The Sept. 22 issue of Flight School Business contained news that we certainly hope you found exciting: The startling 18-percent drop in aircraft accidents from 2012 to 2013, as revealed in the most recent Joseph T. Nall Report, did not result primarily from a further collapse in flight activity (see “Safety: What went right?”).
Total estimated flight time did slip, but only by 6 percent. Instead, the rate at which pilots suffered accidents—that is, the average number per 100,000 hours of flight time—dropped by an unheard-of 10 percent, and the rate of fatal accidents fell 12 percent. The greatest improvements—reductions of 12 and 19 percent, respectively—came on noncommercial fixed-wing flights, far and away the busiest sector of general aviation.
Nor does this appear to have been a one-time fluke, as 2014’s accident numbers were just about as good…and while the results of that year’s activity survey won’t be released for some weeks to come, hints coming down through the grapevine suggest that total flight time may finally have stabilized, or even begun to rebound.
Not addressed in the previous issue was the question of just how broad (or narrow) these improvements were. Do those aggregate figures represent positive trends across the board, or even more dramatic reductions concentrated in a few types of operations or accident causes?
The answer is encouraging: The improvement seems fairly broad-based. The number of accidents that occurred during fixed-wing personal flights—always a sore subject, as they account for the largest volume of flight time and experience the highest accident rate—dropped by that same 18 percent. The number of fatal accidents fell 35 percent. Fixed-wing flight instruction experienced 24 percent fewer accidents and 25 percent fewer fatalities.
The number of training accidents in helicopters remained unchanged, but only one in two years was fatal; it took place in 2012. Personal flights in helicopters saw nearly 40 percent fewer accidents than the year before. Impressive reductions were also registered in some of the less common categories of GA flying. Airplanes and helicopters combined saw only two accidents on ferry flights in 2013, compared to 11 in 2012. The number of accidents on test flights dropped from 16 to 11; the number on positioning legs from 28 to 19; and the number on public-use flights fell from 17 to 12.
So far the Air Safety Institute has analyzed only the causes of 2013’s fixed-wing accidents, but in that dimension, too, improvement was widespread. Bad landings are always the single leading cause of damage to airplanes, and 2013 was no exception. Just as in 2012, they accounted for nearly 30 percent of all noncommercial fixed-wing accidents—but the actual number decreased 19 percent, from 345 to 280. There were 37 percent fewer crashes during attempted go-arounds and 17 percent fewer during takeoffs. The combined number of fatal accidents during takeoffs, landings, and go-arounds fell by almost half.
Airplanes and their pilots also did a better job of keeping the machinery running. In 2013 there was a reduction of 16 percent in crashes attributed to fuel mismanagement, 19 percent from mechanical malfunctions, and 28 percent in unexplained engine stoppages. Total fatalities from these causes, however, dropped by “only” 10 percent—a result that itself would have been cause for celebration in most previous years. The most consistently deadly types of fixed-wing accidents also registered significant declines: of 14 percent in accidents during low-altitude maneuvering, 23 percent in those caused by adverse weather, and 35 percent during both visual and instrument approaches. Collectively, these caused 71 fatal crashes in 2013 compared to 95 the year before. For those who don’t feel like doing the arithmetic themselves, that’s a 25-percent reduction. There were also four fewer collisions between aircraft and seven fewer accidents attributed to pilot impairment or incapacitation.
The news wasn’t universally good: 2013 saw one more accident caused by inadequate preflight inspection and a jump of eight in taxi mishaps. Neither area ranks as a major public-safety problem: Combined, they accounted for one-eighteenth of all fixed-wing accidents that year.
It will probably be another year before we have enough information in hand to categorize accident causes in 2014, but the similarity of the overall numbers is reason to hope that we’ve finally begun to see some change for the better in a process that has been remarkably stable up until now. Stability may be a good thing in personal finance, emotional equilibrium, and (usually) aerodynamic design, but when applied to a stubbornly high accident rate, it’s a problem. If 2013-2014 represent a move toward a new, safer equilibrium (that’s right, “a new normal”), the shift will be welcome.
So would a clearer idea of why we’re seeing this improvement now. Did something important change over the past couple of years? We haven’t been able to put our fingers on anything. Can you?
David Jack Kenny is manager of safety analysis for the AOPA Air Safety Institute.