The full Joseph P. Nall Report confirms what ASI’s GA Accident Scorecard first noted a year earlier: General aviation accident rates improved sharply in 2013, especially in non-commercial fixed-wing flying. Better yet, the current Scorecard shows that this might signal the beginning of a trend. In both airplanes and helicopters, the numbers of accidents and the corresponding rates per 100,000 hours of flight time remained at or near their all-time lows in 2014—and the raw counts dropped even further the following year. (The activity figures needed to estimate 2015’s accident rates won’t become available for a few more months.)
Why is this good news for the flight training industry? After all, it’s not as if one (or two, or even three) relatively good years are going to transform public perceptions of the safety of light aircraft. Nor will these findings do much to make flying less expensive, which probably remains the greatest barrier to entry for most would-be aviators (although any reduction in repair and insurance costs can’t hurt). No, the bright spots for the industry are buried a little further in the details.
From 2012 to 2013, the overall number of non-commercial fixed-wing accidents fell some 18 percent. Flight activity also declined, but less than half as much, resulting in a 12-percent reduction in the rate. That would warrant celebration in its own right—but a quick cross-check between the last two Nall reports and the detailed tables of the FAA’s annual GA activity survey shows that a 20-percent drop in the number of instructional accidents in airplanes accompanied a 10-percent increase in reported fixed-wing training time. The result was a 28-percent improvement in the accident rate during fixed-wing flight instruction, which was already below that sector’s average. The fatal accident rate edged down some 15 percent, although that should be interpreted with caution thanks to the (blessedly) small numbers involved.
Fixed-wing training activity in 2014 dropped back to 2012 levels—but the number of accidents decreased another 12 percent, leading to an additional 2-percent drop in the accident rate. In 2014, that actually dropped below four accidents per 100,000 flight hours—some 31-percent lower than the aggregate for non-commercial GA airplane flights.
The helicopter picture is murkier. Because both the accident counts and the amount of flight time are small, the errors of estimation are large by comparison, making year-by-year contrasts problematic. Still, the numbers do tell a story. Between 2003 and 2012, there was an average of 35 instructional accidents per year in helicopters; only two years saw fewer than 30. From 2013 to 2015, helicopter instructional accidents dropped from 28 to 23. Estimated flight activity dropped 16 percent from 2012 to 2013, then jumped 56 percent the following year. The associated estimates of accident rates declined from 6.1 per 100,000 hours in 2012 to 4.4 in 2014, a drop of 29 percent. And 2013 was one of just six years in the past 30 that saw no fatal accidents during helicopter instruction.
What went right? The 25th Jospeh P. Nall Report notes one interesting fact: After an isolated spike in 2012, the rate of accidents caused by mechanical problems (or unexplained engine stoppages) was about the same in 2013 as in 2010. (The 2011 activity survey was never completed.) The improvement was almost entirely on what ASI terms the “pilot-related” side: accidents precipitated by things pilots either did when they should not have, or failed to do when they should. Within those broad categories, 2013’s improvement appears to have been widespread: No one risk factor or accident cause stands out as showing signs of exceptional progress.
Does the same hold true of instructional accidents? We’ll take a look and let you know. Meanwhile, go to www.airsafetyinstitute/nall/ to see the report for yourself—and take our first-ever reader survey to share your ideas on how it can be improved.