GA Safety: All Heat, No Light

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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change, the USA Today report almost tried to cast pilots as steely eyed but hapless victims of shoddy manufacturing and outdated aircraft designs.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?

Join the conversation.
Read others' comments and add your own.

Comments (41)

I think your on to something, an advertising campaign that calls for us to "fly like your mom is in the back seat" or "don't be stupid", "you want yo do what?" I like it!

Posted by: joe grimes | June 22, 2014 9:53 PM    Report this comment

Paul:

Great piece. As soon as you (or anybody else) figure out how to cause irresponsible people to behave responsibly, you will become as legendary and as influential as Jesus of Nazareth. In the meantime, autonomous aircraft offer the only practical way to push the safety needle.

Posted by: Thomas Yarsley | June 23, 2014 9:04 AM    Report this comment

Paul, thank you for on excellent article. To bad USA doesn't have people of your caliber on their staff, but if they did they would probably be doing the Society page. Dr. Jim. CFI 40+ years.

Posted by: James Hodges | June 23, 2014 10:06 AM    Report this comment

Paul, thank you for on excellent article. To bad USA doesn't have people of your caliber on their staff, but if they did they would probably be doing the Society page. Dr. Jim. CFI 40+ years.

Posted by: James Hodges | June 23, 2014 10:07 AM    Report this comment

Some if us will do dangerous untimely things or things lacking common sense or by ignorance. Considering the pilot population age and demeanor, we as pilots are in a safer GA environment as we have better training and educational programs than in 70s, but things could get back to worse.

Anticipating worse much is being offered via the FAASAFETY and FAASTEAM WINGS programs. AOPA, EAA and others in good faith provide wise aviation safety counsel. Some of us pay for better training and fly better aircraft. Safety is a societal problem and safety awareness and education solutions are at hand. Sometimes free.

I have volunteered as "Aviation Safety Counselor" and as a FAASTeam Representative for over twenty years. I see the same faces and the same passion for life and flight. When was the last time you attended an aviation safety seminar or contributed to one?

Good aircraft, good practice and safer pilots make for a less painful aeronautical experience. Go to: faasafety.gov and get into the solution.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | June 23, 2014 10:19 AM    Report this comment

Paul, I think you are right about the problems associated with teaching mechanical models for decision making. Still, I think it is worth the effort to keep these topics on the table and in the syllabus. Everything old is new again. We still have aviation manufacturers (thank god) who's marketing departments paint a picture of utopian ease in personal transport for those who can afford the sticker price. I suspect this is nothing new. What may be different though is the FAA capitulation to this fantasy with their FITS model. The steady de-emphasis on aircraft control skills, the lack of real neuroscience as relates to pilot learning and training, and other downward trends in the flight training models are taking their toll. One suggestion I'll make is to quit this fantasy that flying is inherently safe. We should teach pilots that flying starts out dangerous, and only becomes acceptably safe with the attainment of certain skills and knowledge, and a high level of adaptation to an alien environment. By the time this message takes hold, however, we will be flying in fully automated, semi-autonomous airplanes after arriving to the airport in our robotic cars. CM

Posted by: Charles McDougal | June 23, 2014 10:20 AM    Report this comment

Based on the accident reports, a reliable and accurate gas gauge or gauges seems like a good idea. Ideally it would be one that could be retrofitted to existing airplanes and would flash a red light when you had an hour or less flight time at standard burn rate. If you don't have a totalizer or don't set it up right, the only gas gauge you have is the one in your head. That one is subject to bad memory and wishful thinking.

Posted by: David Cooper | June 23, 2014 10:26 AM    Report this comment

Paul:

A question for you - does the modest improvement in the GA accident rate over the last 30 years correlate with the concurrent graying of the GA pilot population?

-YARS

Posted by: Thomas Yarsley | June 23, 2014 10:31 AM    Report this comment

'There will always be stupid people doing stupid things.'

Then, what is the question, again?

Thankfully, none of mine have caused others any grief - that I know of.

But in that spirit of personal responsibility, I want the equivalent freedom to behave as I've learned, and I equally give others the freedom to see that behavior as 'stupid' if they wish.

