Is Accident Reporting Making Us All Crazy?

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If a thing happens, say, 1000 times a year or about three times a day, is it worth reporting as news? That’s the calculus on aviation accidents, which we report on semi-regularly here on AVweb. We’re not especially consistent about it. We don’t report on all the fatal accidents, of which there about 200 a year. The editors around here each have a slightly different take on whether to run an accident story.

If it’s a high-profile crash with a large number of fatalities or it makes the network news, we feel compelled to publish a report because our readers expect it, or so we think. We think this because occasionally when we don’t run such a story, we’ll get an email or two asking why not. If the accident has video, we’re almost certain to run it because—might as well be honest—videos drive the clicks. Readers vote with their keyboards and that drives the editorial decision making. (Actually, they vote with their mice, but that sounds perverted and mouses is grammatically flawed.)

This, taken together with the established trend of online and social media sources offering instant analysis before the wreckage cools, creates, I think, a kind of psychosis about true risk and a degree of misplaced fear. I’ve written about this before and although I force myself to take a longer view, I’m susceptible to it, too.

Short of a well-designed psychological survey, there’s no way to measure this, but the rising trend of accident reporting—even as the number of accidents declines—may be taking a wider toll in scaring people away from aviation. This week, reader Ken Fagerlund wrote this: “While prevention is important it really has put a damper on up and coming pilots in training to see these reports at this frequency. I have had two students quit as a result of the reports and one was far along into a commercial rating. One student lost all confidence after reading takeoff accident reports.”

Five years ago, I might have said buck up and walk it off, but now I’m not so sure. We’re pummeling audiences with so much reporting on wrecks that it has the effect of distorting the true risk to the extent that some people are concluding that this flying thing is just too dangerous. For older pilots, who sense the terminal end of the mortal coil approaching, that translates as less willingness to assume risk: no night flying, no IMC, no tackling gusty crosswinds. We’ve all seen it. We’ve all felt it. It’s baked into the evolutionary cake.

Ostensibly, the reason for accident reporting is that it informs the reader on what happened so the mistakes won’t be repeated. If I ever believed that, I don’t believe it now. But I’m willing to be proven wrong. I’ve been doing this aviation journalism gig for 30-plus years and if I’ve learned anything, it’s that people like to read about crashes and do so, at least in part, for voyeuristic impulses related to the spectacle. Airborne traffic reporters—when there were airborne traffic reporters—had a perfectly crafted word for this: rubbernecking. Who can drive by the crash scene without slowing to look? Traffic cams somehow take all the fun out of it.

I asked Richard McSpadden at Aviation Safety Institute, which authors the Nall Report, if the recent finding of a decline in the overall rate to 4.69 from 4.87 (3.7 percent) is a real thing, giving the rubbery nature of hours-flown data. He thinks it is because however flawed the data is, the methodology to collect is consistent and so should the directionality be. Conceding that rates based on exposure activity are the best metric, the truest one is raw numbers of crashes, which were down 10 percent in 2020. Ahead of the pandemically disrupted 2020, the trend has been flat to slightly downward since 2013. A story on a particular accident with lots of smoke and fire doesn’t include this nugget.

If you’re getting worn down by all this—and who can blame you if you are—there are two key things to remember. One, the accident rate is trickling downward and is at such a historically low level that minor ups and downs aren’t trends, but noise in the data, like ripples from a rock thrown into the other side of the pond. Our ability to measure meaningful trends, if there are any, is cratered by the small numbers. Second, a necessary skill in modern life is the ability to tune things out and not fall into the habit of doom scrolling. If that sounds like I’m saying stop clicking on the accident stories, that’s exactly what I’m saying. Not to cut my own throat, but collective sanity is more important than page views.  

The recently released Nall Report showed a decline in overall accidents for 2020. Yeah, you’d like it for 2021, but get a grip. It’s delusional to think fresher data would make the slightest difference in your understanding of accident risk. And speaking of which, a rate of 4.69/100,000 hours is the lowest it has been since we started tracking accidents. Well, it ain’t zero, but under five chances in 100,000 is an exceedingly low risk. Your personal risk, as defined by you, is higher or lower depending on what you fly, where you fly it and how skilled and current you are. You, after all, are not a wind-driven leaf here; you have a vote in the process. The same logic applies to the fatal accident rate, which isn’t at a historical low, but at 0.83/100,000, is hardly high risk.

