Between Memorial Day and Labor Day this year, 158 pilots and passengers died in 94 general aviation accidents. Those are the preliminary numbers from the NTSB, posted online last week. That rate has been pretty much the same over the last few years, the NTSB says. Earl Weener, a pilot who serves on the safety board, says we can do better.
Improving those numbers doesn't necessarily require new regulations or updated equipment, he says. "GA pilots largely determine their personal safety by the level of proficiency they maintain, the capability and condition of the aircraft they fly, and the manner in which they identify and manage their risks," he says. I think the key part is how pilots calculate risk. If you're someone who is constantly calculating risk, you will by nature ensure that your proficiency is up and the aircraft is safe.
Calculating risk doesn't necessarily mean the same thing as minimizing risk. It means weighing all the factors, all the pros and cons, and determining if the goal justifies the chances you're taking. It doesn't mean to do what you can to eliminate obvious risks and then hope for the best. That's a popular strategy, but it's not really analytical enough.
Of course one of the annoying things about estimating risk is that it often involves trying to predict the future, and that's something we're not very good at. Will those thunderstorms really develop? Will the icing be worse than predicted? There's no way to know for sure, so we try to construct a worst-case scenario and judge the risk based on that.
Until we figure out how to predict the future, we'll always be dealing with the uncertainties of flying. "Improving GA safety mostly means doing the things that we do as GA pilots, but doing them better, more safely, more thoughtfully, and with a better understanding of the situation and the risks," says Weener. I would add that paying attention to exactly how we analyze and calculate our risks is key.
Next week we'll be at AOPA's Aviation Summit in Hartford, Conn., and issues about GA safety, and training, and how to attract new pilots are sure to get lots of discussion. If general aviation gives off a smell of danger to newcomers, that's going to scare a lot of them away. But if we can do a better job of teaching pilots how to calculate risk, maybe that will help.