Posted by: Dave Miller | June 23, 2014 10:32 AM    Report this comment

Paul,

I have a 1966 Cessna 182 with the extremely poor fuel gages you allude to in this article. When the gage stops oscillating, which would indicate completely empty tanks,l you have 45 minutes fuel remaining in each tank. These are worthless instruments and the only way to gage endurance is time. However gage wins if it shows a lower value sooner. You may have a fuel cap that is not secure.

I have looked for a more accurate fuel quantity indicator for a single engine Cessna with no luck. If you know of an improved and more accurate until I would appreciate knowing where to find a better fuel gage system at a somewhat reasonable cost,.

Posted by: Charles Lloyd | June 23, 2014 10:36 AM    Report this comment

Simple. Question everything we know. I'm not saying to forget everything we know, just question it. You can reject something without disrespecting it. GAMI rejected shock cooling, but did extensive scientific testing to prove their theories. We should approach everything about GA that way. They respected the accepted science by doing the hard work to do objective testing.

I didn't say it would be easy, just simple.

Posted by: Eric Warren | June 23, 2014 10:46 AM    Report this comment

UHG, How is it you got it so right? The industry has declined like, rail, bus, or '70's US car industry. The financial interests have focused on Electronics. To attract new buyers, a NEW 40+ year old airframe design now includes High Tech electronics equivalent to the airlines. Great for now, but a 'just getting by' investment may lead to the next chapter 11 sale. Cirrus, Lancair, & Diamond for example have made great improvements to aircraft efficiency and crashworthiness yet we depend upon the pilot to 'fly the plane' properly. Current Electronics have provided automated 'Fly Level' or 'Go Around' capability which has dramatically improve the chances for survival after a poor decision. However, unless you have a business Write Off, these Half Million $ plus aircraft are for the Half percent client. Today's GA aviation industry is closer to a businessman's life style than the average teen or working person. Making a living in GA seems extremely difficult, for example flying clubs with 1970's C172 trainers.... But I digress. I agree, Safety is our responsibility since there is not as large, active GA flying community. Those that exist are very special because they allow those hangar stories to exist and thrive. That's where I see practical, friendly communication benefiting the community; where aviation Safety survives. Thanks Paul for that. So how about: "Just Getting By; Don't Fly." "Need to Flee?, Go RV." "VFR Day is the Way" "Flying Far?, Plan IFR". ____ Sorry I'm loosing it.

Posted by: Philip Potts | June 23, 2014 10:47 AM    Report this comment

Every time I read a well-meaning article about the poor safety record on GA it's depressing to see just how far we have fallen with regard to accepting that with freedom come responsibility, and risk.

I can think of no other form or recreation; boats, motorcycles, automobiles, etc., where we compare the safety record of the large commercial transportation with the private recreational user just because they share the same basic mode. For example, I have yet to read in a motorcycle or automotive magazine how poorly Harley-Davidson motorcycles compare to a Grayhound bus when it comes to fatalities per 100,000 miles. Yet I see the comparison continually repeated between small GA, even amateur built, and large commercial carriers flying aircraft with vastly different missions and built to completely different design standards.

Somehow in western culture he have decided that success in life is measured in quantity, not quality. As my father was fond of saying, "being inordinately afraid of dying has kept a lot more people from living than it has kept from dying." I for on, agree.

Every time I embark on a particularly risky endeavor, be it low-level aerobatics, or a long over-water flight in a small aircraft I think about, and accept, the fact that the flight has a increased risk of ending badly. I accept that.

I cannot overstate how my life has been enriched by having the courage to accept that life is full of risks, and no one gets out alive, and to go out and see the world, literately, out the windshield of little airplanes. Quite often over the objections of my "safety minded" friends and family.

Print up all the posters you want claiming people are the problem. Really? Did you just now figure that out? I feel sorry for the people that actually think you are going to change behavior and the frailties of being human with posters and catchy phrases. What it does do is discourage people from partaking in an activity that can enrich your life and give you a perspective like nothing other.

I was lucky that I grew up in a time when you had the freedom and you were expected to be responsible for, and accept the risks of, your own actions. As well as have the courage to enjoy all that that freedom allowed, both good and bad. I pity those that will never know what they missed out on.