For pilots who have been in the game for a while, I see limited benefit in accident reports, frankly. Do you really need to be reminded—perhaps hammered—with rehashing the same causality you’ve known about for 20 years? If so, click on the story, I guess. Otherwise, give it pass. By now, you could probably write the accident report just from the photo. So maybe there is more salutatory in accident reporting that I imagine. Could it be it’s partially responsible for the declining rate? Maybe, says McSpadden. Maybe, I’ll agree. Perhaps newer pilots have not yet been washed in the blood, so to speak, and are not as familiar with the same basic blunder set that causes most aviation accidents. That said, read a year’s worth and you’re pretty much caught up.

McSpadden reminded me of what I already know and what you probably know too. Risk reduction comes from remaining active and current, seeking periodic training, maintaining the aircraft to the highest affordable standard and operating in a safety culture of your own or someone else’s making. It’s no more complicated than that.  

Reader Fagerlund suggested we segregate accident reporting in a section devoted to that subject, but this we already do. We run regular reports from our sister publication, Aviation Safety, in the features section. As for accidents appearing in the regular news well and Flash, we’re compelled to report some of them because they constitute news. If a King Air crashes with six aboard, we can’t ignore it. We would do well, however, to skip the marginal ones whose only reason for inclusion is filling a hole on a slow news day.

We’ll work on it. Meanwhile, don’t let an accident report convince you that the sky is falling. It’s still up there and I’m pretty sure it will stay there.

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64 COMMENTS

  1. “Risk reduction comes from remaining active and current”

    Nope, I’ve never believed that for an instant.
    Lowering risk in one area can actually raise risk in other areas.
    The more you fly, the more exposed you are to bird strikes, engine failures, brake locks/leaks, mid-airs, off airport precautionary landings, etc. There are plenty of accidents with an instructor in the right seat.

    Think of it in the same way as riding a motorcycle every day in traffic; skill only goes so far when everything out there is still trying to get you.

    • A valid point, but being practiced and current definitely reduces the chance of compounding the situation if something does happen. Since all bad outcomes are a result of a series of events, being practiced in ADM and confident in your skills will greatly increase the chances of turning a random event (bird strike, locked brake, and so on) into just another learning experience.

      • Funny – I just posted on our local airport blog that the wintering Canada Geese are back. (I swear they use our windsock as a waypoint to the adjacent fields where they overwinter). That and a note that the deer activity is up. As I posted, I wondered who would read it. For those of us who fly through the winter – it’s not really news. Was I wasting my time?

        But if it keys you just a “hair” to deal with them when climbing out – when I usually meet them and play “see and avoid” – was it a good post? Perhaps.

        And for the student pilots and the newcomers in the tie downs – it IS news. So maybe it does some good.

      • Point being is that statistics is not causal. Getting a bird in the canopy or a dead engine on climbout is a real possibility on EVERY flight regardless of statistics. The more you fly, the more you are exposed to bad things. During such an accident, you may have some input, maybe not.

        When presented with “maybe not” with a dead engine on climbout, the inevitable is bad eaither way. That’s when we still see even the very best trained pilots with high time in type try just about anything.

    • Flying is inherently risky and it is obvious that the more we engage in a risky activity, more likely we are to have an incident or accident. I can reduce the probability of having a bad day in aviation to zero (or nearly so) only by not flying at all. This is a “Well duh…” situation.

      Paul is absolutely correct here. Although we can never remove the risk from this activity we love, we can mitigate those risks through currency and proficiency. If we choose to fly, the more skill we have in recognizing and properly reacting to situations which require more precise and accurate handling of the controls, the more safe we will be.

      My advice to you would be to simply stay home. Me? There is a cross wind forecast this afternoon and I’m going to go out and do my best to land on the center line, aligned, and with no drift. You never know when that might be important… and I definitely need the practice.

    • “The more you fly, the more exposed you are to bird strikes, …”

      Yes, your risk exposure increases, but if the flight is done with purpose, it also leads to risk mitigation. I definitely have observed that on average, the pilots who fly more frequently and/or with purpose (i.e. additional training/proficiency with a knowledgeable instructor) have sharper skills and greater SA than those who fly infrequently. So while their risk exposure might be higher, their skillset to lower the severity of any actual abnormal situation is greater, so their overall risk of injury is much lower. Of course, the only way to truly eliminate all of the risk is to not do the thing, but at that point we’re not talking about risk reduction, we’re talking about risk avoidance.

    • The number of stall/spin crashes due to mishandling engine-out procedures in a twin would seem to argue that less practice equals more risk. One thing I’ve never seen is an attempt to measure the rigor of instruction. I went through a flight school with very high expectations, and in recurrent training have insisted that my instructors make me sweat; I believe those high expectations had a positive impact on my confidence and personal standards, and made me a safer pilot. My first cross-country after getting my instrument ticket included 2 1/2 hours in IMC (in a 172 with a standard six-pack and dual nav coms), which I only undertook because I felt well prepared. I’ve had way too many conversations with pilots, especially those with just a private rating, where it seems the tone of their instruction was to expect just enough to get by.

