USA Today’s GA Indictment


While reading over USA Todays exhaustive-and exhausting-indictment of general aviation, I was struck by the inescapable feeling that Id been given the Disney tour of every plaintiffs 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 Todays 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 dont 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 wouldnt get this because it seems to have no understanding of the people actually involved in the industry.

In a graph thats terribly distorted, USA Today claims that the accident rate has remained flat since the early 1990s. This is actually demonstrably false, although its fair to say the general aviation fatal rate hasnt declined much. But it has declined. According to NTSB data, GAs 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 thats 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; its bad reporting. While 448 deaths is an undeniably sad toll, its 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 Todays 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 plaintiffs 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 dont 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 USAs Todays 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 Im 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. Cessnas Russ Meyers said as much, pledging to restart the companys 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 dont 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 were 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. Thats 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 Todays 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 didnt 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 arent thorough enough. Lets all do the hosanna, because its true. Its 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 didnt 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.

Heres the reality: The NTSB doesnt 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, Im not convinced the expenditure is worth it because the outcome is so uncertain. And Im not sure that we havent reached a balance between carnage and what we can afford to prevent, leading logically to USA Todays shocking finding that regulators put a price on human life. No kidding. This is a variation on the theme of the FAAs much-maligned tombstone mentality, whereby regulations are written in blood.

Why is this so? Because we want it that way, thats why. As pilots and owners, we loathe paying for safety and regulation that we dont 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 its risky or it least has risk. We know designs arent perfect, we know that bolts break, hoses part and things just fly apart sometimes. We know that single-engine airplanes with vacuum pumps arent Boeing 757s. But we arent 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 wouldnt recognize this because Im 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, theres 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 dont 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 dont take much from the USA Today report, I take that much. I recommend you read it for yourself.

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