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It's time for a reality checkIt's time for a reality check

Two weeks ago, the Air Safety Institute released the latest edition of the Nall Report, its summary of the most recent data on general aviation accidents. The 22nd Joseph T. Nall Report analyzes accidents through calendar year 2010; an analysis of 2011’s accidents will begin after the National Transportation Safety Board has determined the probable cause of at least 70 percent of that year’s fatal accidents. (As of this writing, they’ve resolved about 33 percent.)

If your first reaction to that news is to wonder, “Why should I care,” congratulations: You’re a normal, healthy American. Statistical analysis of a year’s (or a decade’s) accident data isn’t going to drive the best-seller lists. But some of the material in there might actually prove useful in the ongoing effort to train the next generation of aviators. You can group them into two broad categories: things that changed, and things that stayed the same.

Most of the big things fall into that second category. Accident rates on fixed-wing flights, whether commercial or noncommercial, stayed right about where they’d been the year before. The rate of commercial helicopter accidents has likewise remained stable—and low—for the past six years.

Flight instruction also continues to fare relatively well. The rate of fatal accidents on instructional flights is about the same as on commercial flights in the same category of aircraft, though that comparison is a bit deceptive: The commercial rates include crop-dusting and helicopter external-load accidents, activities that offer little margin for error and aren’t directly comparable to anything in the training curriculum. Overall accident rates are necessarily a little higher on instructional flights, the consequence of having to allow students the chance to make mistakes.

They may be making fewer of them, though. Two of the surprises in this year’s report involve flight instruction, and both of them were pleasant. The number of helicopter training accidents dropped from 40 in 2009 to 25 in 2010—a 38 percent decrease—even as the volume of helicopter instruction climbed by 8 percent. Just two of those accidents were fatal (compared to three the year before). And the number of landing accidents on fixed-wing student solos dropped by more than 40 percent, from 57 in 2009 to just 33 in 2010. This accounted for almost all the improvement in the fixed-wing student record: there were 24 fewer landing accidents, 27 fewer accidents overall. And it wasn’t because nobody was out there flying; fixed-wing instructional time increased 12 percent.

The flight training industry does a good job of taking care of its students, but those lessons can get lost after the checkride. Another thing that stubbornly refuses to change is the huge excess risk of personal aviation. 2010 was typical in seeing more than three times as many fixed-wing accidents per 100,000 flight hours—and six times as many fatal accidents—on personal flights as on instructional flights. In helicopters, the imbalance was even worse. The personal-accident rate was more than five and a half times higher; fatal accidents were more than 10 times as common on personal flights.

This pattern is persistent—the Nall Report has documented it for more than 20 years—but the reasons remain obscure. Flight training, to be sure, is a more structured environment, with the watchful eye of the instructor safeguarding dual lessons and tight restrictions minimizing the risks on student solos. Training for advanced ratings is a little less constrained, and an earlier issue of Flight School Business noted that those accidents tend to be more severe. However, that doesn’t explain why business flights suffer almost 90 percent fewer accidents in the same amount of flight time. These aren’t corporate jets (which are counted in a different category); they’re flights made by owners or renters who make their living doing something else. Eighty percent of fixed-wing business flights are made in piston-powered airplanes, and almost two-thirds in piston singles.

True, homebuilts and E-LSAs, which continue to have a much higher accident rate than certified airplanes, are rarely used for anything other than personal flights. It’s also true that business trips don’t involve circuits around the traffic pattern; almost half of all fixed-wing accidents happen while trying to take off or land. But neither the differences in the composition of the fleet nor the length of the legs come close to explaining the disparity between business and personal flying. It’s conventional to think of business trips as putting extra pressure on pilots to get there and seal the deal, but maybe the actual effect has been the opposite: Pilots are more likely to make alternate arrangements to get to crucial appointments when what’s at stake isn’t just their safety, but their jobs.

ASI Staff

David Jack Kenny

David Jack Kenny is a freelance aviation writer.

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