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General aviation advocacy groups were quick to respond today to an extensive report in Wednesday's USA Today, "Unfit for flight," which is critical of GA safety. AOPA called the article "deeply flawed," and said AOPA staffers had spoken to reporter Thomas Frank for an hour last week, but the article doesn't mention AOPA's contention that GA safety is making progress. "The article leads one to believe that general aviation is an unsafe form of transportation," said AOPA, "…[but] according to the National Transportation Safety Board, the number of fatalities has declined by over 40 percent since the early 1990s." GAMA also released a statement Wednesday morning, labeling the story "sensationalistic."

GAMA President Pete Bunce cites efforts now underway to improve safety, such as the recent success in working with the FAA to expedite the approval of angle-of-attack indicators for GA aircraft, and the ongoing progress toward rewriting the rules to certify Part 23 aircraft so it will be easier to upgrade the fleet with newer, safer technology. The USA Today series "fails to acknowledge the significant progress general aviation manufacturers have made to improve safety," Bunce said. In a podcast interview with AVweb on Wednesday, Bunce added that legislators already have supported the changes to Part 23 and he doesn't think they'll see more regulation as the solution. "We're on a good path toward safety," he said. 

AOPA's statement noted that President Obama has signed the Small Airplane Revitalization Act into law, directing the FAA to implement the recommendations by December 2015, but "that, too, was omitted from Mr. Frank’s story, though we and others spoke extensively with him about it." EAA said  the story was "an incomplete and misleading piece of reporting that misrepresents actual GA safety trends and the community’s own recommendations to further improve that safety record." EAA Chairman Jack Pelton said the distortion appears to be deliberate. “Unfortunately, the article’s title ‘Unfit for Flight’ perhaps would have been more accurate as ‘Unfit for Print,’” Pelton said on EAA's Web site. “The fear-pandering article gives an impression of an unchecked world of flight operations. In fact, general aviation’s airworthiness directive system administered by FAA, which adds safety requirements to new and previously produced aircraft and powerplants, has the force of law and holds aviation to higher standards than any other mode of transportation in the country.”

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An extensive report on general aviation safety in USA Today this week doesn't convey the whole story, says GAMA President Pete Bunce.  He took a break from his work in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday to talk with AVweb's Mary Grady about ongoing efforts to build safer airplanes.

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Each week, we poll the savviest aviators on the World Wide Web (that's you) on a topic of interest to the flying community.

Visit AVweb.com to participate in our current poll.

Click here to view the results of past polls.

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ai.com

Three men are reported to have been killed in the crash of an IAI Westwind II on the northwest side of the Huntsville, Ala., Airport Wednesday afternoon. The airplane appears to have been on a training flight, with flight instructor Robin Gary Smith of Yukon, Okla., and operator of the training company Jet Contrails, reportedly among the deceased. Also aboard were William “Bill” Christopher of Center Point, Ala., and Kenneth Lynn Rousseau of Harpersville, Ala. Rouseau’s daughter, Roxane Drake, of Chelsea, Ala., said the family has heard the men were on a training flight. According to initial reports, the Westwind crashed after takeoff and burned.

Jet Contrails advertises initial and recurrent training for pilots who do not want to “go away from home for two weeks, sleep in a motel, go to class all day, then at 3 a.m., sit in a simulator for two hours.” It provides training in “your aircraft, at your location, at your learning pace, without the regimented program that a simulator-based company will put you through.” It goes on to say that “a Jet Contrail instructor will be with you through ground school, through the flight training, through the oral, through the checkride and through the celebration after you have received your jet type rating.”

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FlyersRights.org, an airline passenger advocacy organization, has released a statement expressing criticism of the FAA’s Extended range Twin Operation (ETOPS) approval for the Boeing 787 and the 787-9 for up to 330 minutes flying time from a primary or alternate airport. It allows the aircraft to be used over routes traditionally reserved for three- and four-engine airplanes. FlyersRights.org’s statement said that “traditionally, ETOPS approval beyond 2 hours is not granted until an aircraft has had at least two years of trouble free operations,” and that “this FAA approval came only one week after the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued a warning that the 787 battery certification was deficient.” There are various levels of ETOPS certification for twin-engine aircraft, starting at 180 minutes, and are based on flying time, not distance, to a suitable airport. A double engine failure beyond gliding distance of land means a water landing, leading to the black aviation humor assertion that ETOPS stands for “Engines Turn Or Passengers Swim.”