      With the proliferation of flight simulators today, I think insurance companies could play a large role in improving safety by discounting their rates for frequent recurrent training, especially for instrument and twin engine-out practice. It would need to be frequent to do any good.

    • “if a person really wants to be a pilot, accident reporting won’t change anything for those who are truly committed.”

      That may be true, but GA isn’t served by having only the most dedicated pilots participating in it, if for no other reason than GA simply won’t survive with only those pilots.

      • Gary,
        Considering the costs, training, upkeep, regulations, AD’s, maintenance, airspace restrictions, security, and currency, only the truly committed stick to flying. The rest drop out and take up cheaper fun like boats or motorcycles.

        You have to be crazy to be a pilot and insane to actually own a plane. ‘-)

          • “You have to be crazy to be a pilot and insane to actually own a plane. ‘-)”

            Crazy? I’ll give you crazy. Starting with: more Californians, Floridians, and Texans own private aircraft than residents in the other 47 states. The three are also the most active states for general aviation.
            -Mr. Google

  2. The aviation press might take a collective decision to ignore accidents, but you can be sure that what is left of local press will continue to give them space, and if there is a TV crew in the area they will point their cameras at the wreckage.
    That is just the tip of the modern iceberg — you pretty much have to be over 50 years old now to watch the TV or read a newspaper.
    Out in the Insta, Tik and YT world, driven by algorithms, the crash will be in all its blurry, mobile phone held the wrong way glory — along with every other one ever put up there, ready to jump off the screen into the little brains of users for a long time.
    Then they will be offered airline travel discounts…

  3. It seems overlooked that there is a secondary audience for some of this reporting. I used to leave copies of AOPA Pilot laying around until I read them. One day, my wife of that time decided she should know something about aviation since she sat in the right seat. Well, after reading only two or three of the “Never Again” columns, she was firmly convinced that I was endangering everyone involved by flying. She never really changed her view on that. We’re divorced now, and I still feel that we lost out on a lot of good trips (I had an Aerostar) due to a fear she didn’t have before reading a few columns. BTW, I stopped reading “Never Again”, as too many involved what I viewed as rookie mistakes or outright negligence.

  4. I learned to fly before the turn of the century. In my first year as a private pilot I subscribed to the Aviation Safety newsletter, it arrived every month and was pre-punched with holes to place in a three ring binder. Two years later I traded my Aviation Safety subscription for IFR Magazine, another excellent publication. I read them religiously, I learned a great deal from them. In fact, I shared them with my young bride who appreciated the learnings, and developed a set of expectations for me to live and fly by.

    One time, on a cross country from Hamilton, OH to Land-Between-The-Lakes, KY she woke up mid flight to find me reading a copy of AOPA Pilot magazine. She admonished me, saying I should be paying closer attention to monitoring my engine instruments, identifying potential landing sites and estimating glide distances from the chart. Because those were things you did to increase your chances of survival from an engine failure.

    Learning from accidents is learning from mistakes, and we know if one didn’t make any mistakes, look one cannot expand their body of knowledge. I share the occasional accident report with my students to demonstrate the value of some of the training lessons I provide. I’m happy to say my students consume accident reports on a healthy basis because they realize the value and appreciate the reminder that while flying has its risks, they can be mitigated. You can ask my last Private Pilot student. Two months after passing his checkride he executed sound ADM and landed his airplane with his bride of 40 years onboard, in a soybean field after the engine started to vibrate violently. He did so without a scratch to persons or machine.

    Keep the stories coming Paul. You know there’s some pilot out there who is going to be pressured to fly his family home in GA plane during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend and might not be successful in 1000 ft ceilings with temps in the mid 30s. But if God forbid, that accident does happen, it might prevent a dozen similar ones from happening in the future.

  5. There is a dichotomy between actual risk and perceived risk. If someone believes they can control the risk, the risk is perceived as less. As a risk becomes more familiar, we perceive the risk as less. One of the riskiest things we can do is drive a car but we perceive the risk as minimal as we are in control. One of the safest places on the planet is a jet airliner with two engines and two ATPs at the controls but perceived risk is exponentially higher because we aren’t in control. A pilot flying a general aviation aircraft perceives the risk less as they are in control. A non pilot perceives general aviation far far more risky than statistics would validate. Generally when risk is made familiar or when a person feels in control, the perceived risk will always be perceived as less than the actual risk. Reporting accidents to pilots the risk becomes familiar, pilots are in control and the perceived risk is minimized. Non-pilots who see aviation accidents just come out of the blue (pun intended) and aren’t in control perceive risk much higher than actual risk.

