It won’t come as news that general aviation as a whole and flight training in particular have just gone through a couple of pretty rough years. Things weren’t great before the U.S. economy almost collapsed at the end of 2008, and since then noticeably fewer people have seemed to believe they had the time and disposable income to start flying or keep flying. Recently released data, though, suggest that things might have started climbing back up off the bottom in 2010. Not only did fixed-wing GA begin to pick up from 2009 levels, but training volume increased three times as fast—all while the number of accidents continued its recent decline. Rotorcraft operators also saw welcome improvements from the year before, both overall and in the demand for training, and a record-low number of accidents.
By FAA estimates, all fixed-wing GA flying—commercial as well as noncommercial, including crop-dusting and Part 135—picked up 4 percent from 2009 to 2010. While that’s not enough to make up recent losses, at least there’s a positive rate of climb. More of the growth was on the commercial side, but total noncommercial activity (which includes flight schools; don’t take it personally!) was still up 3 percent. Fixed-wing training, however, jumped more than 12 percent, regaining almost half of what was lost from 2008 to 2009. Again, this may not be enough to justify buying a fleet of shiny new airplanes, but at least the trend is in the right direction.
Helicopter flying rebounded even faster, up 13 percent year over year. Most of the growth was on the commercial side, which was up a whopping 22 percent thanks mostly to big increases in the volume of air ambulance, sightseeing, and external-load flights. But noncommercial rotorcraft also posted a respectable 7-percent gain, with an 8-percent increase in helicopter training. According to the FAA, the total amount of time flown in helicopters surpassed 2008 levels, matching the recent peak set in 2006.
Historically, more flying has usually meant more accidents, so it’s heartening to see that in 2010, that pattern didn’t hold. The 3 percent increase in noncommercial fixed-wing flying was accompanied by a drop of almost 2 percent in the number of accidents on those flights, from 1,181 down to 1,159. Not a big difference, but again, it’s going in the right direction—and the number of fatal accidents fell from 233 to 214, an 8-percent decrease. That’s the smallest number of fatal accidents in more than 30 years, less than half what we routinely saw in the early 1980s.
And while instructional flying was up (by 12 percent, remember?), instructional accidents were down, 9 percent below the 150 that occurred in 2009. With 137 accidents during fixed-wing flight training, 2010 was the best year on record in that respect, too, or at least the best in the 30 years covered by the Air Safety Institute’s accident database. This is starting to look a lot like real improvement. It’s true, though, that it wasn’t quite a record low for fatal training accidents; there were 14, while three recent years have seen only 12 apiece.
So what went right in fixed-wing instruction during 2010? Landings have always been the Achilles heel, and a quick glance over the accident record suggests some progress on that front: 2010 saw 12 fewer landing accidents than 2009. There were also five fewer accidents during low-altitude maneuvering. Other categories basically evened out—six more accidents caused by mechanical problems versus four fewer due to unexplained engine stoppages, for instance.
The rotary-wing types also did pretty well. There were 98 noncommercial helicopter accidents in 2010, the first time there have been fewer than 100 since helicopters came into widespread use. That was almost one-quarter less than the year before, which saw 127, though the 19 fatal accidents was not a new low: 2009 and 2007 both had fewer with 16 and 17, respectively.
With such a big drop overall, it’s not surprising that training accidents in helicopters were also down, but the degree of improvement is impressive: There were just 24, a reduction of almost 40 percent from 39 the year before; 2008 was also a good year with 26, but over the preceding decade the averaged was 39, so 2009’s number was not a fluke. Despite what outsiders think about all those practice autorotations, helicopter training isn’t especially risky: Only two of those accidents were fatal, pretty typical of the past 10 years. In fact, relative to the number of hours flown helicopter training saw almost one-third fewer accidents than fixed-wing flight instruction. Flight School Business first noted the lower rate of instructional accidents in helicopters almost a year ago, and the pattern continues to hold. Fixed-wing operators may find it harder to put their trust in a collection of rapidly whirring pieces than a solid chunk of airfoil, but the record doesn’t back up those suspicions.