The fatal midair collision at AOPA’s home field on Oct. 23 marks the intersection of two trends, one established and well-documented and the other relatively new. The former is the continuing excess risk of collisions during instructional flights. As we’ve noted before, midair collisions are mercifully rare, averaging only about 10 per year nationwide, but a disproportionate number involve training flights. Updating the figures in the earlier article, we find that these included 23 of the 99 midairs between 2004 and 2013. If you buy the FAA’s estimates that flight instruction accounted for about 15 percent of all GA activity during that period, this represents an excess risk of almost 55 percent. Furthermore, 15 of the 23 were fatal (65 percent) compared to 37 of the 76 that did not involve training aircraft (49 percent). The difference isn’t statistically significant, but it’s not reassuring, either.
The survival of the two men on board the Cirrus is part of the newer—and happier—trend. Data presented at the recent annual meeting of the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association indicate that the number of fatalities in Cirrus airplanes worldwide has finally begun to drop even as the fleet has continued to grow, falling from an all-time high of 31 in 2011 to 22 the following year, 16 in 2013, and just two so far this year. At the same time, after years of hovering between three and five, the number of attempted Cirrus Airframe Parachute System (CAPS) deployments has begun to climb, reaching seven in 2012, 10 in 2013, and 11 in the first 10 months of this year. According to COPA, this reflects changes in both company and aftermarket training procedures that emphasize considering parachute deployment as an option before an emergency becomes dire, as well as simulator drills involving not just finding but actually pulling the big red handle.
But there’s more to the recent improvement than greater willingness to pull the chute. The total number of Cirrus accidents in the U.S. has also been dropping: 23 in 2011, 20 in 2012, and 16 in 2013. So far this year, we’ve seen 12. And the sum of fatal accidents and successful parachute deployments was 13 in each of the first two of those years but only seven in each of the most recent two (with the clock still running on 2014). Taken together, all this suggests that Cirrus pilots have gotten better at avoiding accidents, not just surviving them.
A good deal of credit should probably go to the owners’ association, which has been both thoughtful and energetic in promoting recurrent training and type-specific safety education. The manufacturer likely also deserves some applause. Early in the company’s history, some in the industry criticized Cirrus’ approved transition training as emphasizing systems management over stick-and-rudder skills. Now, fewer accidents in a larger fleet suggest a healthy attention to basic airmanship.
And, of course, there is that parachute. Opinions differ on whether having one more option in this kind of low-probability, high-consequence event justifies the significant expense, as well as whether it might tempt pilots into situations they’d otherwise avoid. Evidence for the latter suggestion has proven elusive, though, and extremely unlikely doesn’t mean impossible. Almost any midair collision represents a one-in-a-million coincidence; had either aircraft left a minute earlier or a minute later, they’d never have come within a half a mile of sharing the same space. Yet once in a great while they do. Owners of older aircraft who go to the expense of installing shoulder harnesses hope they’re never put to practical use, but also recognize that if they ever need them, the money will have been very well spent. The same can be said of airframe parachutes.