Thanksgiving weekend was a bad time for air safety. Nine people were killed in a PC-12 crash in South Dakota and seven more died in a PA-32 accident in Ontario. And we didn’t even mention the three who died in the crash of a Comanche in San Antonio.
What’s going on here? This spate of crashes gives the sky-is-falling impression that fatal accidents are on the rise. As we reported last month, after years of a downward trend, the GA fatal accident rate rose sharply in 2018. What is sharply, exactly? It’s 13 percent more bodies, 10 percent more crushed airframes and an equal rise in the accident rate.
Is that a lot? Consider the context. As recently as 2014, the fatal rate was 1.305/100,000 hours, so the historic low of 0.935 in 2017 was 28 percent lower than that. Yeah, that’s a lot. I can quibble about errors in the hours-flown data, but stone cold bodies paint a more undeniably vivid picture. In 2017, 347 died in 206 GA accidents, compared to 393 in 2018 and 217 crashes—a little more than one every other day.
Nonetheless, 2018’s record, sad as it is, it still below the seven-year average and still represents a downward trend. (It’s slightly outside of standard deviation for the past seven years.) Curiously, 2017 might actually be the outlier for having been so low. But it’s fair to wonder: What did we do in 2017 that we failed to do in 2018?
Is there some trend we need to be aware of? My educated guess from reading more accident reports than is particularly healthy is no, there probably is not. But good luck proving that right or wrong. And here’s where I think the NTSB and FAA have some work to do. Between them, these agencies are too slow in investigating accidents and getting the findings to the GA public, in my view.
Remember the Roy Halladay fatal Icon crash? That occurred two years ago last month and I’ve been asking for the final report for at least the last year. The NTSB says it’s due shortly. We need to get these things quicker than that if we expect to identify and arrest any trends they might reveal. I spent a couple of frustrating hours poring over the 2018 data and there’s just not enough information yet to develop more than a vague understanding. The last year for which reliable, hard data is available appears to be 2016. I don’t know if these agencies need more resources or not, but one way or another, what they’re doing now needs an overhaul.
That overhaul should include revision of the NTSB website. The data is difficult to search with much precision and I have found queries to be returned inconsistently. With better data access, industry groups could do a better job of meaningful analysis and so could the FAA and NTSB.
Dan Gryder, who’s on a quest to reduce stall accidents, told me he thinks the NTSB doesn’t issue enough specific recommendations for general aviation. It certainly does for every airline accident and sometimes just based on analytical trends and even when it’s not a direct party to an investigation. It’s a good point, but I’m not sure what those recommendations would be, other than the all-purpose suggestion to stop doing stupid ^%#$.
Do we need a government edict to do this? I’m not convinced. I much prefer industry initiatives, perhaps in concert with FAA or NTSB recommendations. We’ve had that in the General Aviation Joint Steering Committee and while it has been effective, maybe it’s time to rethink the concept with more timely and better data analysis. Organizations such as SAFE and AOPA’s Air Safety Institute have done and can do this sort of thing. So do owner groups like the American Bonanza Society and the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association. Timely accident data would help. And anyway, is it too much to assume that anyone smart enough to earn a pilot certificate can read this data and, you know, figure out how not to make a smoking hole? Or has the age of personal responsibility ended?
Insurers play a role in this, but perhaps aren’t as influential as some of us imagine. Insurers are reactive to loss rates and that’s how they set premiums, accept customers and specify required training. Insurance companies expect a certain level of attritional losses—hangar rash, runway excursions, fires and so forth. But they really brace for the occasional big liability payouts that involve deaths and/or high hull value airplanes. The PC-12 crash I mentioned above may be one of those. But they don’t share their internal data with each other or the public.
Should they, in the name of air safety? Possibly. After the engine of our Mooney quit, putting the airplane into a swamp, I found a handful of identical accidents involving the same engine type. I asked the insurance company why they wouldn’t investigate these in the name of loss prevention. Not interested, they said. Too expensive and the company’s attritional losses were acceptable. I can’t argue with the business logic.
Theoretically, insurance requirements for training may have a downward or positive push on accident rates, although this is hard to document. More training ought to produce more competent pilots who wreck less often. But is the reverse also true?
For most of the last decade, the aviation insurance markets have been blessed (or cursed) with overcapacity—too many insurers chasing too few customers. As a result, premiums have been soft and training requirements less demanding. In other words, there are insured people flying around in airplanes with minimal, if any, insurance-required training. Whether that has yielded more accidents is intriguing speculation.
But aviation insurance losses are up because of higher claims frequency and much higher claims value. As a result of that and just too many players losing money, some companies who sought the golden goose in airplane insurance are bailing, turning the market “hard” as they say in the industry. That means premiums are rising and insurers are getting more picky about who they’ll cover. They may require more training than they would have, say, two years ago. Insurance has always been cyclical and we’ve been here before.
Insurance expert Jon Doolittle of Sutton James Insurance tells me that thus far, the hard market has applied more to the turbine market than the piston segment. But inevitably, there will be some spillover. Big accidents with big payouts do impact the market.
Many of the accident reports I review involve some level of faulty aviation decision-making. Those aren’t just weather related, but things like aircraft loading, exceeding crosswind limits, the ever-popular fuel exhaustion and bad maintenance practices.
If I were the NTSB trying to make recommendations or industry advocacy groups doing the same, that’s where I’d start. Pilots often crash not because they don’t know how to put the stick here and the rudder there, but because they get themselves into situations beyond the travel limits of each, metaphorically speaking.
Consider the recent PC-12 accident. I’m loathe to speculate on accident causes ahead of the investigation, but I would make this observation: The pilot took off in a heavily loaded single-engine turboprop into low ceilings and visibility, windshear and turbulence and potential icing. While this may very well be within risk limits for most of us—including him—it’s also toward the outer edge of the envelope and perhaps a decision that left fewer options than if the airplane were lighter and the weather better.
These are the kinds of decisions—judgments, really—that are difficult to teach. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. It has always been thus in aviation and until the robots take over—any maybe not even then—it always will be.