Posted by: Jeff helmericks | June 23, 2014 10:59 AM    Report this comment

BTW, all people make stupid mistakes. The difference is stupid people don't learn from their mistakes and therefore repeat them. Any pilot that can honestly say they haven't made many stupid mistakes. either hasn't left the traffic pattern yet, or is too foolish, perhaps stupid, to admit the truth.

Posted by: Jeff helmericks | June 23, 2014 11:25 AM    Report this comment

Unfortunately you find the same phenomenon in other activities like motorcycle riding, ATV use, and personal watercraft happening. most people use them responsibly but there are a few that do not know their limits and do dumb things.

To reduce those accidents happen much tighter control of the of training, licensing, and operation will be necessary. I dislike that happening and so we have a quandary do we want lower accident rates with the much larger Government control or not?

Posted by: william Lawson | June 23, 2014 11:28 AM    Report this comment

Actually one catchphrase has served me well since my student days. "How is this going to sound in the NTSB report?"

Another that has been helpful is "If you ever find yourself using the expression, "Hold my beer and watch this." you might oughta do a rethink."

Posted by: Richard Montague | June 23, 2014 1:12 PM    Report this comment

Certainly if all general aviation aircraft were equipped with multiple fanjet engines, a crew of two who maintained currency daily and were rechecked every six months, had hot wings, hot windscreens, glass cockpit, fully programmable flight management systems coupled to the autopiltot, there would be a lot fewer "stupid" things, like flying in icing conditions, to kill general aviation pilots, and the GA accident rate would be very similar to air carrier.

In a world where these things, or their equivelent, were affordable and commonplace, the accident rate would be lower. But we don't currently live in such a world, and may never. The FAA, or USA today would be more constructive if they looked at the things that make introducing "new" technology expensive rather than ever more restrictions to that technology and our freedom to fly.

Posted by: Bruce Campbell | June 23, 2014 2:09 PM    Report this comment

Yes Paul, your observations were most appropriate! One of the items that all pilots need to be aware of is that of 'the envelope of aerodynamics' of the particular plane that they are flying. Any aircraft is only a stable platform if flown in the 'envelope' that it was designed for.

Posted by: ellis mickey | June 23, 2014 2:19 PM    Report this comment

As I recall there was an AD or similar directive of a decade or more ago regarding Cessna fuel gauges. The certification of their satisfactory function was that when tested, they had to read empty when the tank was empty, and full when it was full. What happened in between was of no consequence whatsoever according to the specification. My personal minimum reserve was 1.5 hours for any trip, given the lack of a totalizer.

Posted by: David MacRae | June 23, 2014 2:35 PM    Report this comment

We need our friends in OK City to help us with this "certified" fuel gauges inop conundrum. They've talked about changing Part 23 and are, so to speak, in the saddle ... but they need to spur the horse, jump off, grab the Part 23 calf, and rope it ... instead of just riding around the outside of the ring for the next few years. Experimental aircraft can use uncertified, digital, accurate, affordable fuel gauges in the same sky, using the same ATC system, while carrying passengers, go figure. The certified manufacturers need to not be so proprietary that they help kill the golden GA goose. $400K for a new airplane is enough to kill the goose as it is. If new cars were $400K no one would buy one. Fuel is Life ... and knowing fuel quantity is vital ... yet we have certified airplanes with fuel gauges that are only decoration because no one makes them any more. Thank goodness for marked-off paint sticks to dip the tanks with (and totalizers.) Most paint stores will give the sticks out for free. If guys and gals don't fly often because of the price of fuel, or whatever, they could still "hangar" fly and plan a cross country a couple of times a month; check tomorrows forecast for destination X, decide the fuel load plus reserves, do a Weight & Balance, go over the normal and emergency checklists, recheck the weather the next morning and decide if they'd still go, review the route on a sectional for terrain and obstacle issues, review approach plates, et. al. Hangar flying has a real low fuel burn rate. The 75 year olds would make great mentors for new pilots (or lightly seasoned pilots.) Their stories at chapter meetings would be more insightful than watching the latest promo video from the head shed about this years conclave. Most would be glad to help a rookie do his/her hangar flying. Keep up the thought provoking articles, Paul.

