Within the next few days, the AOPA Air Safety Institute will release the 23rd Joseph T. Nall Report, its no-longer-quite-annual statistical abstract of general aviation accidents in the most recent year for which the NTSB’s probable-cause findings are reasonably complete. Due to the increasing complexity of the most difficult investigations, that year is 2011, so the institute has accompanied it with a less detailed “scorecard” tallying the numbers and circumstances of accidents in helicopters and light airplanes during 2012 and 2013. We recommend reading both together: the Nall Report for a detailed breakdown of 2011’s accident causes accompanied by exemplary case studies, the scorecard for a broad sketch of what’s been happening since.
At first glance, the biggest news in the Nall Report would seem to be the complete lack of anything new. In three of the four major sectors of GA—non-commercial fixed-wing and both commercial and non-commercial helicopter flights—2011 saw almost exactly as many accidents as 2010. An apparent spike in the number of commercial fixed-wing accidents came after the two best years on record, landing solidly in the range that typified its history through 2008.
Plenty of details also looked familiar. Training flights accounted for twice the proportion of helicopter accidents as airplane accidents, while personal aviation led to more than twice the share of accidents on fixed-wing flights. Indeed, more than 70 percent of non-commercial airplane accident flights were classified as “personal,” a pattern that’s held since the Nall Report began tracking it more than 20 years ago. (Though to be fair, the Air Safety Institute’s review of instructional accidents, published earlier this year, also found that a significant number of instructional flights—mostly student solos—had been misclassified as “personal” by the NTSB.)
Poorly executed landings continue to cause about a third of all non-commercial airplane accidents, and taken together, dubious airmanship during takeoffs, landings, and go-arounds accounts for about half. Fuel mismanagement may be stabilizing at around 90 accidents per year, a 20 percent increase from the record low of 2008.
Still, hiding amid all this continuity are a couple of surprises. While the number of non-commercial helicopter accidents increased by one, the number of fatal accidents dropped by half. Why? There’s no obvious explanation. It may simply be that the luck of the draw led more of them to involve milder impacts or locations closer to potential rescue. Whatever the reason, 2011 had fewer fatal helicopter accidents than any year in decades. The rebound in commercial fixed-wing accidents likewise betrayed no particularly obvious cause; numbers were up across the board, with little regard for type of accident, weather, or pilot qualifications.
After a dramatic improvement in 2010, the number of accidents in amateur-built and experimental light-sport aircraft also jumped back up to historic levels. Here, too, no single factor seems to be explanatory. If there’s reason to hope that 2011 was merely a brief interruption in a favorable long-term trend, there’s equal reason to fear that 2010 was an anomaly, the one-time effect of the increased scrutiny that accompanied the NTSB’s intensified data collection for its research report on the subject.
Unfortunately, the FAA was unable to complete its 2011 activity survey, so there’s no way to standardize these raw numbers and compare accident rates. The 2012 survey has been completed, and the scorecard shows that through that year, at least, there’s little suggestion of improvement over time. The 2013 survey is being analyzed now, with results expected to be released in the fourth quarter. That event promises to be unusually exciting—and no matter how dull you might normally find tabulations of aircraft and flight-hours, one look at the scorecard will tell you why.
All the data currently available indicate that 2013 registered an unprecedented decline in the number of fixed-wing accidents, which dropped more than 10 percent from the prior year. If that holds true (and there are still reasons to be cautious), 2013 was the first year to have fewer than 1,000 non-commercial airplane accidents in at least half a century. The fact that similar drops weren’t observed in other sectors lends some hope that this isn’t just a data artifact—an illusion caused by late reporting, for instance, delaying records from entering the database. Cross-checking against press accounts and the FAA’s preliminary reports also helps boost confidence that this decrease is real. The 2013 activity survey will determine whether we’re finally seeing the long-awaited improvement in the accident rate or just another twist in the industry’s downward spiral. An analysis of what, if anything, actually improved will have to wait for publication of the 25th Nall Report in 2016. Stay tuned.