Everything we do in life carries risk. An undesired outcome often is influenced by factors we can’t control—someone running a stop sign, for example, or a perfectly good engine deciding to fail. But many other risks of a specific activity can be anticipated. It’s why we wear a helmet when riding a bicycle, or earn our instrument rating if we regularly fly an airplane beyond the traffic pattern. Serving as a pilot in command offers many ways to increase our risks, but it also brings opportunities to mitigate them.
Pilots do that to some extent on every flight. We don’t always do all things we can do, and we don’t always do those things well. But history gives us ample evidence of how we can become a statistic. Maybe by always paying attention to some of the most frequent factors appearing in accident reports, we can avoid having to complete one? Put another way, by understanding what others have done wrong, or failed to do at all, we can incorporate that knowledge in our planning and our flying. With it, we can mitigate a lot of the risks inherent in aviation. To find out which risks and factors we need to focus on the most, we dove into the AOPA Air Safety Institute’s  annual report on general aviation safety, its 27th Joseph T. Nall Report, for the statistics.
We’ve always been of the opinion that, once the airplane’s engine is running, we’re running out of fuel. So we always try to carry way more gas than we should need. We rarely turn down a chance to top off the tanks. It’s an outlook that’s served us well so far. In most airplanes, it’s an easy and accurate thing to open the fuel caps and visually determine how much fuel is in each tank. Then compare that total amount to how much you need. Should be simple, right?
There really isn’t an excuse for fuel exhaustion, the term describing when there’s no fuel aboard the aircraft. Fuel starvation is when there’s fuel aboard, but it can’t get to the engine for some reason, most likely because the loose nut behind the wheel failed to select a tank with fuel in it. Starvation likely results from failure to understand the fuel system and/or correctly manage it. It’s not clear to us which is more embarrassing.
Unless we’re flying for money, it’s also not clear to us why we wouldn’t want to carry plenty of fuel, so there’s no chance of running out. When operating for hire, of course, there’s usually someone looking over our shoulder to make sure we carry enough gas. But when it’s a private single-pilot operation, we can get distracted with passengers or unrelated drama and simply forget to check the fuel. To us, though, it seems like a basic thing you do before starting the engine, like adjusting the seat.
That said, stuff does happen. That’s when systems knowledge comes in handy, including fuel consumption rates and whether there’s any limitation on which tanks can be used for takeoff and landing. Some older airplanes may return excess fuel from the engine to the selected tank, or they may return it to a specific tank, which is a good idea to use before it goes overboard.
Licking pilot-related fuel issues isn’t the biggest obstacle to improving general aviation safety. But most fuel issues are easily preventable.
We at Aviation Safety spend a lot of time focused on learning how weather affects our operations. By the time we earn a pilot certificate, we should know enough to realize that thunderstorms and icing—while to be avoided and carefully managed—aren’t the only things we need to watch for. Nevertheless, we were somewhat surprised to see “VFR into IMC” as leading the Nall Report’s various types of weather-related accidents. On the other hand, we’re not surprised to see it is the most lethal of them, as depicted in Graph 3, below.
In our experience, there are two things pilots need to understand about weather. The first is that Mother Nature really doesn’t care that you’re trying to get to Grandma’s house for Thanksgiving, or that you have an important meeting on the other side of a line of thunderstorms. The point is that weather will always be a factor for pilots to contend with, whether you’re strapping on a 747 or a Piper Cub.
The second thing is that an instrument rating, by itself, isn’t a ticket to blithely ignore forecasts and observations. That’s especially true for the airplanes most of us fly, which typically aren’t equipped for anything more than the occasional climb or descent through a low cloud deck to visual conditions. Add in some cold temperatures or convective activity—sometimes both—and we’ll quickly learn about our airplane’s limitations, perhaps along with shortcomings in our training and decision-making.
That said, getting the instrument rating and keeping it current is perhaps the single most important thing a pilot can do to minimize the risk of a weather-related accident. For one, having the rating should basically eliminate your exposure to the VFR-into-IMC kind of accident (those arising from poor IFR technique are another matter, but easily addressed). Even if you inadvertently encounter IMC without a clearance, your ability to fly the airplane on the gauges and, perhaps, make a 180-degree turn to exit the conditions, likely means you won’t become a statistic.
Many pilots, of course, don’t think they need an instrument rating. They only fly on good-weather days near an airport and can duck back in for a landing if things start to get hairy. They’re not immune to weather-related accidents, though, and at least should practice flying the 180-degree turn with instruments alone. If most of your flying involves using a personal aircraft for transportation, get the instrument rating. Then learn how to use it, which is a whole ‘nuther article.
