” but another 29 were listed as “personal” flights. One was an unauthorized flight in violation of the limitations on the student’s solo endorsement; if the rest were treated as training flights, student solos would make up almost half of that year’s accidents during flight instruction.
We don’t know the total number of solo flights student pilots make, but FAA figures provide some indications. In recent years, they’ve issued 90,000 to 110,000 student pilot certificates per year as well as about 20,000 to 21,000 private pilot certificates. The new private pilots must have soloed at least three or four times, though not necessarily in the current year, and some current students will have already flown solo at least once. A little back-of-the-envelope arithmetic suggests that 90,000 a year wouldn’t be an unreasonable guess—meaning that about 99.9 percent of student solos end successfully, or at least without requiring an NTSB report. Imposing additional burdens on students in the hope of reducing a risk that’s on the order of one in a thousand probably passes the point of diminishing returns.
The risk of an accident on an individual dual flight is even lower, but of course we expect CFIs to be far better equipped to anticipate and avoid trouble. Possible reasons we haven’t seen more improvement in the record of dual instruction will be addressed in a future installment.