There are instructors who just don’t like to talk about accidents. They don’t want to discuss news stories or review NTSB reports with their students, and certainly don’t relish scrutinizing the statistics for patterns that could shed light on how to recognize and manage the inevitable risks of flight. OK, much as those of us in the business love our data, we have to admit that a lack of enthusiasm for analyzing safety statistics isn’t necessarily a character flaw. But we do think it’s counterproductive to shy away from discussing the real-world consequences of bad decisions and poor technique.
One argument is that students, and especially new students, are already nervous enough about their safety. Dwelling too much on the bad things that have happened to other pilots may scare them off altogether. There is some justice to this, though it’s easily overstated. It takes some time before it begins to feel at all natural to flutter around thousands of feet off the ground in a contraption the size of a subcompact car, especially on those days when the air seems to have formed the conscious intention of preventing straight-and-level flight. The rattly feel and well-worn interior still shared by much of the training fleet probably don’t help much, either. (It takes a certain analytic bent to draw real comfort from the logical implications of the fact that said contraption has kept on flying for thousands of hours already.)
The key phrase, of course is “too much,” and how much is too much also depends on “when.” Spending a student’s first ground lesson reviewing all the different ways of cracking up is probably a good way to identify those who really want to learn to fly, but it’s also a great way to shoo away legitimate prospects. There’s much more to gain than lose from making the first few flights casual and fun. Let the student learn what there is to look forward to before starting in on the serious stuff.
As a student progresses toward solo, though, it makes sense to draw attention to the ways things can go wrong. A good, hard look at landing accidents helps prepare for that first solo in the pattern in a couple of ways. It shows both how easily things can go awry—nationwide, we average a landing accident every day—but also how easy most of them would have been to prevent. (Every year, dozens of pilots get blown into the weeds by that dreaded three-knot crosswind.) It also shows how rarely anyone gets hurt. The sharp-eyed student will notice that other student pilots seem to figure into an awful lot of these … but also that no one is immune.
A look at departure stalls will reinforce the lesson learned by hard, long, and short landings: airspeed, airspeed, airspeed. The sharply higher fatality of takeoff accidents ought to curb some of the complacency that can develop once lifting off comes to seem routine. Add in a quick review of carb ice if the training airplane’s prone to it, and the first solo will be informed by a much keener awareness of what really matters in getting around the pattern and what’s more a matter of style.
As they progress into solo air work and cross-country planning, a gut understanding of the seriousness of getting the big things wrong can be a lifesaver. Altitude, fuel, and suspicion toward the weather can prevent or at least mitigate most catastrophes. Reading about the buzz jobs that ended in low-level stalls and the cross-country flights that came up five miles short of their fuel stops underlines the seriousness of the whole enterprise and the vital importance of getting all the details right—but also shows just how greatly risk can be reduced by observing a few simple rules. That habit of mind is perhaps the best tool to take from initial training into a long flying career.
Naturally, some reports make more useful case studies than others. Those due to factors truly beyond the pilot’s control breed fear without offering much in the way of learning. The loss of a propeller blade has been known to wrench an engine off its mounts, making an airplane uncontrollable, and helicopters have lost main rotor blades. Both are extremely rare, however, and don’t provide many lessons, especially when the problem couldn’t have been detected on preflight. On the other hand, the pilots who fly into thunderstorms at night without bothering to check the weather, the ones who stretch their fuel reserves to save 20 cents a gallon on fill-up, and the folks who overload the aircraft but don’t bother calculating takeoff performance have inadvertently provided great training material. And while most students don’t want or need to see the goriest tales in the literature, those do have their place. Sometimes shock therapy is warranted. A student who’s betrayed a fondness for unapproved maneuvers or low-altitude aerobatics might just benefit from reading the story of the guy who decided to find out whether he could roll a Baron … with four passengers aboard (NTSB Case No. ATL07FA077). Take particular note of how far apart they found the bodies.