At first glance, providing initial training to a new student would seem almost entirely different from guiding an established pilot through the quest for higher ratings. Primary instruction is all about developing basic aviation literacy while also learning to control the physical machine. Instrument training lays a heavy dose of meteorology on top of intense practice building an accurate and efficient scan before moving up to procedures and technique. Aside from steep turns and unusual attitude recoveries, all the actual flying is done in the middle of the envelope, with injunctions to limit turns to standard rate. Commercial training is almost all air work, but with presumably experienced pilots. Perhaps three-quarters of fixed-wing multiengine training is spent learning to maintain control on one engine, whether VFR or by instruments.
Advanced training is more likely to be done in larger, faster, more complex aircraft, and weather that would scrub a primary lesson can be a great gift to the instrument student. Add the additional experience of the pilots receiving instruction, and you’d expect clear differences in underlying risk to be reflected in their respective safety records. That doesn’t turn out to be the case. The pattern of accidents during student solos is distinctly different from that of dual lessons, but at least on the fixed-wing side, there are a number of similarities between dual primary and advanced training.
The Air Safety Institute’s review of instructional accidents between 2002 and 2011 identified 436 on dual flights during primary fixed-wing training (the student held no fixed-wing certificate above the student-pilot level, though a few were certified in helicopters) and 615 classified as advanced (further instruction provided to certificated pilots). Half the accidents on primary lessons occurred during takeoffs, landings, or go-arounds. So did half of those in advanced training (not to mention 80 percent of those on student solos). Known mechanical failures or unexplained losses of engine power led to 20 percent of primary accidents and 23 percent of advanced, while over-aggressive (or under-coordinated) maneuvering caused 8 percent of each. Four percent in each category occurred during descent or approach, a category that includes both VFR returns to the traffic pattern and real or simulated instrument approaches. Fuel mismanagement was responsible for 4 percent of primary training accidents and 5 percent of dual.
Naturally, there are some differences, but they’re not what you might expect. Accidents during advanced instruction tend to be more severe. More were fatal regardless of cause, with overall lethality nearly three-quarters higher (19 percent compared to 11 percent in primary training); proportions varied between categories, but advanced dual fared worse in every major accident class. Fatalities were one-quarter more likely in takeoff accidents, 20 percent more frequent after mechanical problems or engine stoppages, and six times as common in crashes due to fuel mismanagement. Maneuvering accidents are always among the most dangerous in fixed-wing GA; 60 percent of those in advanced lessons were fatal compared to less than 40 percent during primary. Someone died in all 11 of the mid-air collisions involving advanced training flights. There were only five in primary dual; in two, everyone on both aircraft survived.
The reasons are easier to guess than verify. Accidents in reduced visibility are always less survivable, but 90 percent of those in advanced instruction took place in daylight VMC, not materially different from the 91 percent in primary training. Only five of the 115 fatal accidents (4 percent) during instrument, commercial, or multiengine training occurred in actual instrument conditions.
The tightly controlled conditions of instrument instruction greatly diminish the risk of losing control in flight, but the student’s inability to watch for traffic and instructor’s responsibility to watch the student increase vulnerability to mid-air collisions. Six of those 11 involved instrument training flights. A little inattention can allow things to go south in a hurry during single-engine practice in a twin, but this doesn’t account for much of the excess lethality; multiengine airplanes had 19 percent of all accidents during advanced training, 21 percent of fatal accidents.
So what’s left? Commercial students fly in nastier winds and are more likely to attempt shorter, narrower, or rougher runways, all of which increase takeoff and landing hazards. Reluctance to abandon imperfectly executed 180-degree power-off spot landings have led to some spectacular crashes. We suspect flight reviews and make-and-model check-outs involve underappreciated risks, particularly when the instructor is less than expert in the aircraft being flown. Unfortunately, the data compiled by the NTSB often fails to specify the exact type of instruction undertaken, making those risks difficult to pin down.
In the end, even the greater fatality of advanced training accidents may be less surprising than their sheer number. It’s our guess that primary training occupies at least three-quarters of most CFIs’ time, but there were more than 40 percent more accidents during advanced instruction. Do the math, and the risk appears to be five to six times higher with students who’ve already passed a checkride. If you think safety should be improved by having two certificated pilots on board, you might want to think again. So much for two heads being better than one!