GA’s Accident Rate Refuses to Shrink


Earlier this month, the NTSB released findings on trends in general aviation accidents. The GA fatal rate, after an all time low of 1.12/100,000 hours in 2013 reversed its trend to 1.4. That’s the highest since 1998. The overall accident rate spiked slightly from 6.26 in 2013 to 6.74 in 2014.

But do these numbers mean anything in the overall scheme? They’re certainly not encouraging, but when I asked NTSB member Earl Weener about them this week, he figured the increase to be noise in the data and not really meaningful.

“How many data points in the same direction do you need to declare a trend? You need two or three points. At the moment, it’s just noise,” Weener says. I tend to agree, but the 2014 spike is the largest yearly increase since 1994. Still, with such small numbers, it takes only a few accidents to move the needle measurably.

We don’t seem to have much trouble moving it up, but what about pushing it down? This has been persistently, perversely difficult to do, despite years of industry efforts. While the airlines have made great strides in reducing the system fatal accident rate to near zero, GA has been stuck hovering between 1.1 and 1.5/100,000 hours. I’m beginning to think that’s about as good as it’s going to get. Even as the total hours flown have declined during the past two decades from an estimated 24.9 million in 1995 to 18.1 million in 2014—a 27 percent decline—the fatal rate has decreased by only about half that percentage, depending on how you crunch the numbers.

From the let’s-be-realistic file, I’d be impressed with a rate below 1.0/100,000. What it would take to get there, using 2014 numbers, would be about 70 fewer fatal accidents a year. In 2014, it would be 180 fatal accidents rather than the 253 actually recorded. That’s 28 percent and it’s a pretty big decrease. But I’d invite you to sweep through the 2014 or 2013 NTSB data to see the gimme accidents–the ones that verge on Darwin-award bad judgment. I easily found about 30 of these. The grimmest was a 10-hour student pilot who celebrated New Year’s day in 2013 by stealing a Twin Comanche he wasn’t rated to fly and departed into night IMC with predictable results. How do you even begin to reach a person like that?

Otherwise, the record is populated with the usual suspects. The pilot community isn’t very creative when it comes to crashing airplanes. It’s the usual sad tally of VFR-into-IMC, spatial disorientation, fuel exhaustion and stalls. Loss of control continues to be the plurality killer of general aviation pilots, so much so that the NTSB will hold a one-day forum on the topic on October 14th, with the agenda to be announced shortly.

While there have been piecemeal ideas to address loss of control, no one has come up with the silver bullet because there is no silver bullet. Flying an airplane requires a base level of skill and proficiency and tends to be intolerant of a lack of either. While it doesn’t require the judgment of a neurosurgeon, profound stupidity eventually exacts a price in bent metal or, worst case, wounded flesh. NTSB’s Weener, who’s a GA pilot himself, told me he’s just as puzzled about how to drive down the accident rate as the rest of us, but he favors technological solutions. “Personally, I think with technological solutions, once you make the gain, you tend to keep it. If you make a change in behavior, you have to keep people in line,” Weener said.

The latest technological solution is the angle-of-attack indicator as a means of improving stall awareness. But there are others. TAWS has helped with CFIT, moving maps with position awareness, data link weather with weather avoidance and envelope-protected autopilots with prevention of loss of control and upsets. We lack the data to know if such equipment is exerting a downward trend on fatal accidents. As I’ve said before, I’m skeptical of the hopes for AoA systems simply because there aren’t that many of them installed and the training doctrine in their use isn’t widely promulgated. It could very well be that the early adopters who install these systems are the pilots who need them the least since a consciousness of safety that leads to such a purchase in the first place may very well result in such pilots voluntarily seeking more stall avoidance training. And because FAA regulations have made it so expensive to develop and install new autopilots, the number of envelope-protected autopilots in the field is quite small, with most of them in Cirrus models.

Not that I’m arguing against AoA or technological approaches in general. I think in the aggregate, they’re part of the solution. But increasingly, high-dollar upgrades go to a smaller percentage of the GA fleet at a time when the accident record shows that older aircraft are well represented, if not over represented, in the stall accident category.

In short, I don’t have a solution or recommendation save but one: fly more. It stands to reason that a 100-hour-a-year pilot will be more proficient than one flying 30 hours, even to the extent that the proficiency will offset the exposure of the additional hours. The more you do of a thing, the better you get at it. And with flight hours on the wane, we’re not doing enough of it. Little wonder the accident rate shows no improvement.

Bad Weekend on the Show Circuit

Related to this—or maybe not related other than being crashes—are the two accidents at airshows over the weekend. To lead into that, there was a mid-air earlier in the week of two L-410 turboprops in Slovakia flying a formation load for a skydiving demo at an airshow. Seven dead on that one. Eleven dead in the Shoreham accident in the UK.

When we have a confluence of such events, the general press quite rightly raises the issue of safety at airshows. In general aviation, we have a kneejerk reaction to this: we circle the wagons and babble about flying having risks and…well, get over it. While that’s true, I think the insular response serves to obscure what could be oversights we’re just too close to the subject and steeped in its culture to see or admit to.

I don’t know if that’s true in the two accidents over the weekend, but I won’t be surprised if they turn out to be other than stuff-happens type accidents. You may recall in late 2013 a spectacular midair between two Cessnas hauling skydivers over Wisconsin. Because skydivers these days wear cameras, the NTSB had plenty of footage to work with, and the more spectacular seconds of it made it to the evening news.

The NTSB released its final report last month and determined that the cause was pilot error aggravated by lack of training. The drop zone challenges the second half of that conclusion, but I think the NTSB got it right. A bit more effort and that extra mile on training a pilot flying his first formation trail slot might have made the difference. Risk mitigation left to chance is just risk ignored.

P.M. addition: AOPA Safety Foundation just released a video on angle of attack indicators. Here it is.