The Air Safety Institute wasn’t greatly affected by the recent government shutdown, but it has felt the effects of longer-term trends within the NTSB. The increasing complexity of accident investigations—which now can involve specialties such as data recovery from damaged electronic devices—hasn’t been matched by increasing resources, while outside agencies on which the board relies (police, medical examiners, even the FAA) have also seen their resources constrict. One predictable result has been that the resolution of fatal accidents has taken progressively longer over the past four years.
Meanwhile, release of the FAA’s 2011 GA Activity Survey—the basis for all estimates of accident rates that year—has been postponed indefinitely; at last report, the 2012 survey continues to proceed on schedule.
Between the two, the Air Safety Institute has been inhibited from both estimating the rates of general aviation accidents and classifying their causes. This has delayed our signature analysis, the Joseph T. Nall Report, until the data are more complete. In the meantime, the Air Safety Institute is summarizing what’s presently known about the accident record of 2011 to 2012 in a brief “safety scorecard.” Results for the flight training industry are encouraging.
The fewest instructional accidents in recent years in both airplanes and helicopters occurred in 2010 with 149 and 25, respectively. Subsequent increases in 2011 (to 166 and 32) and 2012 (181 and 31) still look pretty good compared to the recent record: 2001-2010 saw an average of 180 fixed-wing and 38 helicopter accidents per year.
The question we can’t yet answer, of course, is whether those additional accidents are the product of more flight instruction or just a return to a more typical level after an exceptionally good year. Even with the activity data, that question would be hard to answer with any great confidence. Because they’re based on relatively small number of events, year-to-year estimates of accident rates are volatile; annual fluctuations of up to 15 percent in the reported amount of training time don’t help much, either. The lowest rates in the past decade came in 2006 and 2010, while the highest were in 2005, 2007, and 2009. It’s doubtful that any were significantly different from the others.
Averaging over several years helps smooth out that volatility, and those results are also encouraging, though not conclusive. From 2003 through 2007, instructional flights saw 5.7 accidents per 100,000 flight hours for airplanes and helicopters combined. Between 2008 and 2010, the average rate was 5.1, a 10 percent reduction. The fatal accident rate eased from 0.6 to 0.5 per 100,000 hours. The numbers are too small to be sure these represent real improvements, but at least the changes go in the right direction.
So how do the last two years stack up? While rate calculations have to wait, we can at least look at how many accidents occurred during training compared to the rest of GA, and by that standard, they look about the same. In each of the previous eight years, instructional flights accounted for 15 to 17 percent of all noncommercial GA accidents (again including both fixed-wing and helicopter). The combined 195 in 2011 were 15 percent of the 1,283 total accidents that year, while the 212 instructional accidents in 2012 made up 16 percent of 1,287 overall.
Also as in previous years, training accidents have tended to be less severe than accidents during personal flights. The last two years saw just three fatal accidents during helicopter instruction, one in 2011 and two in 2012, while fixed-wing training suffered 15 and 17 fatal accidents, respectively. Together, they made up just 8 percent of the 465 fatal accidents on noncommercial flights in those two years—the same share as in the previous eight. Lower mortality reflects both the safeguards built into the training environment to help keep things from going seriously wrong and the increased risk of “fender-benders” that inevitably arises from having less skillful hands take the controls.