Purveyors of accident statistics don’t traffic in much encouraging news. (Locally, we’re known as the “Death and Destruction Department.”)
Recently, though, we’ve had the pleasure of identifying and citing some favorable trends in general aviation’s safety record. As documented in the AOPA Air Safety Institute’s just-released twenty-sixth Joseph T. Nall Report and 2015-2016 GA Safety Scorecard, the accident rate on noncommercial airplane flights dropped more than 10 percent in 2013 and now seems to be stabilizing at that lower level, while the helicopter accident rate has fallen for three consecutive years. Early indications are that 2016 may have registered further improvements. Without a doubt, it saw the fewest deaths in U.S. aircraft accidents since aviation became a significant industry after World War II. In fact, the past five years have been the five best on record in terms of aviation fatalities.
“Great,” you might say, “but how does the training industry fit in?” We’re glad you asked. If you’ve read ASI’s analysis of Accidents During Flight Instruction (and if you haven’t, you should), you’ll probably remember that the overall rates of instructional accidents were fairly similar to those on noninstructional flights, but fewer than half as many were fatal. That analysis was based on a decade’s worth of data collected from 2002 through 2011. Now that we’ve accumulated five more years of experience, it seems like a good time to take another look.
What we see comes as a pleasant surprise. First, the volume of training activity has been picking up significantly. According to FAA estimates, annual amounts of both fixed-wing and helicopter instruction are up about 30 percent from 2012 levels, while the annual numbers of accidents have generally declined. (2016 was a partial exception, as instructional accidents in airplanes returned to 2012 levels.) All told, there were 736 accidents in more than 17.5 million hours of fixed-wing training; 64 of them (8.7 percent) were fatal. This translates to a rate of 4.18 accidents per 100,000 hours, some 28 percent lower than the 5.78 per 100,000 cited in our earlier report. The rate of fatal accidents fell 37 percent to 0.36 per 100,000 hours. Both have remained significantly lower than the overall rates of noncommercial fixed-wing accidents during the same period, even while the latter have decreased.
Improvements in helicopter safety have been even more impressive. Of 120 accidents in almost 2.4 million hours of training time, just seven (5.8 percent) were fatal. These numbers translate to 5.07 accidents and 0.30 fatal accidents per 100,000 flight hours, improvements of 47 and 51 percent, respectively. These are likewise significantly lower than accident rates for noncommercial helicopter flight overall.
The details changed less than the summary numbers. Primary training continued to account for about two-thirds of fixed-wing accidents, but fatal accidents were once again concentrated in advanced instruction (including instrument, commercial, and CFI training), which accounted for 55 percent of them. Unlike the earlier period, however, the largest share of those fatal accidents were attributed to confirmed mechanical failures and unexplained engine stoppages, which caused more than adverse weather and errors during low-altitude maneuvering put together.
Students flying solo were still responsible for more than half of all crashes during fixed-wing primary instruction—far out of proportion to their proportion of flight time—and once again about 80 percent occurred during takeoffs, landings, and go-arounds. Fatalities, however, remained rare (less than 3 percent). Of the 59 accidents during primary instruction in helicopters, just eight (14 percent) happened on student solos, down from 25 percent in the earlier report. One difference from the prior analysis was that most fatal helicopter accidents occurred during primary training, but the numbers were too small (five of seven) to support much interpretation.We’ve learned the hard way not to throw too many numbers at the reader in the course of a single article, so a more detailed update can wait for a later installment. In the meantime, there’s always the hope that the continuing improvement of flight training’s safety record will eventually be reflected in your insurance premiums (the hope but not the expectation, as that’s not the way the world works). Of course, that’s less likely if the underwriters aren’t aware of trends broader than their own client base. If you felt like passing this information along to your agent, who could blame you? It can’t hurt.