A recent article in one of the commercial aviation magazines parsed the records of 55 fatal instructional accidents to reach the startling conclusion that flying with a young, freshly minted CFI is actually safer than flying with one who is more experienced. To those who’ve spent a lot of time wallowing in GA accident data, the most glaring shortcoming of this analysis isn’t its reliance on inappropriate statistical methods, but its failure to account for a known and important confounding factor.
In a sidebar, the author acknowledged that he hasn’t addressed the question of “whether specific types of instruction are more or less likely to end in an accident.” That admission makes it plain that he never read the analysis of Accidents During Flight Instruction that the Air Safety Institute published in 2014. It showed that accidents on dual flights are almost twice as likely to be fatal during advanced instruction—defined as any in which the trainee is already qualified to fly the same category of aircraft—as in primary. The “advanced” category includes not only the instrument, commercial, ATP, and instructor curricula, but also flight reviews and instrument proficiency checks, make-and-model transition training, specialties such as mountain flying, and assorted logbook endorsements.
So fatal accidents are much rarer during primary training. And how do new, low-time CFIs spend most of their working time? That’s right: teaching primary students. No doubt they also handle a few flight reviews and perhaps pick up a commercial student or rental checkout or two, but the bulk of a new CFI’s time is engaged in exactly the specialty that’s already known to be the safest. Since it’s the more experienced instructors who are charged with conducting the riskiest types of training, examining only the most severe accidents turns up—surprise!—disproportionate numbers of experienced instructors.
This wasn’t the only surprising result in the Air Safety Institute report. We’ve previously discussed the fact that helicopter students are far less likely to suffer accidents on solo flights than their fixed-wing counterparts and its implications for improving the traditional airplane curriculum. We also noted the startling fact that fatalities were more common during instrument training than any other single variety, despite the apparent conservatism of its flight profiles. Errors during takeoffs, landings, and go-arounds accounted for some 80 percent of all fixed-wing student mishaps, compared to barely half of those on dual flights. In dual instruction, the relative frequencies of different accident types were almost identical at the primary and advanced level, but almost all proved more lethal during advanced instruction.
The care and level of detail that went into the institute’s analysis makes this author’s lack of familiarity with it a little disappointing. We’d like to think that your instructors are not only better informed, but have the good sense to recognize useful—perhaps even life-saving—information when they see it. Knowing that they’re engaged in a profession that entails some risks, and learning that those risks don’t always exist where intuition would suggest, a healthy appetite for the details is a matter of enlightened self-interest. Most sensible people would prefer to know how they’re most likely to get killed or injured on the job. Ignorance doesn’t increase either safety or enjoyment.
If you’re not sure how many of your CFIs are familiar with this work, you might just want to ask. Nor should interest be confined to flight instructors. After all, every single one of those accident flights also had a student on board. Instructors who find something useful in this study should be encouraged to go over it with their students. They, too, are likely to benefit from knowing where the hazards actually are—as well as where they aren’t.