The general aviation industry was not exactly delighted when the National Transportation Safety Board put “improving GA safety” on its annual Ten Most Wanted List for the second year in a row. Their statement, issued on November 14, cited some facts that are as familiar as they are irrelevant: an accident rate “6 times higher than for small commuter operators and 40 times higher than for transport category operations,” for example, without any allowance for the vast disparities in equipment and resources that underlie that discrepancy. On a more substantive level, they also cited the “more than 400 pilots and passengers … killed annually.”
Four hundred deaths a year unquestionably add up to a great loss to our community, but just how much of an impact does it have on public safety in a country of 300 million?
As it happens, the NTSB itself has helped put that number into context.
According to the NTSB 450 people died in general aviation accidents in 2010. That’s a little higher than the Air Safety Institute’s figure, since the NTSB also includes foreign accidents involving U.S.-registered aircraft. ASI excludes accidents outside U.S. national airspace. Even the NTSB figure, though, is only one-tenth the number who died in motorcycle accidents, and (according to separate data published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) less than a third of the number killed in motorcycle accidents involving alcohol.
Sure, more people ride motorcycles than fly light aircraft—probably a lot more. �And we’re not trying to pick on bikers; FSB’s staff includes people who love their motorcycles almost as much as their airplanes. Still, the difference in the casualty count isn’t just a matter of scale. Comparisons per miles travelled are difficult due to the vast differences in speed between various segments of the GA fleet, but our best back-of-the-envelope approximation suggests there are about one-third more deaths per million miles among motorcyclists and their passengers than among pilots and theirs.
Other comparisons are also informative. Four hundred fifty deaths are about one-third fewer than the 672 people who died in recreational boating. It’s about 20 percent below the 534 track workers, trespassers, and other pedestrians killed by trains. And it’s barely 10 percent of the 4,280 pedestrians killed by motor vehicles just trying to cross the street.
So in terms of the overall carnage, general aviation barely even enters the picture. Eliminating all fatal GA accidents—which could probably only be achieved by eliminating all GA—would reduce the national toll of transportation fatalities by a whopping 1.3 percent. Bigger fish are clearly available should the NTSB want to fry them.
However, a quick look at the rest of their Top Ten List makes it clear that they’re not basing their choices simply on the casualty count. Another item on this year’s list is pipeline accidents, which caused 22 deaths in 2010. It’s fair to guess that the Board is responding more to the potential for a catastrophic spill or explosion than the actual damage incurred in recent years. Likewise, their recurrent focus on general aviation may be driven less by the scale of the problem than the perception that there’s plenty of room for improvement. Given that at least two-thirds of GA accidents are caused—or at least might have been prevented—by the pilots themselves, they may be on to something.
Figuring out what to do about it is another matter. Those accidents, fatal and otherwise, are the residue of the hundreds of millions of decisions made by hundreds of thousands of pilots every year. The vast majority of those decisions turn out to be appropriate, which is the main reason 2010 saw less than 1,400 accidents in something like 25 million individual flights. Even dubious choices result in learning opportunities more often than outright catastrophes thanks to the robustness built into the system. And it’s hard to see any single cure for errors in judgment that range from the low-altitude, high-speed pull-up that ripped half a wing off a Cessna 337 to taking off into a 600-foot overcast on an instrument flight plan without the requisite instrument rating.
Self-proclaimed experts within the GA community have also lamented our “unacceptable fatal accident rate.” But as long as we allow half a million pilots to make their own decisions, how much better can they really expect it to get?