Reducing Fatal Accidents: No Low-Hanging Fruit
At last month's Society of Aviation and Flight Educators symposium in Atlanta, we spent a lot of time talking about the overall GA fatal rate of accidents, but not much time was spent on the specifics of the accidents themselves. So in this blog, I'm examining one year's worth of fatal accidents. The included chart shows the results.
You can do the same exercise from the NTSB's data. Pick a year—any year—and it will take about a half day to skim through and sort the results. This turns out not to be so easy. To make much sense of it, you have to sort into broad categories that don't necessarily correspond to the same categories others might use. For example, traditionally, CFITs refer to aircraft that are flown into terrain or water while under control and usually related to some sort of IFR operation. I used a broader definition. If the airplane was flown into the ground under control in any kind of operation, regardless of weather, I called that a CFIT. But I also have a category called "low flying," where the buzz jobs and stupid pilot tricks go. Some of these could just as easily be called CFITs, or loss of control and some might even be stalls. A further caution: The NTSB's reports sometimes lack detail, are vague and , I suspect, are flat out wrong at times.
For instance, our sister magazine, KITPLANES, found that the NTSB's analysis of amateur-built safety trends was significantly in error because it miscoded many airplanes as experimental but which were actually ultralights or certified aircraft. These errors accounted for a considerable swing in the actual accident rate. So, caveat emptor. For my sweep of the 2008 data, I included only accidents involving certified aircraft in the U.S. I did not include ultralights, helicopters or amateur-built airplanes. The total was 218 accidents which yielded at least one fatality.
Even with this lack of granularity in the data, it is possible to gain a broad glimpse of accident causes and results. I don't have the space here to cover everything, so I'll hit only the highlights. There's nothing much new about any of this, by the way. Stall-related crashes are obviously a big player and regardless of methodology, every analysis I've seen seems to confirm this. Every year, about 20 percent of all fatal accidents are stall related.
I see two ways to look at this. One is that about 50 pilots every year kill themselves because of surprise stalls. The other is that many thousands more don't. On a per flight basis, then, stall incidence is low, suggesting that there's probably not much fundamentally wrong with stall training doctrine. Could a change in that training or awareness push the number from 50 to 40? Or 30? Maybe, but I think it will be difficult to yield measurable results. I thought the best recommendation SAFE came up with was also the most specific: Add angle-of-attack and load factor awareness to stall training doctrine. Still, a long shot.
Loss of control was also a leading cause. There's probably some overlap here with stalls and other causes, again because of lack of detail. For our routine sweeps of accidents, we see a lot of runway loss of control or R-LOCs. These are rarely fatal. The fatal loss-of-control accidents seem to involve just plummeting into the ground or some object for no apparent reason. In many of these, there's no clear pattern of bad judgment or any pattern at all.
Speaking of bad judgment, there's a lot of it and some of these accidents just show stunningly poor risk awareness. I would say about a third of the fatals involve such fundamentally poor decision making that you just don't know where to begin. SAFE's Bob Wright thinks these people are write offs that no amount of outreach out will save. I agree. They are nothing but accidents looking for a grid reference. We can't help them.
You can decide for yourself if this accident was one of those. But in reading the details, it made me wonder if someone --or several someones—in the local community should have stepped up and questioned the advisability of this particular operation. That smacks of big brotherism, but is a little of that worth it to avoid killing people who don't sense the risk they're taking? You can't ask the people in the airplane, because they're dead.
So, bottom line, my guess is that in a few more than 100 fatal accidents, the pilots just drew a bad card which they might—emphasize might—have avoided with better skills, proficiency and risk awareness. This is going to be a very small nail to hit, regardless of the size of the hammer. I think it's worth the effort, even if it doesn't actually reduce the fatal accident rate. Better risk awareness just makes better pilots. And that could help some avoid accidents entirely, much less a fatal one.