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USA Today's GA Indictment

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While reading over USA Todayís exhaustiveóand exhaustingóindictment of general aviation, I was struck by the inescapable feeling that Iíd been given the Disney tour of every plaintiffís file room for the past 40 years, without benefit of hearing what cross examination revealed in the court cases this reporting obviously leaned so heavily upon. So much information seems taken out of context or isolated for effect that you get the feeling the author(s) is utterly clueless about both how federal regulation works and the fact that piston general aviation rides a razor thin, existential economic margin. That is not, by the way, to say that USA Todayís reporting lacks merit entirely. It does serve to remind us in this industry that we tend to be insular and outward looking, making us just as capable of missing forests for trees as was Thomas Frank was in compiling this report.

The report has several major flaws that the aviation illiterate reader would fail to notice. First, comparing general aviation accident rates to airline rates, while handy and convenient, is profoundly specious in a report of this supposed depth. FAR Part 25 aircraft are to Part 23 aircraft as Audis and Mercedes are to go-carts. The airplanes donít even inhabit the same regulatory or design universe. Further, with paying passengers and other revenue streams, airlines have the money, the interest and above all, the regulatory imperative to meaningfully improve safety. And they have.

We all understand that the lower on the food chain you go, the fewer the resources available for safety improvementsóin design, in manufacture, in training. We further understand that even minor changes in certified aircraft are prohibitively expensive, making the airplanes we can barely afford to buy now more unaffordable yet. USA Today wouldnít get this because it seems to have no understanding of the people actually involved in the industry.

In a graph thatís terribly distorted, USA Today claims that the ďaccident rateĒ has remained flat since the early 1990s. This is actually demonstrably false, although itís fair to say the general aviation fatal rate hasnít declined much. But it has declined. According to NTSB data, GAís overall accident rate in 1993 was 9.03/100,000 hours. In 2012, it was 6.78. In 1993, the fatal rate was 1.74 versus 1.24 in 2012. There have been spikes up and down, but both rates are lower than they were 20 years ago. Of course, we would like them to be lower yet, but thatís another discussion.

In describing one accident, the author said the fatalities were part of a ďmassive and growing death toll from small-aircraft crashes.Ē This is just flat out false. In 1993, 744 people were killed in general aviation crashes; in 2012, 448 died. In 13 of the 18 intervening years, the number of fatals declined. This is not just bad interpretation; itís bad reporting. While 448 deaths is an undeniably sad toll, itís barely 1 percent of †annual traffic deaths in the U.S. and 10 percent of job-site deaths, according to the CDC. If 448 is massive, the others must be apocalyptic, if not species threatening.†

Relying heavily as it did on court cases, USA Todayís report leaves the reader with the impression that civil cases are exalted, moralistic findings of fact whose penetrating analytical tools pierce the fog spewed by incompetent federal accident investigators. Actually, civil cases are really a ranking of how convinced a jury will be by something a plaintiffís expert witness is paid to say, irrespective of what actually happened. And expert witnesses will say what you pay them to say, buttressed by the best charts and graphs money can buy. That is not for a moment to say that plaintiffs are never right, that their pleadings donít reveal legitimate design flaws in airplanes or malfeasance by the companies who make them. Tort law has a role and a place in our industry. But no one should equate any of it with truth finding. The general reader would also be well informed to know how many fatal crashes result in lawsuits, regardless of apparent merit, some merely to clear the name of a pilot whose relatives mistook him for Jimmy Doolittle.

And that leads to USAís Todayís characterization of the General Aviation Revitalization Act of 1994 as a fast one pulled by the industry to provide cover so it could keep building the same lethal rattletraps it always has. From the inside, of course, we have a different perspective. I think Iím right in saying most of the participants in GA saw GARA as a positive step forward because most of us believe groundless lawsuits were killing what little vitality the industry had. Cessnaís Russ Meyers said as much, pledging to restart the companyís defunct piston line if Congress passed GARA. It did and he did. The industry was better for it.

The reporters on this story seem to have no sense of the terrible state GA is in or why this is so. Or why that matters. They recognize that the average fleet age is 40-plus years, but donít seem to get that this is due to a complex mix of reasons related to the aforementioned lawsuits, shifting demographics and interests and stifling regulation. Mostly stifling regulation. This has ignited a depressing feedback loop of lower volume and higher prices in which survival more than safety is the overarching goal. Ultimately, safety is best served by having no airplanes fly, but weíre always hoping for something in between. Further, the USA Today reporting only vaguelyóand maybe not at allógrasps that regulation has, until very recently, made it impossibly difficult and expensive to install the simplest retrofit safety devices. Angle of attack indicators and airbag seatbelts come to mind. Thatís the whole point of the FAR Part 23 revision toward less regulation, not more.