Posted by: Paul Curs | June 23, 2014 2:56 PM    Report this comment

The fuel gauge issue in aviation is an interesting study in aviation culture and a place to initiate a better dialogue on aviation safety.

Yes an economic replacement can be made to replace the Cessna gauge. And it isn't all just the gauge - a good percentage of the issue - really comes down to the sender technology - which also can be made economically in a digital format. Certified new TSO'd gauges are available and in aviation economic terms - reasonable. I know the gauges can be made to function more or less correctly as designed - the technology we use to measure fuel did not lend itself to long life in the aviation application.

Totalizers and sticks have not changed the statistic of fuel issues - they do remain steady at least in my research on the subject - I agree that they take a lot of the stress away in what can be very exhausting fuel calculations to be exactly precise on fuel burn.

The pilot community accepts bad gauges - as a cultural badge of some sort - proudly touting the work arounds - fuel totalizers, watches, sticks as your dialogue in the blog suggests.

Equally we have created this non-sensical - "Only have to be accurate at zero" - a statement that falls apart completely under the simplest logic or in the face of actual review of the regulation. The fact that the FAA FAAST team and AOPA ASI repeat this non-sensical statement verbatim without review is mind numbingly disturbing. The USA Today author would have had a field day with that one.

Case in point - If fuel gauges were really that bad in aviation - there would be thousands of SDR reports in the FAA database in regards to bad fuel gauges - I challenge you to find one.

Right now "as I am literally and figuratively immersed in this issue - Is one area - we as a community could do better from a safety standpoint.

http://fuellevel.blogspot.com/2014/06/ga-safety-all-heat-no-light-usa-today.html

Posted by: Scott Philiben | June 23, 2014 3:25 PM    Report this comment

Diamond puts capacitance devices in the tanks which when combined with flow meters are accurate enough.

I really like Jeff's point of comparing pros in pro equipment to regular operators. Given the hours of experience of most GA pilots, it's like comparing a first year driver in an eighties chevette to an experienced commercial driver with modern stability aids. As soon as the road gets slick, one of them is a lot more likely to mess up and get hurt.

Posted by: Eric Warren | June 23, 2014 4:21 PM    Report this comment

Honestly why anybody cares about the general aviation accident rate is a bit of a mystery to me. I care about my personal accident rate and do a lot to lower it, from safety seminars to studying weather to practicing to reading accident reports. As one person there's not a lot I can do to sway the rate, and given the number of dumbass accidents out there maybe the best I can hope for is to fall into one of the Knoll Report's more novel categories. But when so many kill themselves doing stupid pilot tricks I don't think I'll make much of a dent either way.

Posted by: Brad Koehn | June 23, 2014 5:30 PM    Report this comment

Fortunately, or unfortunately, Paul's comments are right on. As an FAA Safety Inspector I participated in numerous accident investigations between 1969 and 1996. Yes, there were some mechanical failures but they usually did not result in death or even injury. Most of the fatal accidents were pilot induced for one reason other. Personal responsibility is the only solution left to reduce the rate and you cannot regulate that. That responsibility probably involves the maintenance personnel as well as the pilots. As for the attendees at the safety meetings; that is no different in any self improvement program. The young folks seem to think they know it all, don't need to know it or just don't give a damn. Its very frustrating to those of us that have a few years under our belts (or over them).

Posted by: Wes Edwards | June 23, 2014 9:39 PM    Report this comment

Has anyone in the FAA or NTSB or other interested alphabet soup Agencies or bloggers here ever considered that there isn't much more they/we can do to lower the accident rate of GA ... short of grounding every last remaining "geriatric" pilot? There is a point of diminishing returns on investment in ANY statistical analysis seeking perfection. The last few percentage points are an elusive target that just can't be reached. You know ... it's 1 over X. It's nice to SAY they want to make aviation safer or 100% safe but -- as you say Paul -- How? Frankly, this pilot is sick of this safety BS. I"M SICK OF IT !! Aviation is an endeavor which will smite ye if you act irrationally. Every pilot knows that but some still become a statistic. In any very large cross section of the population, there will be a small subset who just don't "get" it.