  6. I can think of no other personal transportation system in which the individual is required to take intense and continual training as with GA. I’m starting to learn to be a CFI and I’m amazed at the breadth and detail that I need to learn to teach.

    Maybe if the automotive community was required to take even one-quarter of the training we do, the accident rate on the roads would plummet. For example, we need a sign-off to fly anything over 200 HP while any boob with good credit can buy and drive a 600 HP monster on city streets. And yet, fatal accidents in cars only merit mention on the local news when they snarl up traffic. One poor guy who slides off the runway with a blown tire makes the national news cycle for days. So if the automotive community doesn’t benefit from reporting every little ding and dent, then the flying community shouldn’t be similarly burdened.

    I do think this keeps people from flying, whether it’s a personal decision, or spousally-induced. So maybe trying to tone-down the coverage might be good for everybody. I doubt that you’ll convince Lest Holt, though. He needs something to lead with every night. After all, they paid for all that dramatic music…

  7. I am within a couple of hours away from my check ride. Since I soloed, I have done an off-airport landing due to engine out at 800 feet while practicing ground reference maneuvers. I have arrested a near stall on take-off. Both incidents would have been fatal if my training were not up to par. I am training with an independent CFI but our training aircraft are aging and so is the entire GA fleet. Those who can’t afford modern aircraft are flying dinosaurs. A new Cessna 172 is approaching a half a million dollars. Air frames are not being produced in sufficient volume to automate production. They are essentially hand-built. The engines are still being manufactured with 1940’s technology. Both the training and the entire fleet is 1940’s technology.

    If we are going to get ahead of the accident curve, we need to rethink our training process. Why do we practice maneuvers instead of practicing scenarios like the airlines do?

    • Robert B,

      80-ish% of accidents are still pilot error. If the age of the fleet was a causal factor in accidents, the accident would be rising over the decades as the fleet ages, when in fact the opposite is true.

      Re: engines. Here’s Paul B’s excellent AvWeb piece on Why New Engine Ideas Rarely Succeed: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_k1TQGK3mZI

      As a retired Air Force pilot and current airline pilot, I can tell you we practice BOTH maneuvers AND scenarios. In the single pilot GA world, I would argue the emphasis SHOULD be on maneuvers, as that is what the accident data suggests needs improvement. The reason scenario training is conducted in multi-crew, transport category aircraft is that the systems are much more complex, the environment more dynamic and challenging, and crew resource management must be trained/practiced. This type of scenario training requires expensive, full motion simulators and is not practical for GA. What types of scenarios are you suggesting GA practice?

      • List of scenarios:
        1. Engine out on takeoff. Both single engine and twin engine pilots would benefit.
        2. Rejected takeoff. Avoiding #1 by prevention.
        3. In Flight Loss of Vacuum. Loss of AHRS in flight.
        4. Flight into IMC conditions. I think I’ve only been trained in this procedure once.
        5. Speed awareness. Icing.
        These are but a few. The FAA has an AQP training program for commercial pilots but this type of training for GA is largely ignored.
        5. Go arounds.

        • I think that’s a good list. I know the simulators most GA pilots would be able to afford would have no motion simulation whatsoever, but I firmly believe there’s a lot of value in using those sims to practice the things that are just too risky/stupid to do “for real”, especially if we can get good visuals that allow the “suspension of disbelief”.

          We tell pilots all the time to “fly the airplane all the way to the ground” in a forced landing–but how many of us truly practice engine-out landings? How many of us really cut the power at 300ft on takeoff and land the airplane from there? I’m not talking putting the engine to idle in the vicinity of an airport and landing on the runway, or making a practice approach to some field and aborting at a couple hundred AGL. I mean, kill the engine and actually land in that random farmer’s field without stalling, while the whole time the monkey brain is screaming “pull up so you don’t hit the ground!!” We TELL people to do one thing in an emergency, but we never really truly DO those last critical bits of those emergency procedures (except in a real emergency!), and we reinforce over and over and over again “land smooth on the runway” with hundreds of regular landings.

          Simulators have a good bit of value in “regular” instruction, too, for teaching certain concepts and procedures far more cheaply than burning gas and airframe time to do them, even if they never never count “for credit”.

        • Good list, but I’d classify go-arounds and rejected takeoffs as maneuvers. And if you stay out of the clouds, icing is not an issue.