Because the investment return on new airplane models has never been worse than it is now, we are stuck with the same marginal crashworthiness for many models that we had 30 years ago. USA Todayís report is fair in pointing this out, even if their findings read like a tour of 1988. But again, lost in the trees, the paper seems completely unaware of Cirrus and Diamond, two companies who have made extraordinary efforts at improving crash resistance and crashworthiness.

Cirrus didnít have exceptional success at this early on, but now seems to have hit a stride, thanks to figuring out how training should work with a technologically advanced airplanes. Right out of the box, Diamond, as a company, has by far the lowest accident rate in piston GA, bar none. This deserves both mention and kudos amidst the hammering USA Today gave designs conceived in the 1950s. But the reporting team is either unaware of it or intentionally ignored it.

A go-to hymn in the GA choir, which USA Today did hear, is that NTSB accident investigations arenít thorough enough. Letís all do the hosanna, because itís true. Itís also true that I wish someone would buy me a TBM 950 and pay me to fly it. I have personal experience. When our Mooney went into the swamp in 2002, the NTSB didnít bother to even look, nor did the FAA. It allowed the DER doing the recovery to provide the necessary report data. After the fact, I found a number of similar accidents involving Mooneys and Arrows with the same engine. The pattern was apparent enough for me to believe something was up with that engine installation. But no one was interested in pursuing this, not the NTSB, not the FAA, not the insurance company as a loss prevention strategy. No one was hurt, so no lawsuit.

Hereís the reality: The NTSB doesnít have the resources to investigate all the minor accidents in detail so do we as taxpayers, want to make the additional expenditure a matter of public policy? And if we did, would it inch the fatal rate down from 1.2 to 1.15? Would it be worth it to drop fatals below 400 a year? Doubtful. So as a pilot and a taxpayer, Iím not convinced the expenditure is worth it because the outcome is so uncertain. And Iím not sure that we havenít reached a balance between carnage and what we can afford to prevent, leading logically to USA Todayís shocking finding that regulators put a price on human life. No kidding. This is a variation on the theme of the FAAís much-maligned tombstone mentality, whereby regulations are written in blood.

Why is this so? Because we want it that way, thatís why. As pilots and owners, we loathe paying for safety and regulation that we donít think is necessary. Just look at the fight over the recently proposed ECI cylinder AD which would cost owners millions to slice off a molecule of risk, if that. Most of us in aviation accept that itís risky or it least has risk. We know designs arenít perfect, we know that bolts break, hoses part and things just fly apart sometimes. We know that single-engine airplanes with vacuum pumps arenít Boeing 757s. But we arenít homogenous in that view. Some owners get into light airplanes believing they are as crashworthy and safe as cars and built to the same standards. They may learn to their distress that this is not true. Some of them sue.

In casting its report, USA Today wouldnít recognize this because Iím sure the reporters who did this piece are aviation dumb, with no practical concept of why people in the industry are in the industry. In a short section on experimental aircraft, the article is aghast at the high accident rate and implies these homebuilders need to be protected from themselves by further regulation. There's a reason we call them experimentals and this seems utterly lost on USA Today.†

Still, thereís a lesson here for those of us who are aviation smart, or think we are. Although we accept the risk for ourselves, we also accept it for those who fly with us who may have the same minimal grasp of risk acceptance as USA Today seems to have. I donít think we always do a good job of conveying relative risk to the innocents in the backseat. Our eyes need to be pried open sometimes.

And to be fair, the aviation press can be aviation smart by half, sometimes to our detriment. We tend to gloss over legitimate issues raised in trials and in fact, I think we institutionally think all plaintiff's suits are scams. They aren't. We also tend to give a pass to companies who really should be doing better in safety outreach and in customer service. It's not unreasonable for companies to be more aggressive on product recalls or proactive risk analysis, anemic economic conditions notwithstanding. I think we could †stand some improvement.

So although I donít take much from the USA Today report, I take that much. I recommend you read it for yourself.

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

Comments (22)

At an undisclosed coffee shop, about 3 AM, in the "DC" area. "Look , next time, unmarked small bills; get it - otherwise we're done!

Posted by: Rod Beck | June 19, 2014 1:45 PM    Report this comment

Thanks for the analysis of the article. I have thus far been avoiding reading it myself, partly because I didn't want to give them the click bait of reading it, but maybe I might take the time this weekend. If for no other reason, I'm sure someone will eventually ask me "hey, you're a pilot, what do you think of the USA Today article?"