I was trained properly -- also in a USAF Aero Club environment. I flew in that same environment for many years. I've been doing it for almost 45 years and I'm still here. There's a reason for it. I like living and I think about it every time I climb into my airplane. That's great but SOME pilots are either young, 10 feet tall and bulletproof or otherwise don't act smartly sometimes. So what are we going to do ... punish the majority for the flaws of the few? You know about leading a horse to water ...

Part of the problem is our preoccupation with aviation disasters as good subject matter to bash. We don't do this when our neighbor dies in an auto crash but ... crash an airplane and go to the ball anyways ... OMG ... terrible people.

If the darned FAA would stop worrying about the BMI index of an infinitesimally small percentage of pilots, sleep apnea, useless medical exams for pilots flying recreationally (just to ultimately ground 217 pilots last year) and etc and focus their energies on finding ways to make certification of new airplanes less expensive and ways to draw more folks into the avocation cum vocation, maybe a new C172 wouldn't cost $400K. Whether you fly MY 39 year old C172 or a new G1000 equipped extravaganza, it's still a dangerous endeavor IF the pilot acts with abandon with regard to safety.

I have a sign in my hangar attributed to Albert Einstein. It says, "Bureaucracy is the Death of any Achievement." Amen All that I know is ... I think and fly safely and I could care less if some dummy with 25 hours flies into IFR conditions. That's HIS problem and the bean counters at the FAA ... and maybe his flight instructor. I don't need still another FAA bureaucracy micro-managing MY 100% safe flight activities ... and they're not welcome in my hangar or at my airport.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | June 23, 2014 10:20 PM    Report this comment

Every time I hear stories of wildly inaccurate fuel gauges I have to wonder about the quality of maintenance on those aircraft. FAR 23.1337(b) says we are required to have fuel gauges, and "An indicator calibrated in appropriate units and clearly marked to indicate those units must be used" to show the quantity of fuel in each tank. Implicit in "calibrated" is that the indication - whether gallons or percent full - have a reasonable degree of accuracy.

Too often I see people take the letter of the FARs (specifically the "must be calibrated to read zero during level flight when the quantity of fuel remaining in the tank is equal to the unusable fuel supply" that comes next) to defeat the spirit of the regulation. That paragraph is there so a 20-gallon tank with 10 gallons unusable doesn't indicate to the pilot that they have 10 gallons of fuel even though the engine can't use any of it.

Perhaps I'm spoiled having most of my time in Pipers, but every plane I've flown has had working fuel gauges. I define "working" the same way I do for a car: "The gauge indication bears some resemblance to the quantity of fuel in the tank, on the ground, with the aircraft level, stationary, and with the engine running". To expect anything more from a float-type fuel sender is insane. To illustrate, take your family car with 1/4 tank of gas and drive up a hill. Now turn around and drive back down the hill and note the change in the fuel quantity reflected by the "accurate" fuel gauge. Your aviation fuel gauges are no different: the quantity indication will change as fuel sloshes around in the tank, and your cruise attitude will affect the readings (what's your level-cruise deck angle?).

Of course all that said I don't rely on my aviation fuel gauge, or my automotive fuel gauge. I know my car, and if it's still telling me I have half a tank after I've driven 300 miles I'm not going to blindly believe it! Similarly if I topped off the tanks in my Cherokee and went flying for 3 hours I wouldn't believe the gauges if they said I still had 30 gallons of fuel left.

Posted by: Michael Graziano | June 24, 2014 12:15 AM    Report this comment

Pilots are the problem with aviation, but not for the fact that we do stupid things, it's because we are too cheap for our own good. Look at the car industry: regular crash testing, forced safety improvements, forced fuel economy improvements, "cash for clunkers" that get old deathtraps off the road and into junk yards. Can we do this? NO! Everytime we want to kill a LORAN or require a radio in a plane, we complain to AOPA and they "defend our rights to be stupid, cheap, dangerous idiots." We are reaping what we've sown for decades: a fleet of deathtraps that look nothing like the modern, safe cars people are used to driving in everyday. 3 point safety belts in my J-3 Cub? Force me to buy a radio or transponder? The FAA will have to pry my money from my dead cold hands!