          Re: the other scenarios, you are right, they SHOULD be covered by your instructor/s. If not, remember YOU are in charge of your training; if you aren’t getting what you needs (and it sounds like you know enough to “know what you don’t know”), it’s up to you request the training (or change instructors.)

          The scenarios I was referring to that we practice in the 777 simulator are multi-faceted, complex scenarios with multiple possible outcomes and depend on good CRM. For instance, the engine anti-ice valve on the left engine is failed. You are at cruise above the clouds and now the center hydraulic system fails. There is a short (but legal) runway below you, but you have to descend thru the ice to get there, or fly further away to a longer runway in VMC with just the two remaining hydraulic systems, but the crosswinds are at the limit (38 knots) and fuel will be an issue…

  8. Paul,

    Great article, as usual. I used to read the NTSB accident reports for all the airplanes I’d been flying or teaching in. I stopped doing that years ago, quite unconsciously, because I wasn’t getting anything out of them. Now YouTube has new players doing amateur accident analysis, and I’ve admittedly been drawn in occasionally. It’s time to go flying and turn it all off.

    Fly safe! Frank

  9. As I sit in the kitchen, next to the field edge, with a traffic light the other side of the hedge – there are at least two fender benders a week at that light – and that is just the morning commute while I have breakfast. About one a month gets more serious and ambulances get involved. NONE make the traditional news – TV, Radio, Print. Though sometimes the local neighborhood “live” blog might mention backed up traffic and a need to seek another route.

    As I sit watching the evening “local” news on the east coast – it enrages me to see a “walk away” runway excursion on the west coast touted as “news”. Especially as the plane “plummeted” and the pilot’s survival was a “miracle”. But there is a cash strapped, syndicated TV station picking up on cheap content for ad revenue. Bit like your admitted click bating us with accident stories.

    Leading to the airport neighbors – who would have us shut down – start screaming how dangerous flying is. I point out the fender benders at the light by the field and it doesn’t seem the same to them – because the TV said the plane “plummeted” (could be their house).

    Now the 6 car pileup and fire with fatalities, on the bridge to the island that closed commerce for a few hours – that is probably news.

    Which is a long-winded way of saying. Don’t report the “noise” but do report the “exceptions”. Sorry – that means you will need to exercise editorial judgement. But you are pilots – you are good at ADM. Should transfer to journalism! 🙂

  10. As someone (outside the US) who learned to fly in the second half (just) of the 20th Century and who worked as an ATC for 30 years, I have been reading accident reports for a LONG time.

    I think it is your job in this venue to winnow the wheat from the chaff. If any of your readers is an ‘ambulance chaser’ and you don’t report it, they will find the reports elsewhere.

    Did I mention that I also worked in freelance aviation journalism? To sell a story you write for the specific readership of the magazine you pitch it to; you must know that.

    Assuming that, you know your readership. YOU look at the story and decide what the lesson is in the specific accident and decide whether it is of value to your readership and publish or not. It’s that simple – in my opinion.

    In my own case I learned long before the term CFIT became popular that the biggest killer in VFR GA was the pressure to complete the flight in its many names – ‘press on-itus’, “get home-itus’, “I’ll just go a bit further and have a look” etc.

    I briefed VFR pilots on enroute weather but they always wanted to “have a look”. Some died. I finally stopped detail briefing and said simply, “The forecast is Non-VMC; don’t go.” Some went anyway.

    The first time I struck weather I did not like the look of (in a VFR-only-equipped C-152 on the return from a weekend trip away with another VFR pilot) I did a 180 and landed at an airfield in the clear, called the Tower where I was rostered that evening and suggested they find a replacement. The aircraft sat there for some weeks as the WX persisted. I came home by train.

    This is just one of the things I learned from reading accident reports and one of the reasons I am still here at 74; there are plenty of reasons why I shouldn’t be, outside of flying, including a year in Vietnam. Bob.

  11. I feel that on their own, accident reports have minimal useful value, and in some cases may even have a negative value (“that pilot was just an idot; I would NEVER do something like that”). And the accident reports that end with “the pilot’s inability to maintain control” are particularly unhelpful, because it can leave the impression that only Bob Hoover or the like are truly the only qualified pilots flying.

    Without the “why” of someone losing control (for instance), all it is is another statistic. Was it because they were distracted that day by family issues, or maybe didn’t sleep well that night, or maybe they just didn’t make a bathroom break before the flight? Or was it truly because they lacked training or currency in one particular aspect of flying?