FlyersRights.org said that the new certification will “allow flights over empty areas of the Pacific and Indian oceans, as well as polar regions with no emergency landing zones for thousands of miles.” "The recent NTSB report and the numerous safety related incidents since April 2013, including a world-wide grounding are clearly reliability and safety issues. Allowing the 787, a two engine aircraft with many unique features, to fly nonstop thousands of miles from the nearest landing zone is an unprecedented step," said FlyersRights.org president, Paul Hudson. Mr. Hudson is a member of the FAA Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee, representing airline passenger interests on safety matters, and has asked the FAA for documentation supporting its unprecedented approval of extended operations beyond two hours from the nearest “landing zone.”

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In testimony (PDF) before a House Aviation Subcommittee, AOPA President Mark Baker urged continued funding for airports because they are “the true backbone of aviation.” The hearing was convened by Aviation Subcommittee Chairman Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., who is also a member of the House General Aviation Caucus, to consider how anticipated growth in air traffic will affect the physical infrastructure of the nation’s airports and to look at sources for financing infrastructure needs. Baker told the subcommittee that general aviation airports rely on federal money, making it vitally important that Congress maintain Airport Improvement Program (AIP) funding at least at current levels.

“General aviation airports rely on AIP funds to execute a wide range of maintenance, expansion, and improvement projects that address safety, capacity and environmental concerns. The need for such projects is high,” Baker said. Funding for the federal Airport Improvement Program comes from the FAA’s Airport and Airway Trust Fund, which receives revenues from a series of excise taxes paid by users of the national airspace system, including taxes on aviation fuels. The Trust Fund was designed to finance investments in the airport and airway system

Without federal funding, many small airports could not perform necessary maintenance projects to ensure runway safety, provide airport lighting, or offer essential facilities like hangars and aircraft tie-downs, Baker said. According to a recent FAA report to Congress, airport infrastructure needs far exceed available funding. From 2013 through 2017, the FAA estimates that airports will require some $42.5 billion to meet all AIP-eligible infrastructure development demands. That’s significantly more than the roughly $3.35 billion annual allotment.

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The resumption of supersonic passenger travel is getting closer to reality, NASA said this week, as the agency's aeronautics researchers are making progress in developing low-sonic-boom technology. "Lessening sonic booms … is the most significant hurdle to reintroducing commercial supersonic flight," said Peter Coen, head of the High Speed Project in NASA's Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate. Efforts now underway at NASA include research into how people react to a variety of sounds, how to predict the occurrence of the booms, and how to make them quieter. Engineers now believe the design of a practical low-boom supersonic commercial jet is "within reach," NASA said.

The NASA researchers presented the results of their research this week at a conference in Atlanta, Ga., hosted by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Aircraft designs now being tested are characterized by a needle-like nose, a sleek fuselage and a delta wing or highly swept wings -- shapes that result in much lower booms. But sonic booms aren't the only technical issue to overcome before supersonic passenger jets can take off. "Other barriers include high altitude emissions, fuel efficiency and community noise around airports," Coen said.

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AVweb's weekly review of the news in aviation revealed a weather research project looking for pilot volunteers, new sunglasses from Scheyden Precision Eyewear, the schedule for the first ICAO Global Aviation Cooperation Symposium and new dates for the U.S. Sport Aviation Expo. Researchers at Purdue, Western Michigan, and Kent State Universities are conducting FAA-sponsored research regarding Weather Technology in the Cockpit (WTIC). The researchers invite general aviation pilots who operate under Visual Flight Rules to participate in a research survey to look at the types of meteorological information accessed and used by GA pilots, the procedures for VFR flight, weather avoidance techniques they utilize, and the types of weather-related training they receive. Eligible participants must be at least 18 years of age and be active general aviation pilots. Scheyden Precision Eyewear announced the addition of the C-130 model to its premium sunglass line. Expanding the brand's Fixed Gear collection, which includes the popular Albatross and Mustang models, the C-130 ($309-$345) provides a larger lens and titanium construction. These combine to create what Scheyden describes as a stylish aviator aesthetic that suits a variety of face types while providing maximum optical clarity and comfort.

