Are Accident Rates Out of Control?


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.  

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  1. It occurs to me that we often talk about pilots determining what level of risk they’re willing to accept, but we don’t spend much time talking about the consequences of those risks. It almost seems as though it’s assumed that the pilot will make it through their decision, or at worst just have a minor incident. Perhaps we need to do a better job of talking about what could go wrong, and what factors make it more likely for that to happen. But it seems to me that not enough pilots truly appreciate what the consequences of some of their decisions may lead to.

  2. “Superior pilots possess of both superior skills and superior judgement. They employ their superior judgement, to avoid any situation in which they would have to utilize their superior skills.”

    We can teach skills. Can we REALLY teach judgement? I don’t buy it.

        • We’ve beat this horse to death 1,000 times over. First, is judgement, do I go or don’t I go. You can’t teach this, you either have it or you don’t. I do believe you can refine it, however, it cannot be taught. Judgement is based upon the available knowledge at hand. How you use it at that specific point in time determines whether it is good judgement or bad judgement. It doesn’t matter how much or how little information is available. Quantity is irrelevant. What you do with what you have is what matters.
          Skill is what you utilize after something goes bad irregardless if your judgement to fly was not good or if you just happen to be on the wrong side of good luck.
          So, if there’s anything that we should be focused on and constantly reminded to employ, it would be good judgement. Some of us pilots have a lot of good judgement, some of us not so much good judgement. It doesn’t matter. What we should be doing is maximizing what God given judgement skills we do have and recognize all of our judgement skills are varied and limited.
          Good judgement is proactive and the first defense against a bad outcome. Superior skill is reactive and the last defense against a bad outcome.

          • Given all the stupid %$^% I’ve done in my aviation career and survived it all, I think I’m like most people. I exercise good judgment most of the time and for those instances where that wasn’t the case, luck intervened as often as skill did.

  3. I wouldn’t speculate on the PC-12 incident (the word ‘accident’ implies act of God or some such, and this was definitely not one of those) either, but would observe that 1. fuel contamination from fuel at the Chamberlain Airport caused dual engine failure in a Cessna jet 2 weeks before this accident; 2. it was reported that the PC-12 took on 150 gal. of fuel at Chamberlain; and 3. the incident photo shows little or no prop rotation.

  4. I too will not speculate on the cause(s) of this past weeks’ incidents but both smack of “get-home / there-itis”. Admittedly, only a couple of hundred of the many thousands of hours on my record are in small aircraft. I am used to having lots of aluminum wrapped around me encasing a myriad of electronics and capabilities. My point is that under the conditions listed for these two latest incidents, I would have had to give some serious thought to operating then.

    Okay, enough speculation about stuff I cannot change. The article talks about accident rates, etc. A couple of considerations might, I say might, be the improved economy and the demand for more pilots. I have not examined any statistics at all so this isn’t an analysis of any kind. Consider that the desire for flying is likely fairly steady across the population but the economic ability to participate is not. The boom in the economy has to have enabled more people to participate or resume or increase participation. More participation will theoretically increase chances of incidents. Another factor along the same lines is the demand for pilots also putting more folks in the air as well.
    Just thinking.

  5. If you look at the accident rate as a statistics problem, you can get the numbers down by addressing just one of the principal reasons for crashes. That is, aircraft overloading of single engine piston airplanes.
    Rule one, if you fill every seat, you are flirting with disaster. Rule 1.1, if you plan on filling every seat, you weigh every occupant and luggage, and perform a weight and balance calculation. If you’re overweight or out of CG, you remove people or luggage. If you’re below max gross and in the CG envelope, rule 1.2 states you then perform a performance calculation of takeoff distance (required by 91.103).
    Chest-thumping and advertising aside, no ASEL is a “truck” or “flying SUV”. A Cherokee 6 can’t legally fly with 7 people, and probably not 6 unless there’s min fuel on a cold day.
    Same with AMEL. I had an MEI candidate tell me before his checkride that his GA-7 was 180lbs overweight because of a fueling error, state “I’m ok with that”, and ask me if I had a problem with this situation. I couldn’t disapprove him on that basis because the checkride had not begun, but this mentality is an example of some pilots’ willingness to ignore on of the most important parts of preflight action.
    We reduce the number of overloaded and out of CG takeoffs, and the overall accident rate dips down significantly.

  6. I’ll speculate on the PC-12 accident. I’ll assume from the description of the airport that the only service available is automated fueling. Weather at the time was moderate snow. The aircraft was parked outside. How could the pilot have cleared the snow from the wings and the top of the T-tail prior to taxi? How Could the pilot have kept the wings and T-tail from being further contaminated while taxiing for takeoff? Had the runway been plowed?
    This doesn’t take into account the number of passengers and associated baggage on board. The pilot was either unaware or chose to disregard these risks. If the pilot had waited, which would have been the best way to eliminate the weather risks, the pilot could have flown in the weather the NTSB had for the on-site investigation, a clear and sunny day as shown in the NTSB accident photo. Would it have still crashed with the same number of passengers and baggage? I’ll let the NTSB determine that.

