Gravy, mashed potatoes, and ground saturated from winter storms aren’t the only things that unexpectedly become lumpy. The November 18 issue of Flight School Business discussed the fact that random events sometimes clump together in time. In fact, that’s inherent in the nature of randomness. Since the length of time between events can’t be predicted, some intervals will be unexpectedly short, others unusually long. This makes it difficult to determine when changes in either the environment or the underlying process have produced actual clusters.
Last time we looked at accidents involving the two flight schools at AOPA’s home airport. Want more examples? On March 8, three light airplanes—one apiece in North Carolina, Alabama, and Utah—were upset by the rotor wash from heavy military helicopters. Midair collisions are extremely rare, averaging only five or six a year, but this past fall there were three in the space of a month. And on Nov. 10, four complex singles sustained gear-up landings in fewer than 18 hours.
Gear-up landings are a favorite example of the fact that not every misfortune that results in repair bills, lost revenue, insurance claims, and a good scare also shows up in the official accident statistics. During its 2013 fiscal year the FAA’s daily preliminary reports included 58 gear-up landings. That’s an average of about one a week, further confirmation that seeing four in one day is pretty unusual. So far, however, just five of these appear in the NTSB database, with a sixth apparently due to be added once the pilot files the required report.
The remaining 52—some 90 percent—didn’t cause enough damage to qualify as “substantial” under 49 CFR Part 830. That doesn’t make them trivial occurrences. Between new props, engine teardowns, and various airframe repairs, the cost of fixing every airplane that actually got fixed probably ran well into five figures. Ten of them were twins, which multiplies the expense. A very conservative estimate would put the combined price tag at a couple of million dollars—all because five dozen pilots got distracted or simply forgot to put the gear down.
Since details will only be reported for a handful of them, some of the things we’d most like to know aren’t going to be disclosed. From a training perspective, several aspects of pilot experience would be especially helpful. At the top of the list would be total time in both all complex aircraft and the specific make and model as well as how recently the incident pilots had flown either and what, if anything, they’d been flying in between. Knowing this, we might at least look for risk factors that could be mitigated by better instruction. Are these lapses more often the result of inadequate transition training, old habits reasserting themselves in the absence of recent practice, or confusion about systems and procedures (for example, mistaking the gear horn for the stall warning)? All can be addressed by training. Or maybe there’s no pattern at all and this is another example of a purely random event, equally likely to strike anyone. Without that information, preferably collected over several years, there’s just no way to tell.
Even if the opportunities were clear, of course, it’s less clear how many schools could take advantage of them. Previous issues have discussed the increasing difficulty of finding either complex or multiengine airplanes for dual instruction or rental. Their declining availability at flight schools mirrors the trend in the industry as a whole, where they represent progressively smaller shares of the piston fleet. According to the FAA’s annual activity survey, the total number being actively flown dropped 9.3 percent over 10 years. It’s not clear how much of that was due to the triennial re-registration requirement, which removed thousands of outdated records from the roster, rather than a true reduction in activity. But over the same period the number of piston twins dropped 16.9 percent, while the number of retractable singles fell some 21.2 percent.
At the same time, the FAA has maintained the requirement for 10 hours complex time for commercial fixed-wing pilot candidates, and multiengine ATP candidates now have to log 50 hours in class. With the details of FAR 61.156 making it next to impossible for independent schools to provide ATP training after 2016, one has to wonder whether they’ll also find it increasingly difficult to compete for the complex/commercial training market. Incentives for owners to come in for more frequent recurrent training, plus more attention to non-career pilots who want to step up, might do at least a little to preserve it.