Focused around the theme of Building Cooperation for the Future of Civil Aviation: Innovation, Growth, and Technical Cooperation, the first International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Global Aviation Cooperation Symposium is scheduled for Sept. 30 - Oct. 3, 2014, in Montreal, Canada. The symposium will provide a central platform for discussions on key issues of current concern, the exchange of important information and views on the latest trends and innovations as well as the sharing of best practices supporting a safe and efficient future for global air transport. Finally, the 11th annual U.S. Sport Aviation Expo will open one day earlier than in years past, with the event now running from Wednesday, Jan. 14, through Saturday, July 17, 2015. Expo Director Jana Filip explained the change for the Sebring, Fla., Regional Airport event: "We've observed that attendance on Sunday traditionally has been lower than other exhibit days, and our survey results indicated our visitors from around the country like to fly home on Sunday. So, amending our dates seemed like the best way to offer a better event for both our exhibitors and our visitors ... and it's good for our volunteers, too!"

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Our weekly review of SocialFlight found everything from a fly-in at an Intergalactic Spaceport, through a run-what-you-brung air race, the annual Waco Club's fly-in and a kid's candy drop. The Second Community Spaceport Day will be held at the Greater Green River Intergalactic Spaceport, Green River, Wyo., on Saturday, June 21 from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Also known as the Greater Green River/Flaming Gorge Fly In/Drive In, the event includes flying and static exhibits, a pancake breakfast, entertainment, contests, airplane rides and a five-card poker flight. All aircraft are welcome, including ultralights. Camping is permitted on the field and there is transportation to hotels in town. The Sport Air Racing League's Great Northwest Air Race is taking place on June 21 at Ephrata Airport, Ephrata, Wash. It's an open course air race, open to all propeller-driven aircraft. The Sport Air Racing League exists to promote open course air racing for experimental and production aircraft for pilots who want to fly fast. Registration fee is $30.

The American Waco Club is holding its annual fly-in at Creve Coeur Airport, St. Louis, Mo., from Thursday, June 19 through Sunday, June 22. There will be numerous models of the historic Waco line on display and flying as well as forums, tours and a fly-out breakfast on Saturday morning. A family fly-in event with food, drinks and a candy drop for kids is happening at the Pemberton, N.J, Airport on Saturday, June 21 from noon to 5:00 p.m. Included with the flying activities will be a display of antique automobiles.  Thank you again this week to SocialFlight for keeping us up to date on aviation activities.

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The love-hate relationship between pilots/aircraft owners and mechanics/shops seems to wax and wane, depending on the person you spoke with last. The good news is that most of the time mechanics and pilots recognize that they depend on each other for their livelihood and existence. The bad news is that there are times that certain individuals from one group would cheerfully toss certain individuals from the other group into a room full of talk show hosts and throw away the key.

Over many years of representing pilots/aircraft owners and mechanics/shops where one has accused the other of improper actions and of having maintenance done on airplanes I’ve owned, I’ve come to the conclusion that the vast majority of problems that arise between pilots and mechanics over aircraft maintenance boil down to some combination of lack of communication and unreasonable expectations.

Too often pilot/aircraft owners expect mechanics to be able to perfectly fix an airplane on the first go around based on a squawk that says not much more than “the airplane’s broke,” do it for free and have it done so the pilot can leave Friday afternoon for a weekend trip. By the same token, too often mechanics are willing to schedule more work than they can accomplish in a given time, don’t give estimates for the cost of work needed and get authorization before doing so, surprise pilot/owners with the magnitude of the bill and then make the mistake of not requiring the pilot/owner pay for the work upon picking up the airplane.

What follows is a list, in no particular order, of suggestions for pilot/aircraft owners and mechanics/shops for bridging the gap between the two based on some years of defending each side in lawsuits while also doing my best to be a responsible aircraft owner and pilot.

Squawks

Pilots seem to vie with each other to write up the most terse, incomprehensible squawk when they experience something wrong with their aircraft. “Engine vibration at 2400 RPM,” may be a good place to start when outlining a problem, but it’s only a start. Pilots, when you write up a squawk, provide as much information as you can about the situation and the circumstances—you’re trying to communicate with an intelligent person who wants to identify and fix a problem and who wasn’t there to experience it.

Was the vibration in flight or on the ground? That may sound silly, but I’ve seen pilots not bother to mention that the problem was only occurring while the airplane was on the ground. Provide details: at what altitude, temperature, power setting, indicated airspeed, gear and flap position, fuel flow, degrees rich or lean of peak EGT, CHTs—you get the idea. Think like a test pilot and record as much data as you can—what may seem trivial may be of great importance. Does the problem change when you change power setting or altitude? If so, how? What happens if you shut off a mag or change the mixture?

If the mechanic wants to talk about the problem you experienced, take the time to do so. As an owner, the time you spend going through what you experienced may save you money because it may cut down on the time the mechanic has to spend troubleshooting or replacing a part that is working just fine.

