After more than five years without any serious injuries, both of the flight schools at AOPA’s home airport in Frederick, Maryland, experienced major accidents in the span of just over two weeks. Four lives were lost in all. A Robinson R44 helicopter was destroyed in a midair collision on Oct. 23; on Nov. 8, a Cessna 172 went down in the mountains on a dual cross-country at night. The student in the Cessna survived and was rescued the following day.
Both schools enjoy solid reputations for prudent management and safety awareness. Both instructors were well-regarded and more than sufficiently experienced for those flights. A news report on a Baltimore TV station began, “It’s happened again.” Friends in other parts of the country have asked the AOPA staff, “What’s going on in Frederick?”
As best we can tell, nothing’s going on—at least, nothing unusual or alarming. Random events don’t happen at evenly spaced intervals, so rare occurrences sometimes look like they’re clustered in time. In fact, if there is never any grouping that remotely resembles a cluster, it’s a tip-off that the events in question may not be completely random after all; rather, some outside force could be spacing them apart.
Outside major fly-ins, at least, the history of an individual airport usually follows this pattern, and Frederick is a good example. The last serious accidents involving Frederick-Municipal-based aircraft happened two and one-half years ago, when there were two in five months. Two years before that, a Beech Baron on its way to Mississippi went down in icing conditions in eastern Tennessee. You’d have to go back to 1993—another 17 years—to find the previous fatal accident, which also happens to be the most recent involving one of Frederick’s flight schools.
Twenty-one years without a fatality sounds pretty good, but the flip side of the irregular spacing between random events is that one long interval doesn’t prove those occurrences are truly rare. In more familiar terms, not having wrecked an aircraft recently doesn’t necessarily mean you’re good. You could just be lucky.
How can you tell the difference? In absolute terms, you can’t. Bad things happen to good schools, and some marginal operators skate for quite a while without ever seeing the stars align against them. But one fairly simple test can shed a lot of light on whether you’re actively preventing problems or merely avoiding them.
Does your school actively review its procedures on a regular basis, or assume that what has worked until now is good enough? Do you hold regular discussions to encourage your instructors to describe the situations that have smacked of trouble, and what they’d do to avoid them? Are staff meetings devoted to getting through an agenda, or to looking hard at what can be learned from whatever has gone wrong during training flights around the nation? Do you actually consider changing your procedures in response?
After a tragedy, it’s hard to imagine life returning to normal. You could argue that it doesn’t; rather, what seems normal is shaped by the changed circumstances of your life. We find a way to go on because there aren’t really any other options, and eventually that new reality becomes familiar.
Here in Frederick, both schools resumed operations after safety stand-downs. Students from other airports continue flying in to practice ILS approaches or gain the required experience at a towered field. Charter flights come and go, as do owner-flown business trips, personal transport, and pleasure flights by airport bums who just enjoy that freedom. AOPA continues its outreach around the country. It looks a lot like any other week of nice autumn weather at any GA airport. Under the surface, though, our flight schools have been re-evaluating and adjusting their procedures. Should you?