    I feel a more useful use of accident reports is in the context of flight training or a flight review, and using it as a discussion point of self-reflection and “what would YOU have done at point A, point B, etc”. Hypothetical scenarios work too, but when used judiciously, accident reports can help to add a personal connection because a real pilot experienced it.

  12. The first ever perfect flight would be newsworthy.

    Mishap coverage is educational for the aspiring/new pilot and a reminder to the rest of us that no one took off on these flights intending to do harm, but then did…mature ADM and distraction management are requirements for every flight.

    For those implying more flying is more dangerous, I agree, in your case please stay on the ground and invest in a simulator or hang up your spurs. Even if you think proficiency exposes you to more risk, it reduces the risk for your occasional passengers, you at least owe it to them.

    Educating significant others on risk management decisions (get-there-itis) helps make them a positive contribution in marginal situation “go/no go” decisions…just go easy on their mishap reporting exposure.

    • Great opening comment Rich – ahhh, the prefect flight, my definition – a flight when everything went perfectly, no mistakes, not even asking a controller to repeat a frequency. I’ve been flying for 42 years, still haven’t had one (came close a few times). But you know what, I keep trying.

      I think (maybe I’m delusional) that “trying” makes me a better pilot. It also makes me more rational in my flight planning and decision whether to go or stay on the ground.

      Sure there are things I can’t control, three engine failures, electrical fire in the cockpit, broken throttle cable (stuck at cruise power) gear failure etc., but I’ve learned from every icing encounter, and every accident report. The learning all goes to trying for that perfect flight.

  13. Paul, thanks for an informative article. I have a comment on risk. You wrote, “but under five chances in 100,000 [hours] is an exceedingly low risk.” Well, it maybe low, but I am not sure about exceedingly low (and, no, I’m not trying to split hairs here).

    If you fly 100 hours per year, then your risk of a crash is 5 per 1000 (or one in 200) per year. Fly ten years at that annual rate and it’s one in 20. Not looking so exceeding low anymore.

    Don’t get me wrong, I fly at least 100 hours per year, most if it in a homebuilt. I’ve been riding motorcycles for over 40 years. Knock-on-wood, I’m still here to write this comment. Regardless, whether the risk of flying is “high” or the risk of flying is “low” all depends on what one’s personal threshold is for risk.

    Finally, and as you noted, the actual risk experienced by any particular pilot is substantially (but maybe not completely) under her/his control. That is a big part of what I like about airplanes and motorcycles.

  14. I report on accidents in the type in which I specialize specifically to identify trends and orient training programs to address the greatest threats. I make something of a career of writing about accidents in Aviation Safety and elsewhere. I try to balance the reports with with good news–for example, I recently made a presentation on engine failure accidents in Beech Bonanzas and Debonairs in the decade 2011-2020 (with an NTSB Member in the back of the room). I emphasized the things pilots can do to prevent engine failures and to respond if a failure does occur. But stressed also that in a fleet with a conservatively estimated 750,000 flying hours in that decade there were only 159 NTSB reports citing power loss in these types of airplanes. On average you can fly 4716 hours before experiencing power loss in flight, and over 1/3 of those are directly attributable to fuel management. So keep the fuel flowing and that’s an average 7500 flying hours between engine failure events–more time than most non-career track pilots will ever fly. NTSB does not investigate all engine failures, but it does most. This is also part of the risk management equation, and that’s how I use accident reporting.

    That said, I have presented in a NTSB forum including most of the Members themselves saying there Congressional mandate to investigate *every single* reportable aircraft mishap is a waste of time and money because we have enough data to tell us where the risks are. We need to turn these data into changes in instructional topics and methods. The flip side is that is they do no investigate all the crashes they won’t identify new trends if and when they emerge.

    As for reporting in the popular media (and in our niche, AVWeb is extremely popular), I’m with you–if there is something notable about a specific event (notable perhaps being that it has received a lot of non-aviation press) then you probably ought to report it. If nothing else it balances all the reports of successes to remind readers that the is great risk in flying, and it’s up to us to prevent what we can and prepare for dealing with scenarios we cannot prevent.

    Keep walking that fine line, Paul.

  15. One mechanical way to reduce risk of personal injury in single and twin reciprocating engine powered craft, which are the majority of GA flown for pleasure and some business, is the whole airframe ballistic parachute and individual occupant airbag. The former, if used when needed typically prevents death, the latter automatically prevents head and torso injury from frontal impact…moreso than four and five point shoulder harnesses. And, as Paul as mentioned, the use of a helmet also will reduce injury. Personally, I’d go with the ballistic chute and airbag, setting personal minimums and sticking with them, and realizing that if I absolutely must be “there” on a schedule, to either drive or fly commercially. Small price to pay for preventing life long injury and/or death.