Imagine if there were "historic license plates" for the old airplanes that aren't up to modern standards like there are for cars, EVERY SINGLE PLANE I've ever flown would have one. When the "Car Talk" brothers were asked about buy an 8 year old minivan to hold the kids, they said it wasn't worth it since there have been so many safety improvements during that time... what do we have?

Then we wonder why every other industry looks at us like we are crazy... If the fuel gauges in cars didn't work it would be an instant recall, but we say it's "good enough" and "PIC's responsibility." The DoT mandates airbags in cars to save lives, we can't be forced to do it. Children die from backup accidents so backup cams are required now: we can still buy handpropped engines. Lead is a proven poison, but we won't let them take it away. Cars must have electronic stability control to prevent rollovers, we won't even pay to have modern electonics let alone a "save me" button.

The Ralph Naders of the world unfairly exploited the auto industry and they were forced to be safer, against their wills. Maybe a few more articles like USA Today will force us to do the thing we can't do for ourselves: keep AOPA and EAA from preventing the changes that will save lives and improve aviation.

Posted by: Jeffrey Smith | June 24, 2014 1:15 AM    Report this comment

"A question for you - does the modest improvement in the GA accident rate over the last 30 years correlate with the concurrent graying of the GA pilot population?"

Good question. But one I can't answer. Someone smarter than me could probably do some statistical magic and prove this to be true. My guess is it has to be a factor.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | June 24, 2014 5:04 AM    Report this comment

General Aviation is an Endangered, Threatened and a Special Concern Species as is the concurrent graying population.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | June 24, 2014 7:58 AM    Report this comment

...of pilots that is.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | June 24, 2014 8:16 AM    Report this comment

"As for the attendees at the safety meetings; that is no different in any self improvement program. The young folks seem to think they know it all, don't need to know it or just don't give a damn. Its very frustrating to those of us that have a few years under our belts (or over them)."

I guess it depends on what you consider "young", but that's not always true. I've seen plenty of older pilots who fit that description as well, perhaps even more so, thinking that since they've made it this far with their ways, they'll be just fine continuing in their ways. However, it IS frustrating to those of us who try to instill disciplined, thoughtful behavior to those who think they know it all, young AND old.

"If the fuel gauges in cars didn't work it would be an instant recall, but we say it's "good enough" and "PIC's responsibility."" And "The pilot community accepts bad gauges - as a cultural badge of some sort - proudly touting the work arounds - fuel totalizers, watches, sticks as your dialogue in the blog suggests. " And other similar sentiments found throughout aviation.

As others here have pointed out, even car fuel gauges can be misleading and inaccurate, but it's generally not considered an issue since generally the worse that can happen is you run out of gas and pull off to the side of the road and either get a ride to the nearest station or call AAA. Who here hasn't known someone (or been the "someone") with a car where the fuel gauge either didn't work at all, or would show "Full" until just before suddenly dropping to almost "Empty"? The difference in aviation is that it's not as easy to just pull off to the side of the road and will generally mean a forced off-airport landing.

It's not so much a "badge of honor" why the fuel gauges shouldn't be relied upon, but more because the consequences of running out of fuel are greater, and so we shouldn't be relying on any single method for determining fuel remaining. Using a timer and known fuel burn is a good conservative starting point, but it should be backed up with the fuel gauges (if they read lower than our estimation, we should take notice) and fuel flow meters (which, when properly calibrated and verified, are the most effective means of knowing how much fuel is available, short of there being a leak somewhere). But this leads to the often repeated but incorrect statement that "the regulations only require the gauge to read accurate when empty".

"I'm wondering if what we need is just a new age of personal responsibility. "

And that's what I think it all comes down to. In the example of the faulty fuel gauges, why weren't we at least doing a rough mental estimation of our fuel burn? And if the engine quits on takeoff and we subsequently crash, why weren't we mentally rehearsing what we'd do should that happen to us? In all cases except for an "act of god" (i.e. severe clear-air-turbulence, catastrophic infant mortality engine failure, etc), blaming someone else (even if it was a contributing factor) simply means we refuse to accept that there was something else we could have done, and so we're likely to take the same inaction (or inappropriate action) again.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | June 24, 2014 11:43 AM    Report this comment

"BTW, all people make stupid mistakes."

