The August 23, 2016, issue of Flight School Business reported that the unexpected drop in accident rates in 2013-2014, especially on non-commercial fixed-wing flights, wasn’t just shared by the flight-training industry. The safety record of flight instruction actually improved even more dramatically than that of general aviation overall.
Not addressed was whether the nature of the improvement was the same. In 2013, the rate of accidents caused by mechanical failures or unexplained losses of engine power on all non-commercial fixed-wing flights was the same as it had been in 2010, suggesting that the action was concentrated in what the AOPA Air Safety Institute calls the “pilot-related” categories: errors of planning, decision-making, or aircraft handling. Within those categories, the relative frequencies of different types of accidents hadn’t really changed. Instead of being able to attribute the lower rates to sharp reductions in, say, fuel mismanagement or VFR into IMC, we instead saw a welcome if puzzling pattern of similar decreases in the numbers of accidents from most major causes.
Well, surprise! It turns out that none of these descriptions characterizes the concurrent reduction in instructional accidents, at least on the fixed-wing side. (Helicopter schools can take pride in the fact that the two to three dozen they experience each year are too few to support much systematic analysis, though we will present a summary in a future issue. You can expect some mention of practice autorotations.)
First, training flights did see an apparent drop in the rate of mechanical or power-loss accidents. Here, too, the numbers are too small to bear much interpretation, but there was an average of 27 such accidents a year between 2010 and 2012. In 2013-2014, the average was just 18. Relative to flight time, the rates in the first three years were between 0.8 and 1.0 per 100,000 hours; in the last two, they were less than 0.5.
So while we don’t know whether fewer engines actually quit running or instructors did a better job of managing the ensuing emergencies (or both), flight training did benefit from a modest drop in crashes caused by problems with the airplanes themselves. It did not benefit from a broad-based reduction in the pilot-related categories. In the country as a whole, there were fewer than half as many fuel mismanagement accidents in 2013 as there were in 2003, but on training flights—where they’re less frequent to begin with—the numbers haven’t changed. The number caused by deficient airmanship during takeoff attempts actually increased from an average of 15 per year in 2004-2008 to 21 during 2009-2013. There were 22 in 2013 and at least 20 the following year. (Some still await final resolution.)
Weather is one of the deadliest accident categories in Part 91 as a whole, but instructional flights are almost immune; there have been no more than three in any recent year. Low-altitude maneuvering accidents also remain rare during flight training, generally accounting for less than 5 percent of the total—and 2012-2014 were particularly good by that measure, with just three apiece. (The preceding eight years averaged more than eight.) And while the total number during go-around attempts was slightly lower in the most recent five years, that was entirely attributable to unusually low counts in 2009 and 2010. They edged back up into double digits in 2010-2014, above the decade’s average.
To the end of his life, career criminal Willie Sutton denied ever having said that he robbed banks “because that’s where the money is.” Be that as it may, most of the recent improvement in the instructional accident rate was made where the accidents are. Between 2004 and 2008, an average of 95 trainers a year were pranged during landing attempts. From 2009 through 2012, that average fell to 70 (thanks to a good year in 2010; there were 75 in 2012). In 2013 there were 58, and in 2014 the number dropped to 52—less than half the 110 seen in the peak year of 2005, when 57 percent of all fixed-wing instructional accidents involved landings gone wrong. In 2013-2014, that figure was just more than 40 percent.
And who’s landing better? Just about everyone, it seems. The largest share of fixed-wing landing accidents has traditionally happened on student solos, and that continues to be the case: They made up 60 percent in 2004 and again in 2013 (with, of course, the inevitable bounces from year to year)—even as the totals from which those percentages are computed dropped by nearly half. We can’t say why (at least, not yet), but it appears that students are doing a better job of getting back on the ground both with and without their instructors’ help.
David Jack Kenny is manager of safety analysis for the AOPA Air Safety Institute.