  16. Paul, I think there is incredible learning to be had from reading about a crash, but only if there is an investigation and a report on the causes leading to the crash. The report makes us wiser and can be quite startling when you pick up some process or flight activity you that do that is similar to that of the crash victim.

    Learning about a crash the day after, without a conclusion, offers no usable information/learning, as evidence by the comments that follow each story – each with a theory as to why it happened. That’s a waste of time.

  17. I going with the ‘Bigger Picture View’; Report ‘EVERY Accident’ and let the ‘Clicks’ decide. Digital ink is cheap.

    The Three Things that make Aviation Safer: Money, Money and Technology. If we never reported that planes got lost there wouldn’t be a GPS satellite network. If not reporting that some situations are just not survivable we wouldn’t have airframe parachutes. Reporting on failed vacuum systems brought us the EFIS with battery back-up. AOAs, because it was reported that stall warning indicators aren’t good enough at stall prevention. You can go on and on with life saving technologies but without awareness and statistics no one will invest ‘The Money 💸’ to solve the most common problems. Awareness through those reports then justifies you and I spending ‘The Money 💸’ to make a Safer Aircraft and Flying Experience.

    Report accidents no matter how small or inconsequential even if only statistically. No sacrifice monetary and/or life should be made in vein. It may only be a statistic that’s reported but, someday that number will justify investing in a preventative solution.

  18. One of the big challenges is our ability to accurately assess risk. Sensational videos help skew perceived risk and IMO don’t accurately reflect the actual risks on any given typical flight.

    I think they also foster either a “ I will never be that dumb” attitude or “something terrible that I can’t predict or recover from could happen on every flight” fatalism. Both ideations are not particularly helpful.

    That being said I think there can be value in videos especially for examples of systems failures. Having already seen the developing symptoms of a particular failure may help pilots recognize it when it happens to them.

    Finally I think accident videos should be treated like any other media. Consider the source, the motivation of the author/presenter and treat it as a data point, not the last and only answer.

  19. After 16,000 plus light airplane and airline, I hit severe turbulence in an old Bonanza. That, and flying over the Los Angeles basin from northwest to KCRQ (all those structures and no good place to land in the event of an engine failure), I decided the fun was gone.

    • Yep, similar mindset. A bit over 25,000 hours, 425 carrier landings, a love of the freedom while flying light aircraft, and I’ve had enough. The risk and expense and the hassle aren’t worth it anymore. I’ve put enormous effort into doing it right, have never gotten a “down” in military training, never failed a checkride or line check, and it’s time to quit while I can look back at a satisfying career without regret.

      There really isn’t anything “new” that I’m going to experience or see in the air in my remaining lifetime. I am enjoying lovely endeavors where I am not bothered, there are few accidents, and the return on investment is far greater.

  20. “For pilots who have been in the game for a while, I see limited benefit in accident reports…”. IMO, this wonderful world of aviation is not so wonderful at times. “There but for the grace of God go I”. We, high or low timers, sometimes get sloppy or encounter situations through no fault of our own. Factual accident reports can be beneficial waker-uppers.

  21. Well, I got my license in the early 1990s and have owned airplanes since the mid-90s. Flying was perceived as dangerous then too, but that didn’t stop me. I was a kid of the 1960s with astronauts and Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”. I wanted to be an astronaut/pilot. When I was finally able to afford it, I got my license. I have always reviewed accident reports as part of my “practice” to stay current, learn things, and not become complacent. Over the years it’s become clear, as the Led Zeppelin put it, the song remains the same. People become complacent, make mistakes, or are just very unlucky. There are a few yahoos (e.g., a recent accident in Watsonville), but mostly accidents are avoidable with some mindfulness, common sense, and professionalism.

    With respect to internet story saturation, and “new” pilot fears, I think it’s just the latest 21st century fad. Recall that before GPS finding the destination airport could be an adventure. When I was a student my CFI would hit me with a rolled-up chart if I was looking at the gauges too much. With all the new flight simulators and gadgets I image that problem has only gotten worse.

    The upshot is, if you really have a burning desire to fly, nothing will stop you. If anything, cost is probably the biggest roadblock for most folks as it was for me.

    BTW, thanks for the great articles.

    • If the goal is to stave off complacency and learn something new, I find the NASA ASRS “Callback” newsletter far more useful for than than reading a random GA accident report. We all know about the NASA ASRS system for reporting non-accidents as a “get out of jail free” card, but I find very few of us actually take advantage of the flip side of it by reading the actual reports pilots submit, which is what “Callback” does.

