This may come as a bit of a surprise: Most accidents involving certificated flight instructors don’t happen while they’re teaching. That’s true even if you exclude those who earn their living flying commercially.
During the 10 years covered by the Twenty-fifth Nall Report¸ an instructor was on board the aircraft in 22 percent of all non-commercial airplane accidents and almost half the non-commercial helicopter accidents. Only 14 and 28 percent, respectively, were classified as instructional flights—and those included student solos. It turns out that 65 percent of all accidents involving fixed-wing CFIs occurred on non-instructional flights. For helicopter instructors, the figure is 52 percent.
So it’s clear that a flight instructor’s certificate doesn’t immunize its holder against all hazards that threaten other aviators. No Teflon coating is applied. Cruise flight on a solo cross-country may not require as much vigilance as crosswind landings with a new student, but instructors shouldn’t get too comfortable.
Where do CFIs get into trouble while not teaching? Pretty much the same places as everyone else. Some 72 percent—nearly three-quarters—of the fixed-wing accidents occurred on personal flights. High as that is, it may seem better than the 90 percent among pilots who aren’t qualified instructors…until you remember that the latter number includes student and private pilots who aren’t eligible to fly banner tows, report on traffic, or do the other kinds of aerial work that require a commercial certificate but operate under Part 91.
In helicopters, where personal flying makes up a much smaller share of overall activity, the difference is more pronounced: 25 percent of accidents involving CFIs compared to 55 percent of the rest. Almost half took place on positioning legs (17 percent), public-use missions (16 percent), or “other working” flights (13 percent), with business travel, aerial observation, and test flights accounting for most of the rest (21 percent combined). Business and positioning flights were also the next most common settings for fixed-wing accidents at about 6 percent apiece.
Space doesn’t permit exploring all the causes in a single article. Since more than five-sixths involved fixed-wing instructors, we might as well start with airplanes. The record provides some evidence of superior airmanship among CFIs, but it’s not as strong as one might hope. The combination of known mechanical failures and unexplained engine outages caused 28 percent of the accidents with instructors on board compared to 21 percent without. Assuming they’re not more likely to break the airplane—or less able to manage the resulting emergencies—that would imply that CFIs are 25 percent less susceptible to crashes arising from lapses in judgment or skill.
The ways in which instructors lapse, however, are hardly unique. They do a little better at landing, but not much: After excluding aircraft failures, landing accidents remain the most common type, accounting for 32 percent (compared to 37 percent among non-instructors). Collectively, 56 percent of pilot-related accidents in the latter group occurred while attempting takeoffs, landings, and go-arounds. Among CFIs the figure was 49 percent, so at least they can claim to be a little better at handling the airplane close to the ground. On the other hand, and somewhat embarrassingly, instructors suffered relatively more collisions with other aircraft, fuel exhaustion or starvation, and accidents ascribed to inadequate preflight inspections.
In both groups, about one-quarter of pilot-related accidents were fatal, and with one significant exception, the leading causes were largely the same. The share of fatal accidents caused by adverse weather was less than half as great among instructors (11 versus 23 percent), perhaps because CFI-airplane applicants are required to hold instrument ratings. However, the proportions during low-altitude maneuvering, descent and approach, and takeoff were nearly identical, as were the shares involving impairment or incapacitation in flight. Together, these caused almost exactly half.
Need any further proof of the lack of a Teflon coating? Instructors not only suffered larger shares of accidents because of fuel mismanagements and discrepancies missed on preflight; those they had were more frequently lethal. And an average of four per year managed to crash airplanes while taxiing. Airplane-handling doesn’t get more basic than that.