Posted by: Gary Baluha | June 19, 2014 2:54 PM    Report this comment

USA Today is trying to make it sound as if flying is inherently safe; but that greedy vendors are making it dangerous for pilots. They also seem to indicate that pilots are requesting more federal intervention as a solution. That's about as bass-ackward as it can get.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | June 19, 2014 6:28 PM    Report this comment

At first, I hastily disregarded the article but later decided to check the FAA U.S Civil Airmen Statistics. I am impressed by the numbers. 1978, 1969 1974 and 1972 have the highest number of fatalities averaging about 1480 per year but on the other hand, years 2007, 2008 2009 and 2010 have the lowest number averaging 480 fatalities. There is a significant decline in flight hours from approximately 34.8 million in 1978 down to 21.5 million flight hours in 2010; I would estimate this as a factor in the decrease in the fatality rate per 100,000 hours from the highest 2.06 to the lowest in 2010 of 1.3. There is an improvement. Is the system and flight training practices working? I think so. The article is aggressive making me speculate whether aviation insurance companies influenced the writer or not.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | June 19, 2014 9:23 PM    Report this comment

Presenting an argument against the article is like being in a heated marital "discussion". Too many tangents and much too much being thrown against the wall, some of it sticking, and it can go both ways. The NTSB issue "...accident investigations aren't thorough enough" is an example but citing Cirrus and Diamond on our behalf is not going to stick.

I would suggesting that USA Today look into more critical issues like into automobile traffic accident annual statistics, 60 million accidents with about 40,000 fatalities - then forget about the whole thing and move on. We are not winning - just like the NTSB, we do not have the resources.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | June 20, 2014 8:33 AM    Report this comment

I don't have a problem with what USA Today published. I read it all and took away from it that yes, manufacturers are in fact hiding defects and playing the legal game of pointing the fingers elsewhere. This doesn't just happen to Part 23 certified aircraft. It happens to Part 25 as well. Remember SwissAir 111? That fire resistant insulation sure went up in flames in a big hurry. Airlines were mandated to rip that stuff out and replace it with new materials, with a deadline for completion in 2005; which was not met. All the legal case work surrounding that just quietly disappeared. USA Today simply brought back to light all those cases that quietly disappeared. I for one am elated that these cases are brought back into the light. To think that manufacturers are doing us any favors is just foolish. They are in the business of making money in the cheapest possible way. And not all GA aircraft are certificated under Part 23. Gulfstream for example, certifies their planes under Part 25. Didn't a Gulfstream burn up in Hanscom a couple of weeks ago?

I also don't have a problem with the statistics used in the USA Today article. Yes, GA planes crash a lot more often than airliners. That's because you have a lot of GA pilots doing a lot of stupid things. Rockefeller taking off in near 0/0 conditions as an example. Who is this guy kidding? If anything went wrong, this guy is suppose to break out at 200 and land where exactly? Take a look on You Tube and you'll see the stupidity being documented by these GA heroes with their GoPro. Enough said. I also don't enjoy the tone of talking statistics as if these are numbers and not people. Every time a plane goes down and kills someone, it peeves me off to no end, especially when it's the result of a dumb pilot error. Run through the NTSB reports for the last 10 years and you'll find that there are people who fly with medical conditions and crash planes; people who fly into IMC with or without a weather briefing; people who do low fly by's and crash; people who takeoff over gross and/or in high density altitudes with short runways; people committing suicide with airplanes...the list goes on and on and on with stupid pilot actions. Why doesn't this happen with the airlines? The answer is blatantly obvious.

Those who choose not to read this article are choosing not to see the ugly side of aviation. I get it. We all love aviation. But, if you don't know the dark side, how can you possibly act to make things better? So while there is a degree of "this will sell papers" in that article, there is also a lot of disturbing truths in there. People who demonize this article should read it first before crying foul that it has no merit. There's a lot of value in that three-part piece. And it is well worth the time to read it; if anything, to understand the dark side of flying: lawyers, manufacturers cutting corners, deficiencies in the industry, etc.

Pilots may want to consider their love of aviation by not doing stupid stuff. There's a woman in Flagler, FL who is trying to get all pilots to carry insurance like we do with cars. This is because a plane crashed into her backyard. Someone crashed another plane in someone else's backyard this week by KISP. It's just more fodder to feed her case. So if you love aviation, stop doing stupid stuff with airplanes. Our poor decisions will eventually regulate ourselves out of flying.

Posted by: Amy Zucco | June 20, 2014 9:39 AM    Report this comment

Well said, Amy.

