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Beginner's luckBeginner's luck

In May, Flight School Business noted the successful first solo of the first student signed off by AOPA’s newest instructor. It was a heady moment for everyone involved, and it’s gotten better since.

On Dec. 13, a day of light winds and brilliant sunshine, that student became the newest certificated pilot on the AOPA payroll. Her preparations were thorough: The checkride went so well the examiner congratulated both the candidate and her CFI on their work together. It was a tacit reminder that first-rate instruction isn’t a one-way transfer of expertise, but a successful collaboration.

Of course, now that the immediate goal has been accomplished, our colleague faces the same question most new pilots find themselves pondering: What’s next?

If she’s like many of us, she’ll take a well-deserved break in order to give flights to family and friends. She’ll do it carefully, staying within the bounds of light and weather that she already knows she can handle. Being smart, ambitious, and practical, she’ll also watch for opportunities to broaden her horizons with some shrewdly scheduled dual instruction—learning to land in stronger crosswinds, perhaps, or getting more comfortable flying in marginal visibility or at night. It’s a good bet that before long, she’ll want to start working on her instrument rating.

Should those friends and relatives be nervous about flying with a freshly licensed pilot? A little nervousness is probably natural, but the best available information suggests they’ll be in pretty good hands.

The FAA reports that between 2001 and 2010, inclusive, they issued a total of 216,255 new private pilot certificates, as well as 290 recreational and 3,894 sport pilot certificates. This works out to an average of 22,044 newly certificated pilots each year. During the same period, the NTSB documented 411 single-pilot accidents in which the pilots in command held recreational, sport, or private certificates and reported no more than 100 hours of total flight experience. Taking that number at face value would suggest that more than 99.8 percent of new pilots make it through their first year—or at least to the 100-hour mark—without an accident.

Those 411 were among 6,695 single-pilot accidents involving recreational, sport, and private pilots during that decade. According to FAA figures, the average number of active pilots holding those certificates was 227,662. A little more arithmetic suggests that about 0.3 percent of those with more than 100 total hours were involved in accidents each year compared to less than 0.2 percent of those with 100 hours or less. Moreover, 17 percent of accidents involving newer pilots were fatal (71 of 411) compared to 21 percent of those among their more experienced neighbors (1,291 of 6,284). The differences are small and the assumption underlying them—that it typically takes around a year after the checkride to reach the 100-hour mark—can’t be verified, but on balance the data don’t suggest that a sightseeing flight with a new private pilot is any riskier than one with a private pilot who’s got a few hundred more hours in the logbook.

The details seem to confirm that most new pilots do indeed take a sensible approach to exploring this new universe. Only 20 of those 411 accidents took place in instrument conditions, but 18 of those were fatal. Nearly 80 percent (326) were in visual conditions during daylight hours, and another 16 percent (65) were in visual conditions at night. Not quite half (201) arose from deficient airmanship during takeoffs (47), landings (133), or go-arounds (21), where weaknesses due to inexperience are most likely to be exposed. This is slightly, but not dramatically, higher than among pilots with more than 100 hours, where takeoff, landing, and go-around accidents make up a combined 43 percent. In fact, there are no really dramatic differences between the ways accident causes break down between these categories. About 8 percent of each were due to fuel mismanagement, 5 percent to excessively aggressive low-altitude maneuvering, and 4 to 5 percent to adverse weather. More than 60 percent of maneuvering accidents and 80 to 90 percent of weather accidents were fatal regardless of pilot experience.

This suggests that new pilots are generally prudent in how they go about expanding their personal flight envelopes. It also suggests they could do it faster and more safely with occasional professional help. Even the most brilliant students will be stronger in some areas than others, and those weaker points won’t automatically improve once they pass their checkrides. After they’ve spent thousands of dollars to reach that milestone, it’s fair to suggest that it’s worth the cost of a little more dual to correct those weaknesses and continue improving their skills. Better pilots, after all, are what they want to be. Becoming a bad pilot is scarcely worth the effort.

ASI Staff

David Jack Kenny

David Jack Kenny is a freelance aviation writer.

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