GA Safety: All Heat, No Light
In a previous blog, I commented on USA Today’s attempt at an expose on the supposedly awful safety record of general aviation. I think most of us will concede that despite the report’s flawed perspective and flat out factual errors, it raised some legitimate issues. But lacking any aviation sense, it failed to suggest solutions. I’m not sure I have any, either. But I have some observations.
I read a lot of NTSB accident reports and, as we’ve noted before, they are often too hastily and superficially drawn to offer an accurate understanding of what happened. I can’t count the number of reports I’ve read in which an engine mysteriously quits, the report writer has no idea why, but drily observes that the conditions were perfect for carburetor icing. Since the evidence always melts and absent any other facts, the reader is invited to blame the pilot for not using carb heat. Maybe this is fair, maybe it isn’t, but it’s how the system works, conditioned as it is by the fact that pilots make a lot of dumb mistakes. Even good ones who fly a lot and try to remain consciously proficient.
As a refreshing change, the USA Today report almost tried to cast pilots as steely eyed but hapless victims of shoddy manufacturing and outdated aircraft designs. Were it only so. None of us have to look in the mirror to know that although out-of-the-blue mechanicals do cause accidents, preventing every one of that category wouldn’t change the accident rate much. Even in some of the egregiously poorly prepared reports, the pilot obviously did something stupid—like flying into bad weather, overloading the airplane or, a perennial favorite, running the tanks dry because the fuel gauges aren’t accurate. That last item is a cultural thing in which automotive knowledge contaminates aviation thinking. It’s like that GEICO commercial; everybody knows the gauges aren’t accurate and we have means to work around this deficiency. Using a crash as a means of highlighting it seems somehow unsporting. Yeah, the stupid gauges should work, but no, they don’t. So buy a totalizer or learn to use a watch. But unless you, as the owner or pilot, take personal responsibility, your 35-year-old Cessna 172 is not going to be fitted with more accurate fuel gauges.
Which leads me to where I think we are in the evolution of general aviation safety. We have entered the you’re-on-your-own phase. Actually, we’ve always been there—your safety in an airplane has always depended on what you, as a pilot, know, how you apply that knowledge and how you’ve been shaped by your experiences, your mentors and your community. And how consistently aware you are in the cockpit. There was a time in aviation when its inherent vitality just naturally spun off more positive vibes, there were more formal and informal connections and events and the manufacturers—especially Cessna—were intimately involved with their customers.
When I started flying in a military club with about 15 airplanes, every few months a brand new model would appear on the flightline in leaseback. Imagine that. And I recall the club would put together an event and someone from the factory or sales force would show up to extol the virtues of the new airplane. Then we would all go out and fly it. But it being 1970, we would pretty often wreck it, too. I remember one of the club members just trashing a brand new Yankee on landing, because that thing sure didn’t fly like a Cessna.
The accident rate was much higher then than now. Many of those accidents involved alcohol, which you rarely see these days. But the potential was there to do better and we eventually did. Training methods just got better, smarter and more effective. That’s still going today. I’m convinced that the FAA Wings program—which I participated in as an instructor—gave a gentle downward nudge to the accident-rate needle. There were other programs that did the same, but the manufacturers don’t seem as involved as they once were, perhaps with the exception of Cirrus for new buyers. To me, this is a direct result of the relentless, depressing erosion in the industry. Almost all of the trends are downward, which doesn’t put companies in the mood to hold ice cream socials for their customers. (That’s why I was kind of impressed last month with Continental actually did have an ice cream social.)
Although the Wings program and other outreaches by various organizations—SAFE is another—are to be encouraged, I think the erosion in GA has advanced to the point that such things are minimally effective. Not to be too harsh, but at one talk I gave a while ago, the average age of the audience must have been 75 and there was practically grid lock of roll-about oxygen bottles. Those guys aren’t flying; they’re nostalgic bystanders. For every fit older person flying, there are dozens who don’t or can’t. So they’re not the safety problem, even though they may be the one attending the seminars out of persistent interest.
In any case, I think we’ve reached the point where such efforts aren’t going to yield much progress. We’ve probably reached most of the people who are interested in that sort of thing. I've never thought that you can teach rational judgment to people who are just incapable of risk-based decisionmaking. We just stop pretending that this is a doable thing and end the delusion that we can jolly those guys along. It's not gonna happen. There will always be stupid people doing stupid things.
This is not a classic freedom-of-the-commons conundrum, but it has an aspect of that to it. When a pilot or owner does something really dumb, the commons that is damaged is the reputation and perception of general aviation. Perception is a mutually shared thing. For an example of how it can be tarnished, look no further than today's news columns for a story in which a pilot planted an airplane in the trees then felt it okay to wander off to a previously planned social event before recovering the wreckage. Seriously? Can't we do better than this?
There’s also wide agreement that over regulation has had a hand in getting us into this mess, so further regulation—of manufacturers or more stringent training requirements—won’t get us out of it. The entire community just doesn’t have the stomach for it. And neither do I, frankly. Not to mention the utter lack of any economic engine to drive it all.
So where to from here? I’m wondering if what we need is just a new age of personal responsibility. For non-commercial operations and despite what regulation we have, the entire GA system is largely unfettered by detailed oversight. We allow people to launch into the wild blue or scuzzy gray with minimal training and minimal requirements for proficiency. We wave the wand, hand them the keys to the airplane and expect them to be responsible, prudent and not do anything profoundly stupid. Yet several hundred times a year, they do just that.
Institutionally, we agree something has to be done, but what? Why must we look to outside agencies or groups to examine, poke and prod and tell us what’s wrong and then proposal “programs” to solve this problem?
I’m probably losing it here, but I was thinking why not just print up a bunch of posters with that old Uncle Sam icon pointing at the viewer, but change the slogan to say: “You. You’re the problem. And you need to own and fix it.”
I’m pretty sure I haven’t seen any better ideas. Got one yourself?