Best way to combat this sort of indictment is to improve the accident rate. All too often, we respond by pointing to other activities has having more fatalities, something that doesn't exactly assure the public (free market) who will ultimately decide whether GA survives.

We need better training, a methodology for far more recurrent training and perhaps testing (at least quarterly online updates), and a change that enables problems to be fixed. The cost of all of the above is the problem.

Posted by: Harry Alger | June 20, 2014 11:29 AM    Report this comment

There was of course a lot of the usual journalistic nonsense in the story. We should all take this opportunity to remind ourselves and our friends of Gell-Mann amnesia.

Besides that, I do believe that grandfathering has gone too far in GA. As Paul noted, some companies have improved crash worthiness, but they have to compete with companies who have not. This isnt allowed in the auto sector. There needs to be a cap on how long you can ignore new requirements. To offset this, there really, really needs to be some changes in the regulations to reduce certification costs and maintenance admin costs.

Furthermore, the best engine makers in the world actively resist anyone using their engines in aircraft. That tells you all you need to know about the legal and PR issues stacked against GA.

Our government just abuses us. But hey, we get accelerated depreciation so it's all good, right?

Posted by: Eric Warren | June 20, 2014 12:01 PM    Report this comment

Eric and Paul have a good point about grandfathering, but that's only an issue for a few long-lived models. The GA fleet has many, many older aircraft that are no more capable of meeting modern standards than my (dearly departed) 1957 Chevy would be of meeting today's auto-crash standards.

Posted by: Paul Robichaux | June 20, 2014 12:41 PM    Report this comment

Best response that I have seen yet Paul. I have always liked your incisive writing style for a reason. While USA article is very one sided, there are a few things to think about in there. The improvement in fatal accident rate in GA aircraft has stagnated in the last 15 years. If it was a stock, I would have gotten rid of it long ago. Safety improvements to older aircraft can be ridiculously expensive. I recently tried to help the owner of a Beech Musketeer install shoulder harnesses. The price tag for the kit from Beech was over $9000. That is pretty pricey for a dirt simple safety device. The GA community, including the pilots that inhabit it can be very myopic. Flying GA aircraft entails more risk than many people realize or appreciate.

Posted by: WIll Fox | June 20, 2014 1:39 PM    Report this comment

My take away from this report is; there is a very complex GA safety spectrum which USA Today chooses to support through the use of selective data mining. Paul Bertorelli exposes those many complexities and some of the exaggerations or omissions that we all have observed through our careers in aviation. It's impossible to correct every blatant error or acknowledge every appropriate weakness that is exposed without writing a book of evidence and conclusion for each. As an aviator I fly knowing there is a risk of failure or potential error for every flight. It's why my single pilot IFR flights include plans and contingencies for various issues. As an aviation accident investigator, I let the physics of the accident explain the result, not the OEM. In my opinion the USA Today article exaggerates half truths leading to finger pointing without benefit or improvement to any specific issue. If these writers were politicians we would be asking for their resignations.

Posted by: Philip Potts | June 20, 2014 2:20 PM    Report this comment

THIS is really about USA's market share - isn't it? The "OJ" incident of 20 years ago had a nearly 18 month run. More recently, 3 months or so for the MN-370 "mystery" flight. And next?

What's' NEWS worthy today - perhaps a REALITY (TV) show on aircraft mishaps?

Posted by: Rod Beck | June 20, 2014 3:32 PM    Report this comment

Paul,

Excellent analysis of a deeply flawed article. By Mr. Frank's logic, we should not allow classic cars on our highways as they will not meet current safety standards. Flying has risks, and as a pilot I accept and do my best to mitigate them. I wonder what Mr. Frank would think of you flying your Cub, an aircraft designed in the 1930's?

Curiously, the comment button does not work for Mr. Frank's article. I tried 2 different browsers with the same result. Anyone else have this trouble?

Posted by: Ric Lee | June 20, 2014 3:44 PM    Report this comment

USA Today is a tabloid. This is what tabloids do. They exploit the ignorance of the public to sensationalize stories. Too bad they would never print this rebuttal.

Posted by: John Worsley | June 20, 2014 3:56 PM    Report this comment

I must have read a different USA Today article on GA. The gist of what I read is that, all too often, GA pilots don't get a fair shake in the investigation process. Does anyone really disagree with that??

Lacking obvious and glaring evidence to the contrary, the pilot gets blamed - whether warranted or not. Even if the pilot shares in the blame (or deserves all of it), what doesn't get answered is WHY the pilot did what he or she did. Was it precipitated by something else? Mechanical failure? Training? Worry about avoiding enforcement action?