Politely, I disagree. All pilots make IGNORANT mistakes. What makes a mistake "stupid" is foreknowledge of its inappropriateness, coupled with knowledge sufficient to avoid it - yet STILL committing the error. Most often, it's a combination of carelessness and complacency - both of which can be characterized as "stupid" in their own rights.

"Any pilot that can honestly say they haven't made many stupid mistakes. either hasn't left the traffic pattern yet, or is too foolish, perhaps stupid, to admit the truth."

With thousands of hours of instruction given, I freely confess: I've left the traffic pattern a time or two. Yet I've managed to avoid making stupid mistakes (so far). So - am I too foolish, or am I just plain stupid?

I've never accepted that one can teach judgment to others. But I have offered advice to many hundreds of pilots: don't do things that you already know are stupid - there are enough dumb things that you don't even know about, to kill you several times over. Try to learn something new from each flight - it will decrease the number of ignorant mistakes you can make, while increasing the number of stupid mistakes you can avoid.

Posted by: Thomas Yarsley | June 24, 2014 12:25 PM    Report this comment

'General Aviation is an Endangered, Threatened and a Special Concern Species as is the concurrent graying population...of pilots that is.'

That's it, Rafael, you might have answered it. With a little hair dye and just-for-men, a few hip replacements to re-new that spring in one's step, just imagine how the public perception could change to, wow! that's a young, mature person's activity! Let's learn to fly, the old farts have all died off!

Perception is reality for many, so let's give 'em what they want. I don't know what could be done, however, with all of the roll-about oxygen bottles...

Posted by: Dave Miller | June 24, 2014 12:37 PM    Report this comment

Dave, I love you man! Thomas, thank you as I agree with you.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | June 24, 2014 3:04 PM    Report this comment

"Any pilot that can honestly say they haven't made many stupid mistakes. either hasn't left the traffic pattern yet, or is too foolish, perhaps stupid, to admit the truth."

"With thousands of hours of instruction given, I freely confess: I've left the traffic pattern a time or two. Yet I've managed to avoid making stupid mistakes (so far). So - am I too foolish, or am I just plain stupid?"

Maybe not stupid mistakes, but mistakes in general do happen, be it misreading back a clearance, forgetting to turn off the master switch after a flight, or even a simple as beginning the base turn too soon and having to go-around. In that sense, I agree with the original premise.

A truly stupid mistake would be trying to salvage a landing and running off the end when a go-around should have been performed, and THOSE types of mistakes shouldn't happen to a properly trained pilot.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | June 24, 2014 3:27 PM    Report this comment

Been flying since 1964, about 4500 hours now; about 50 hrs/ year these days and dwindling; the same airplane since 1979. But the caution and concern about mistakes never ceases. Preflights are still pretty much standard. I still find a glitch every other flight that needs attention. So "Freedom requires eternal vigilance is the creed. The cost is high, and I fund it out of my own pocket. If any advice is coming from my observations in this experience, it is that external support of a general nature is necessary. Commercial, industrial and government entities must come together and foster a "learn to fly" movement that will attract the best and brightest boys AND girls to pass tests and be subsidized to pilot training. Even then "many are called but few are chosen" is the watchword. WWII was a tremendous exercise in that method and it was largely successful. ANY effort along those lines will be successful. This will bring forth a plethora of bright youngsters to for this service industry to move on. Take the money that's being SQUANDERED on the WORTHLESS CARBON MOVEMENT and put it here where it has some productivity for mankind.

Posted by: Angelo Campanella | June 25, 2014 10:07 AM    Report this comment

Regarding the fuel gauge problem--one of the biggest contributors to crashes....

The "visual gauges" (like the Piper Super Cub) always work. There can be no doubt about how much fuel does or does not remain. The FAA didn't like having fuel inside the cockpit--so mechanical (or electric) gauges were substituted. Gauging fuel on a long, thin tank is difficult. It CAN be done, though--the 414 that I fly is accurate on the inboard tanks down to the last gallon--but it is expensive, and would have to be calibrated for each tank configuration.