  7. Excellent article, Paul. I share your view that the NTSB must accelerate their reporting cadence. I’ve met with them recently on this topic, and there may be hope in some improvement. I also share your view that Decision Making is an area where we can work to better influence how pilots think and thus impact how and when they fly. On Dec 17th, marking aviation’s most significant anniversary, the AOPA ASI is hosting a live social media session on this topic, in hopes to influence decision making over the upcoming holidays. You’ll see us promote that here in the near future. The PC-12 accident is a good example of assessing decisions and our risk management. We don’t need the final NTSB report to analyze the decision of taking off in a fully loaded airplane during a winter advisory in half mile vis, blowing snow, wind shear and ice. The possibility (statistically remote) that the triggering event was mechanical or wrong fuel only reinforces the risk in the decision…very little time or ability to deal with a problem in those conditions. We’ve driven down the fatal accident rate in GA by close to 50% since the mid 90s…remarkable progress that stands as an example for other transportation and recreation activities. But there’s more work we can do…must do.

  8. Every year it seems there is a holiday season spike in GA accidents. Holiday schedules, family pressure and crappy weather combine in a scenario conducive to pushing the limits. The result is all too often a lapse in judgement that no amount of skill can overcome resulting in tragedy and headlines.

  9. Excellent article. Excellent comments. I would like to share my perspective as a relatively low time private pilot but long time aviation enthusiast (lots of years flying, not very many hours logged).
    A few years ago I bought a Piper Comanche after getting an IFR rating. It was a huge step up in capability over the Warriors and Skyhawks I had been flying. Living in Ohio, I could easily get to my daughter in Boston in a few hours without a fuel stop. After a few cross-country trips I was very comfortable flying it IFR–it is a great flying plane. And, I trusted the airplane after having spent a lot on pro-active maintenance (I replaced all the old parts that still functioned but were sketchy). My daughter and the family got used to the convenience of being able to go to Boston at the drop of a hat and we made several trips. When I look back, however, I cancelled almost as many flights/trips as I took, some as late as sitting in the aircraft getting ready to go. It was rarely one thing, although icing forecasts in the northeast corridor were often a determining factor. Usually a collection of different “signals” led me to cancel–dead battery, tired/not feeling right, weather, something not quite right with the airplane… Some of those cancellations were very inconvenient and resulted in last minute airline purchases or missing a daughter at the holiday dinner table. Could I have made all of those cancelled flights? Not all, but some certainly, but not at my level of comfort. Even-so, I still made a few flights that ended safely, but were outside my comfort zone (alternator failure, vacuum pump and backup failure, weather worse than forecast etc.).
    Did I develop my decision making process during the many biennial flight reviews I have taken? No.
    Can the FAA “regulate” judgement? No.
    Can we coach GA pilots during primary training to have the confidence to listen to their internal voice and cancel flights if it is telling them to? I think so.

  10. If one’s judgement is poor, the ensuing consequences will have to be dealt with skill and luck. Some have a combination of skill and luck that allows for a certain amount of repeated judgmental lapses. At some point, however, the reserve balance of skill and luck runs out…some sooner, some later…a wreck is the result.

    So the questions seems to be…how often is our judgement poor? Is there a pattern of exercising poor judgement? And, if after thoughtful examination a pattern is emerging, how are we, as active pilots, and all others within the aviation community, and those inhabiting the space below us, going to deal with it?

    Because of consistent poor judgement, but yet still alive, the pilots exercising consistently poor judgement are usually the least likely one’s to repent, rethink, and mend his/her ways. Fear does not seem to be a high motivating factor for these kind of folks. Worrying about dropping out of the sky on someone else is not highly motivating either.

    All of us get used to the way we think and perform. If still able to talk about it, there has been enough acceptable behavior up to the next flight yet to be flown. Lack of good judgement is a creeping thing, an infection, and spreads over time. Many of us can get comfortable within those poor judgement habits. Most of the time, the result of poor judgement is not an accident. Most of the time, we are unaware of how poor, our poor judgement really is in any given situation…until an accident prevents us from flying again with out repairs…or worse the outcome is fatal.

    The art of flying safely…and for a long time…demands good judgement. No matter how good judgement is determined, either by algorithms of autonomous flight that seems to be the current aviation soup de jour, or by thoughtful, conscientious thinking and evaluation by us human pilots, the three dimensional world of flight demands good judgement first. Great, good, or average skills will allow us to fly as long as we want while exercising good judgement.