IS it also not true that GA pilots don't have an advocate in the investigation process? The FAA and NTSB don't turn to the pilot as an expert on his own actions. Why not? Could it be that his "expertise" could be biased to avoid blame? Yet, somehow, it is perfectly OK to consult the "experts" of the manufacturer who obviously have a strong motive to avoid contributing to their own liability.

Posted by: Mike FInch | June 20, 2014 4:31 PM    Report this comment

"The gist of what I read is that, all too often, GA pilots don't get a fair shake in the investigation process"

Read the NTSB reports on all of the accidents that are cited (I looked them up and read them). Every one contained bad pilot decisions that directly resulted in the crash. If you don't do stupid pilot tricks, then every item they mention was IRRELEVANT.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | June 20, 2014 7:46 PM    Report this comment

Paul, As usual, great analysis of a deeply flawed article. Thanks, keep it up!

Posted by: Nigel Hilton | June 20, 2014 9:10 PM    Report this comment

The obnoxious and inaccurate article does highlight one truth: Our dirty little secret; piston general aviation is not that safe. If I wanted to educate my passengers, I would equate the risk with riding motorcycles, but I don't because they won't want to fly with me. My browser start page is Google News and I have an "alert" for aviation. Almost every day I read about small plane crashes and I diary a lot of them to follow up for the NTSB report. I've done this for many years and it makes me hyper-aware of what can go wrong. I will never spin to the ground because I overshot base to final and tried to correct with a steep turn. I will never be surprised by weather or run out of fuel. As a life long motorcyclist I cannot eliminate the risk, but I can lessen it with good judgement--same thing with flying.

Posted by: Thomas Reilly | June 21, 2014 3:23 PM    Report this comment

After pondering I've "unfriended" Thomas Frank.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | June 22, 2014 11:52 AM    Report this comment

I found the USA Today article interesting, while my passengers boarding the King Air that morning for a business flight did not :)

It does bring up some interesting discussions, while improving the safety of flight should be the ultimate end game to what we are trying to get fixed.

I would agree with the article and the "grandfather" clause that comes with certification. Unfortunately we have and know better ways to design an airplane, BUT the cost is very prohibitive. The certification of components and airframes has gone to the point of ridiculous, which is why we don't have improvements that should be added to most of the general aviation fleet.

I will never forget flying around in vintage model 35 Bonanza's and Aeronca Champs with a simple seatbelt, no shoulder straps. After looking over a Champ that had killed the pilot, the airframe was basically in shape, but the panel held the sad truth that the pilots head had impacted the panel for an immediate death. I would think the owners would have enough brains to incorporate this safety feature, but it takes regulations and requirements to make the commitment I guess.

Since we know fuel cell integrity is important to prevent post crash fires, why isn't this something that would be a requirement? I know that Cirrus airplanes have a propensity to burn quite well after a crash, but the story with the R44 was concerning, as I can't think of a more painful way to die than to be burned to death.

While I hated the story of the Cherokee crashing after the float bowl was filling the carburetor with fuel causing a too rich mixture, I wondered what the solution could be? Apparently the float was made for 100LL, and was known to have a problem with mogas/ethanol, so who's responsibility was this? Should we make a requirement to replace critical items at mandatory timeframes, which we could prove the seriousness based on failure rates? I agree the cylinder replacement for certain ECI cylinders that from what I have read, could have been due to mis-management by the pilot overheating the cylinder, which wasn't there a way to borescope each cylinder to ensure they have been operated in the proper temperature range?

I agree the certification process is long and arduous, but there has to be a reasonable standard that needs to be applied. I remember as a flight instructor reviewing the flight planning for many single engine airplanes, that not only could never achieve the book speed as published, but realistic fuel consumption was never what the book "said" it would be.

I just happen to think general aviation got caught with its pants down, real safety improvements need to be implemented, AND at the same time the FAA/NTSB has to be realistic on implementing new and improved airplanes and systems into the fleet. That not being cost probative AND are proven to provide real enhancements to safety and the operational requirements to the airplane.

Posted by: Michael Dempsey | June 22, 2014 12:36 PM    Report this comment

Mr. Dempsey,

THANK YOU. I've been inundated with too many emotionally charged, reactionary response to the USA Today article. You pretty much nailed it. I believe part of the problem is that we have too many people in aviation that would turn a blind eye just because the truth is too ugly for them to accept.

Posted by: Amy Zucco | June 23, 2014 8:53 AM    Report this comment

Mike/Amy; I've always believed the TRUTH was absolute - but then there's "denial" in the alternative? "The real "test" of a mans (or women's) character - is when they have the courage to defend it.".

Posted by: Rod Beck | June 23, 2014 10:37 AM    Report this comment

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