Pilots fly for different reasons. Some think there’s nothing better than playing pinball with the flight instruments for hours, banking no more than 20 degrees, then sliding down the glidepath to a landing and taxiing to the gate. Others need to fly upside down and pull some Gs every now and then or they get cranky. Somewhere in the middle is the guy who wants to buzz the office picnic or his girlfriend’s house, or just go out to do some wingovers, or moose turns.
According to Graph 4, below, which also is adapted from the 2018 Nall Report, maneuvering flight results in relatively few pilot-related accidents but is by far the most lethal. Why is that?
“While maneuvering an airplane at low altitude in visual meteorological conditions (VMC), many pilots fail to avoid conditions that lead to an aerodynamic stall, recognize the warning signs of a stall onset, and apply appropriate recovery techniques,” the NTSB says in its Safety Alert 019. “Many stall accidents that occur in VMC result when a pilot is momentarily distracted from the primary task of flying, such as while maneuvering in the airport traffic pattern, during an emergency, or when fixating on ground objects.”
The result is colliding with the ground, out of control, which the NTSB says is “the most common defining event for fatal accidents” among personal flight operations in general aviation.
On its face, there’s nothing illegal, immoral or fattening with low-level maneuvering. That changes, however, when we get distracted or forget that “an aerodynamic stall can occur at any airspeed, at any attitude, and with any engine power setting,” as the NTSB cautions. Moreover, our reason for engaging in low-level maneuvering—buzzing the girlfriend’s house, for example—can lead us to perform maneuvers we might not otherwise fly. The NTSB again: “Resist the temptation to perform maneuvers in an effort to impress people, including passengers, other pilots, persons on the ground, or others via an onboard camera. ‘Showing off’ can be a deadly distraction because it diverts your attention away from the primary task of safe flying.”
This sums up what in our view, are the two fundamental problems with low-level maneuvering. One, by definition, we’re closer to terrain, so any mishandling of the airplane or miscalculation of distance between us and, say, trees leaves little room for error or recovery. Second, the very idea of flying at a relatively low altitude encourages us to engage in steep turns and other maneuvers that we wouldn’t otherwise perform at altitude in cruise flight. In other words, we’re doing something we probably haven’t practiced lately, if at all, with little margin for error. Just say no.
The principal mechanical failure pilots train for is loss of engine power. That’s a good thing, because engine failures are the principal cause of accidents involving mechanical failure. The good news is that we’re more likely to survive an accident resulting from powerplant failure than many might think. Perhaps that’s due to all that training.
Other mechanical failures are not that common, or lethal. Of the 29 landing-gear and brake failure-related accidents in 2015, for example, none of them resulted in fatalities, according to the 2018 Nall Report. But this is our opportunity to point out that good maintenance and observant preflight inspections are yet another way to minimize aviation’s risks.
We’d wager that systems knowledge figures prominently in minimizing the overall relatively low number of mechanical accidents, and their lethality: When something goes wrong, maybe it can be fixed long enough to get to a runway. And often, things go wrong and are managed well enough to get on the ground without the need to file an accident report. Remember, we’re only looking here at mechanical events with a paper trail.
It seems we’re doing an overall good job when it comes to mechanicals. But we still need to train for and recognize the threat of engine failure, so we can at least continue minimizing its lethality.
Referring back to Graph 1, at top, failure to plan is not a pilot-related accident category. But the concept is woven into many of the listed categories, and we think it deserves a last-but-not-least mention in our list of the top five things to get right. In our mind, planning failures figure prominently in fuel-related events, in accidents attributed to weather, in low-level maneuvering and, wait for it, mechanicals. The thing is, it’s easier than ever to plan half of these items—fuel and weather—while mechanical planning is most likely accomplished with a calendar.
These days, it’s the rare pilot who ventures beyond the traffic pattern without some kind of electronic flight bag app on a phone or tablet. That app probably provides a complete preflight weather briefing, details fuel consumption numbers and even color-codes the weather and terrain you might expect en route.
But planning takes many forms, only a few of which your EFB can help with, at least for now. That’s especially true if you’re going out to buzz the girlfriend’s house. What do you know about its elevation, nearby terrain or obstacles? What altitude will you fly? What specific maneuvers do you plan? At what airspeed? What will be your maximum bank angle? We’d guess some of the low-level maneuvering accidents might not occur if the pilot asked some of these basic questions and planned the flight better.
Finally, what’s your Plan B? Maybe it’s the nearest ILS in poor weather. Maybe it’s land straight ahead after an engine failure during takeoff. Maybe it’s none of the above. But you need to have one, updated every step of the flight, from turning the key to pulling the mixture at the other end. It’s just one more thing to get right.