If any of your students mention a parent or spouse who’s nervous about this whole idea of flying “little airplanes,” you may not want to tell them that there’s no need to go up in the air to get yourself into trouble. An average of three pilots a month become pen pals with the NTSB by meeting the Part 830 definition of “accident” somewhere between the ramp and the runway.
Only a handful of these cause serious injuries—10 in the last 15 years, only one of which was fatal—but they shred a lot of aluminum and keep A&Ps busy doing engine teardowns after prop strikes. Of course, the insurance companies are thrilled to pay for this, and they show their gratitude when it comes time to set our premiums.
If it’s a small part of the national accident and insurance-claim picture, it’s also arguably the most avoidable—fuel exhaustion being the only competition that comes to mind. From their very first lessons, student pilots start getting used to the idea that turning the “wheel” is not how you steer on the ground. Eventually those in tricycle-gear airplanes stop making S-turns across the taxi lines and learn something about how to position the flight controls to deal with gusts—although for too many of them, that seems to be one of the first skills forgotten after the checkride. More than 20 percent of taxi accidents involved gusts of various kinds, including 19 aircraft that were blown over by jet blast or prop wash.
If that makes you wonder whether looking where you’re going is another skill that pilots allow to deteriorate, you’re probably on to something: Almost 60 percent of these accidents involved airplanes that taxied into other aircraft, airport vehicles, buildings, signs, lights, or holes in the pavement, wandered out in front of landing traffic, or drifted off the taxiways onto “unsuitable terrain.”
Determining how many of those pilots were simultaneously trying to program GPS units, tune radios, copy the ATIS information, unfold charts, make phone calls, write limericks, play video games, or figure out how to break up with their significant others requires not only going through all the individual reports, but believing that they’d actually admit this to the investigators. Still, it’s probably substantial. Would you taxi into the side of a hangar if you actually saw it there in front of you?
More evidence that inattention is a bigger part of the problem than inexperience comes from looking at the pilots involved. Fewer than 10 percent were students, while almost half (49 percent) were commercial or airline transport pilots. Admittedly, commercial pilots and ATPs account for a lot more taxi time than solo students, but wouldn’t you think they could be counted on to move an airplane around the field without a problem? Actually, it’s surprising how little seems to help mitigate the risk of a taxi smack. More than 90 percent came during single-pilot operations—almost exactly the same as in all GA accidents. The proportions involving commercial or airline transport pilots, instructional flights, and taildraggers were similarly close to those in the accident record as a whole. It’s almost as if these were purely random events, like hailstone damage to airplanes parked on the ramp.
But of course individual accidents are not random; they’re the consequences of the actions taken or neglected by individual pilots. Those at a certain level of experience seem to find it particularly difficult to muster the self-discipline to do nothing else while taxiing the airplane. Requiring your instructors to set a firm and consistent example may not be enough to prevent new pilots from slipping into this trap later in their careers, but given the lasting influence good CFIs develop over their students, it’s likely to help. If nothing else, it should help keep your training aircraft out on the line and save your students and instructors from a great deal of embarrassment.
David Jack Kenny is manager of safety analysis for the AOPA Air Safety Institute.