In the September 8 and September 22 issues of Flight School Business, we discussed the abrupt reduction in the general aviation accident rate from 2012 to 2013. The number of fatal and nonfatal accidents dropped much faster than flight activity, which finally showed signs that it may have begun to stabilize. More detailed analysis suggested that the improvement was general, spread across most sectors of general aviation and all major accident causes. The fact that the reasons remain obscure doesn’t make this news less welcome.
Great, you might be thinking, but how does that affect my operation? That’s a fair question (not to mention the one we’d ask if we were in your shoes). And when we look, it turns out that the pattern we’d discussed up to this point—broad, generally similar decreases across the board—doesn’t apply to instructional accidents during those two years.
On the fixed-wing side, there was no change in the number of accidents attributed to fuel mismanagement, botched visual or instrument approaches, or sloppy technique during go-arounds. Two accidents on instructional flights were caused by pilot impairment or incapacitation in 2013 compared to none the year before, and the number attributed to deficient airmanship during takeoff attempts also increased by two. Collisions with other aircraft, low-altitude maneuvering, and the catch-all “miscellaneous” category likewise held steady.
Instead—and quite unlike the overall record—the decrease in the number of training accidents resulted from a handful of concentrated improvements. Poor landings always drive the total on the fixed-wing side, and in 2012 they accounted for more than 40 percent of the total. But the number of landing accidents dropped nearly one-third from 2012 to 2013. The number blamed on either known mechanical problems or unexplained engine stoppages fell by nearly half, from 28 to 15, and the small number attributed to deficiencies that should have been detected during preflight was down 60 percent.
Also of note is that the improvement was limited to fixed-wing instruction. The number of training accidents in helicopters was 28 each year, but only one of the 56 (in 2012) was fatal. This made 2013 the tenth consecutive year in which the lethality of helicopter accidents was at least nominally lower than those in airplanes, though in four the differences were too slight to be significant.
Twenty-three of the 56 helicopter accidents (41 percent) resulted from deficient technique during practice autorotations, a figure almost exactly in line with that reported in the Air Safety Institute’s analysis of Accidents During Flight Instruction during the preceding 10 years (2002-2011). Twelve occurred in 2012 and 11 in 2013.
Otherwise, though, the two years were marked by fewer similarities than differences. In 2012 there were five accidents during takeoffs and landings; 2013 only two. In 2012 there were also four cases of dynamic rollover, one accident caused by loss of tail rotor effectiveness, and two instances of ground resonance (both blamed on improperly charged skid dampers in Schweizer helicopters). No accidents were attributed to any of these causes in 2013—but seven were caused by mechanical failures (two in turbine models) and three by upsets during low-altitude maneuvering. There were none of either the year before.
And what of 2014? Too few of the investigations have been completed to allow us to report on accident causes, but at least we have the aggregate numbers. There were 28 instructional accidents in helicopters for the third straight year, two of which (7 percent) were fatal. One was a midair collision between a Robinson R44 and a Cirrus SR22; the other occurred during autorotation practice in an R22. The number of fixed-wing training accidents dropped another 10 percent, from 135 to 121, but 17 (14 percent) were fatal—twice the proportion seen in helicopter instruction, and the highest percentage in more than 20 years. Make it 11 straight (and 18 of the past 20) for the rotorcraft folks.
David Jack Kenny is manager of safety analysis for the Air Safety Institute.