Can capacitance gauges be fitted to existing airplanes? I would think so. The question is expense. Could an alternative cub-style sight gauge be retrofitted? I would think so--but it would need FAA approval. It certainly would be simple--and accurate.

How about a "reserve" tank, built into each tank--much like a motorcycle? It would require an additional fuel port to the engine. When fuel is no longer flowing through the higher port, it would illuminate a red light--signaling the pilot that there was only X gallons of fuel remaining. The Cessna Caravan has a similar warning system--when the level of the fuel drops in the header tank, it indicates that the engine will stop shortly. The system is readily configurable to a variety of tank shapes and sizes. It's pretty hard to ignore a flashing red light or warning horn.

Several posters have correctly mentioned that increased participation in safety seminars is unlikely. If the FAA was TRUELY INTERESTED in increasing safety, they could use some of their vast budget to implement these changes. Stop the useless R&D in the FAA, and cut the number of personnel. The savings in ONE YEAR would be enough to go a long way towards supplementing the cost of installation of these effective changes. According to AOPA, there were 155,000 single and twin piston aircraft in 2011 (that number is likely lower today, with the re-registration push). A subsidy of $500 per aircraft would be $77,500,000. Spread that out over 5 years to comply, and the annual cost is $15 million per year. The cost would likely be less, as some aircraft like the J-3 already have direct-reading fuel systems.

$15 million per year--less than the cost of the ineffective FAA R&D programs--and probably less than the FAA "safety" initiatives. $15 million dollars per year for 5 years--and one of the leading causes of aircraft accidents virtually goes away. $15 million dollars--in the scope of the money spent by the FAA, that's "falling off the table money."

Posted by: jim hanson | June 25, 2014 11:29 AM    Report this comment

At the risk of going way off topic... re "the WORTHLESS CARBON MOVEMENT"...

Please. I assume you still believe the earth is flat as well, right? The science is absolutely solid that we are slowly cooking ourselves. Anyone who says otherwise is either misunderstanding or ignoring the data (deliberately or otherwise) and/or has a stake in preventing a solution.

- Andy

Posted by: Andy Goldstein | June 25, 2014 11:33 AM    Report this comment

Hi, Paul:

Another extremely insightful and important article.

Perhaps part of the "light" you're looking for: I find it extremely interesting that the entire general aviation industry is rising up in protest of the articles to take personal responsibility--saying that crashes are NOT the manufacturers' fault, they happen because pilots are making bad decisions. What other group accepts personal responsibility for their actions like this (except perhaps the military)? Acknowledging this reinforces that WE CAN CHOOSE to avoid crashing airplanes. The problem is fixable. At least we can keep pushing to try.

Thanks for your always-superb observations.

Thomas P. Turner Mastery Flight Training, Inc. www.mastery-flight-training.com

Posted by: Thomas Turner | June 25, 2014 2:03 PM    Report this comment

Jeffrey Smith wrote: [...] it's because we are too cheap for our own good. [...]3 point safety belts in my J-3 Cub? Force me to buy a radio or transponder? The FAA will have to pry my money from my dead cold hands!

There is a big difference of scale between the auto industry and aviation. There just aren't that many airplanes, and there is a heavy paperwork burden to improving them. Here's an example:

We're supposed to equip with ADS-B out by 2020. An ADSB-out system basically consists of two items: a new transponder, and a GPS. This GPS has to be WAAS, and it has to be specifically approved for ADS-B.

I can buy a highly sensitive and accurate pod GPS that does WAAS for $40 bucks. Well, that was 5 years ago. Probably $30 by now. GPS is thrown into every cell phone made as a freebee. But if I want a proper GPS to do ADS-B, it will cost me $THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS.

Posted by: Jerome Kaidor | June 25, 2014 8:27 PM    Report this comment

Folks, For an exposition of the need for, and the air safety relevance of taking personal responsibility for your own performance, read some of the publications by Tony Kern. Cheers, Bill Hamilton

Posted by: William J Hamilton | June 27, 2014 11:23 PM    Report this comment

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