    I believe the accident rates are improving because, over all, good judgement seems to being demonstrated and transmitted from instructor to student. I believe the instructors have a much deeper well of information, experiences, and new situational awareness provided by avionics/handhelds that has all contributed to this improvement.

    The only thing that has not significantly changed is the kind of airplanes being used as trainers. For the last 50+ years, the ubiquitous 150/152/172/Cherokee/Warrior/Archer/Arrow type airplanes have changed little in design and handling. So, what has changed is avionics and flight instruction itself. So, we are doing a lot of things right in this transmission of good judgement skills combined with the use of new situational awareness available from the panel, handhelds, and even ATC.

    I believe good judgement can be demonstrated by instructor, student, ATC, and pilots throughout their flying careers. Can those demonstrations of good judgement be received by us in the aviation community and integrated into our everyday way of thinking is the question? That is the variable that makes flying unique among all other endeavors. And good judgement is quantifiable by either less or more accidents.

    Losing 16 people within two single engine airplane accidents really gets the gray matter moving thinking about good judgement. Those high numbers of fatalities contained within 2 accidents certainly can significantly skew statistical numbers. And all of this carnage will be examined carefully through the lens of good judgement practices.

    Sobering is how 2 pilots determinations in the exercise of what they thought good enough judgement is has had on 19 lives.

  11. I feel bad when people get killed, especially when avoidable. Negligence will kill. So, perhaps it makes better sense to describe bad “risk management” as being just plain stupid. After more than 50 years as a pilot yet another lesson for me to not get sloppy.

    • That’s exactly what I was thinking Raf. You read my mind in a really big way, or, maybe I read yours. In any event. Yes, maybe it’s time we flip things around. Instead of focusing on good judgement, the resulting happy, happy outcomes, we start focusing on bad judgement and the not so happy results.
      I used to listen to AOPA’s “Never Again” podcasts all of the time dissecting in my mind all of the decisions that lead up to the final tragic outcome. It always had an impact on me to assess my thinking and procedures to flying safely. I really think you’re on to something here.

  12. I like the idea that judgement avoids accidents and skills can get you out of trouble when the s**t hits the fan. When the Mooney engine quit putting the airplane in a swamp, the difference between an accident with fatalities and an incident with no one hurt, was skill. The skill was developed as the result of really good repetitive training (by the author of this blog post by the way). The training was all about maintaining control of the aircraft. To keep the airplane flying no mater what. Perhaps there were some signs that would have stopped the flight but I don’t think so. For flight the instructors reading this, the most important life saving skill you can impart to your students is to create the muscle memory to maintain control of the airplane when they are surprised and confused.

    • I’ve said it time and time again, “fly the airplane.” Nothing else matters. “Fly the airplane.”
      Very simple. There is only one thing that should be focused on, ever, when things start to go bad. “Fly the airplane.” Straight and level all trimmed out. Everything stable. Once you have reached that point, then you can think of other things. Take a deep breath or whatever. Just “fly the airplane” first.

  13. Nice write up – as usual.

    It is somber when we lose a fellow ariman especially when we look back and realize it was completely avoidable. I think if we really want to reduce fatal accidents we must consider raising the bar on initial flight training and especially recurrent training. In general aviation – not for hire – the minimums are simply not enough, unless industry is happy with where we are at. I think we can do better.

    Doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results will not move the needle in the proper direction. I am convinced, higher standards and probably having a greater impact, more frequent recurrent training will decrease fatal accidents.

    Also keep in mind there is risk in any mode of travel. Aviation is terribly unforgiving and we must all give this fact the respect it deserves from engine start to shut down.

      • I disagree that judgement can’t be taught. Maybe it can’t be fully taugh but we can try to cover as many scenarios as we know of but still in many aspects, it isn’t taught period. For example, a 100 hour pilot wants to make a flight. Weather is vfr but its just 1,000 feet 3 mile vis. All flat terrain. A couple of tall towers between depart and destination. 100 mile trip. He’s done it once before in similar weather successfully… Would it not be handy to have a a written cheat sheet that states, “no” for a 100 hour pilot (or maybe up to a 500 hour pilot – I’ll let the experts chime in here and make the guidelines). This would at least eliminate some stupid ^%#$ some pilots are doing, not becasue they mean to but because no one is telling them not to. When I had 40 hours, NO ONE told me don’t do this, this, this, and this, and this and that. I was super conservative and only did what I had already done but I got bored really quickly and I knew I was not growing as a pilot. Sure, we are all different, so make the sheet so that it covers the 99% of all of us “within the normality” and let the other do what they will. But give the pilot who wants or needs those guidelines (something to put their hands on ). The airlines have the captain to teach the rookie. We need a cheat sheet that gives us some guidelines so we dont do stuff that a captain would say…. hugh, don’t do that, or not this way, that way, or watch me. This can be done related to weather, regulations, etc.