Fully Disclose

Pilots, if you tried to fix a problem that you’ve squawked, tell the mechanic what you did. A mechanic friend spent hours on a balky nav light only to discover the owner had found a broken wire and “repaired” it, but didn’t strip the insulation off of the wire. Had the owner disclosed, the mechanic would have looked at the “repair” first.

If you’ve damaged the airplane, even a little ding, tell the mechanic. Bumping into the stabilator may be the source of the new vibration you’re experiencing.

Troubleshoot

Pilots, let the mechanic troubleshoot. Taking the time to narrow down the possibilities is cheaper than sequentially replacing parts until the problem goes away. I don’t know how many times I’ve had owners complain to me that mechanics are ripping them off because they want to troubleshoot something rather than getting in there and replacing the bad part. Sometimes I can explain that the mechanic is trying to save time and money; sometimes the pilot/owner is simply a tightwad and just wants to complain. In my experience, those pilots/owners never seem to catch on and can’t seem to understand why no mechanic within 100 miles will work on their airplanes.

Logs

Pilots/Owners, have a current, electronic copy of all of the logbooks for your airplane so you can get it to a mechanic quickly and easily. Part of troubleshooting may be looking at the repair history to see if there is a pattern.

The logbooks for your airplane are worth from 10-20 percent of its value—that’s the amount that you’ll lose if you try to sell the airplane without complete logbooks. Think of those logbooks as you would several thousand dollars in cash. Therefore, the originals should be locked up somewhere safe. When maintenance is completed your mechanic will give you the necessary documentation on a sticker that you put into the hard copy of the logbook—you then scan that new page and add it to the electronic record you keep.

As an attorney, some of the ugliest fights I have seen between pilot/owners and mechanics/shops were over aircraft logbooks. In my opinion, the practice of shops keeping airplane logbooks on shelves in the office should stop. It’s too easy for one to get misplaced; a fire can destroy them. I’ve seen more than one situation in which an owner refused to pay a shop’s bill that the owner felt was too high, so the shop hid the aircraft logbooks and refused to return them until the bill was paid. I’ve seen owners seek to have shop owners arrested for not returning logbooks.

Estimates

In almost every state it’s a law that if a shop is going to work on your car, it has to give you an estimate of the cost of repairs and you have to give the go ahead before the work is performed. You know what it’s going to cost before you go pick up the car. To me, that’s common sense. However, too often, especially with annual inspections, a mechanic will figure out what’s wrong with an owner’s airplane, make the decision as to the way he or she wants to fix it, fix it, tell the owner when it’s done and present a bill when the owner shows up to get the airplane. The bill is either a pleasant or unpleasant surprise.

I have never seen an owner get upset when the bill was a pleasant surprise. Nevertheless, it should never be a surprise. From my perspective, if a mechanic or shop has decided to buy itself as much trouble with pilot/owners as possible, the best way to do it is to do repairs and install parts without fully discussing it with the pilot/owner (what needs to be done and the options available) and getting approval ahead of time. It’s a true no brainer—let the pilot/owner know what repairs are going to cost and get approval before making the repairs. And, hey, with e-mail and text messaging being so easy, it sure doesn’t hurt to do it in writing to preserve exactly what was agreed upon. 

I have had mechanics tell me that they went ahead because there was a time crunch or they couldn’t contact the owner or the owner doesn’t have any say in aircraft repairs because the mechanic signs them off. My recommendation for mechanics/shops is to make it clear, in writing, when the aircraft is dropped off that the owner is going to have to approve repairs or that there is a blanket approval up to a certain sum to do repairs, otherwise the mechanic/shop is asking for problems. Also, under the FARs, the owner is the one responsible for repairs, she or he makes the decision as to what is done and what isn’t done—and that needs to be done in conjunction with the mechanic because sometimes the owner is not going to agree with the repair the mechanic recommends.

Sign Off

I’ve seen owners and mechanics charged with a violation by the FAA because an airplane was flown before the return to service paperwork was prepared by the mechanic. It’s been a common practice for an owner to be in a hurry to get going after maintenance and take the airplane before the mechanic has done the paperwork. Too often the mechanic gets side tracked and forgets to do it or there is an incident on that first flight that comes to the FAA’s attention.

For pilots and mechanics both: no flight until the logbook entry has been made.

Payment

I’ve represented a number of small maintenance shops who have done work for a customer—usually a regular—billed the customer afterward and then didn’t get paid. Most of the mechanics have told me that it was a regular practice because they wanted to keep their customers happy. The problem is that it sometimes costs the mechanic more to collect from the deadbeat than the amount of the bill.

My recommendation for mechanics/shops is to behave as the local auto repair shops do: payment is required for the customer to get the airplane. In many states one of the few ways an aircraft maintenance shop can get a lien for payment for maintenance is to physically hold on to the airplane. Once they let the owner take it, the shop has lost that leverage. Plus, the shop is not licensed as a bank; why should it make loans?

Mechanics, require payment when the airplane is picked up. Pilot/owners, be prepared to pay when you pick up your airplane.

Test Flight

Pilots, mechanics are human, they can make mistakes. That’s why the first flight after maintenance is a higher than normal risk flight. On those flights I’ve had a main gear only partially retract and a total electrical system failure. A friend had the right main of his Saratoga SP jam in the up position due to an improperly re-installed gear door. I’ve looked at any number of accident reports involving first flight after maintenance departures into IMC and/or at night in which there was a crash because of something that had been done wrong during maintenance.

A safety suggestion: once the paperwork is done, make a solo, day, VFR flight before doing anything more ambitious with the airplane—especially before putting your family in it.

Postflight Inspection

Anyone who has flown for any length of time has experienced the broken-airplane-on-Friday-afternoon-with-the-family syndrome. A number of mechanics that I respect have told me that many of such problems involved something that actually broke on the previous flight. They suggest, and I agree, that a postflight inspection may be more important than a preflight inspection because it may catch a problem and give you lots of time to get it fixed so you can launch on Friday afternoon. A friend of mine is a former astronaut; I’ve noticed that he always does a postflight inspection on his Bonanza—I figure he knows what he’s doing.

While the idea may make some pilots uncomfortable, mechanics I respect also suggest a mag check just before starting your descent for landing. The ignition system is most stressed at altitude and a mag check before letting down is more likely to uncover an incipient problem than a mag check prior to takeoff. It also gives you time to get the problem fixed before you want to go flying again.

Pilot/owners and mechanic/shops benefit each other. If history is any indication, both sides making an effort to communicate effectively and recognize that nobody is perfect will go a long way towards making the process of aircraft maintenance go smoothly and efficiently.

Rick Durden is an aviation attorney who has represented mechanics and pilots and is the author of the The Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing it, Vol. I.

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While reading over USA Today’s exhaustive—and exhausting—indictment of general aviation, I was struck by the inescapable feeling that I’d been given the Disney tour of every plaintiff’s 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 Today’s 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 don’t 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 improvements—in 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 wouldn’t get this because it seems to have no understanding of the people actually involved in the industry.

In a graph that’s terribly distorted, USA Today claims that the “accident rate” has remained flat since the early 1990s. This is actually demonstrably false, although it’s fair to say the general aviation fatal rate hasn’t declined much. But it has declined. According to NTSB data, GA’s 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 that’s another discussion.

In describing one accident, the author said the fatalities were part of a “massive and growing death toll from small-aircraft crashes.” 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; it’s bad reporting. While 448 deaths is an undeniably sad toll, it’s 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 Today’s 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 plaintiff’s 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 don’t 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 USA’s Today’s 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 I’m 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. Cessna’s Russ Meyers said as much, pledging to restart the company’s 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 don’t 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 we’re always hoping for something in between. Further, the USA Today reporting only vaguely—and maybe not at all—grasps 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. That’s 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 Today’s 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 didn’t 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 aren’t thorough enough. Let’s all do the hosanna, because it’s true. It’s 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 didn’t 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.

Here’s the reality: The NTSB doesn’t 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, I’m not convinced the expenditure is worth it because the outcome is so uncertain. And I’m not sure that we haven’t reached a balance between carnage and what we can afford to prevent, leading logically to USA Today’s shocking finding that regulators put a price on human life. No kidding. This is a variation on the theme of the FAA’s much-maligned tombstone mentality, whereby regulations are written in blood.

Why is this so? Because we want it that way, that’s why. As pilots and owners, we loathe paying for safety and regulation that we don’t 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 it’s risky or it least has risk. We know designs aren’t perfect, we know that bolts break, hoses part and things just fly apart sometimes. We know that single-engine airplanes with vacuum pumps aren’t Boeing 757s. But we aren’t 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 wouldn’t recognize this because I’m 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, there’s 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 don’t 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 don’t take much from the USA Today report, I take that much. I recommend you read it for yourself.

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