      So I say in general, forget the accident reports and go to the ASRS reports instead.

  22. Paul

    Thanks for posting. I look at my aviation life as a journey. In 2010 a guy with 20k+ hours augered his plane in. I looked up to this god and when he died I quit for about a year.

    I went to an AZ flight training school and within 4 months we had five fatalities in that time. The first ever for that school which had two campuses in the US at that time. I almost quit then.

    I’d been flying since until about a year ago when I started reading all the Kathryn’s and Blancolirio stuff and some AvWeb. The one accident that really had me wigged out is the one recently where a guy came screaming in and mowed over a student and instructor who were doing everything right in the pattern. No radio calls just a straight in at a ridiculous speed. No matter how careful those pilots were it didn’t matter…Constantly seeing these accident reports has kept me out of it temporarily. But renewing my FIRC this month rekindled it.

    I listen to McSpaddens podcast and I see them as valuable: the tagline is something akin to “learning how pilots flew out of those situations”. That is both positive and empowering. He does a great job of breaking it down and you always learn something new. Or something gets reinforced. For example just declare an emergency already if you need any sort of help. And partial power is not necessarily a good thing.

    I would say that to make any decision re flying you just need to admit that there is risk and reward with it. You decide if the trade off is worth it for you.

  23. I was commenting to my non-pilot wife about this article and it reminded her of the effect of missing children photos on milk cartons. They were good in raising awareness but had the unintended consequence of freaking parents out into thinking their child was at a very high risk of being kidnapped in spite of the very low probability of such occurrence. This is very similar.

  24. Einstein said that “Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results” is the definition of insanity.

    IF, indeed, the “looky-loos” that dote upon the schadenfreude of reading about the accidents of others REALLY turned into the “learning experience” they profess to experience, there would BE A LARGE DECLINE in the number of accidents.

    Despite claims to the contrary, the reality is that pilots keep making the same old mistakes over and over–Dating all the way back to September 17, 1908–when Orville Wright crashed and killed Lt. Selfridge in the first fatal airplane crash.

    Aircraft have been crashing for all this time–and most of the causes have been repeated time and time again. So much for the “learning experience.”

  25. Paul it is your magazine…print what you want.

    The race of some to self ingratiate themselves with “early analysis” is fraught with misinformation that can be damaging at all levels. This week’s King Air accident at KPKB is no exception. The you-tube video I saw was pure garbage. Garbage! It would be better for these people post something factual and helpful after the investigation is complete. AOPA has produced many after-the fact videos, with facts, that are very helpful training tools.

    We continue to make the same mistakes in aircraft. The common link to these mistakes is human factors. What would be most helpful, and is missing from all final reports, is a professional analysis of why a given pilot made a bad decision or a series of bad decisions. For example why did the pilot of a King Air decide to fly, and continue to fly, an un-stabilized instrument approach at KPKB. All of us have been there. None of us are exempt from making a bad decision. Avoiding bad decisions is the key to safer flying…..and hence the key to less self promoting you tube videos.

    The FAA has a person with a PHD in aircraft accident human factors. I have listened to her talk and she is fascinating. For accident prevention this is what we need to be listening to, not some know-nothing you tube video.

    God bless.

  26. It is oft said that no one has invented a new way to have an accident. Spent 40 years putting bread on the table through sitting in seat 0A and now 18 years retired and still an avid reader reader of the reports. Thing to remember is that there is a new crop of aviators continually graduating yet to learn the pitfalls that lurk, they have yet to fill the bag of experience without emptying the bag of luck. The saying “learn from the mistakes of others because you won’t live long enough to make them all yourself” is a truism, but I found during my career the trouble was remembering all those lessons. The hard drive between the ears only has so much space. Keep publishing Paul.

  27. Aviation Accident Reporting is sort of a Man Bites Dog means for news outlets to spark interest in their papers, online channels, television news stations (If it bleeds, it leads. And they’re always quick to flash their “BREAKING NEWS” logos to pique our curiosity.) and radio channels. The more catastrophic the crash, the more time these ‘journalists’ will spend on the tragedy, with updates, “Expert” analysis and friends/family members/eyewitnesses relating their stories and videos. That’s their business. What should concern us pilots and accident studying types entails the amount of time it takes to determine what caused the crash, and whether the FAA will get involved with EADs, Bulletins and regulatory changes–even grounding the fleet of aircraft types that crashed. I don’t see sensationalizing these tragedies as being needed, but the aviation community needs to be apprised of what they’ll be subjected to in the wake of a major mishap.

  28. One facet of aviation accident reporting is the detection of trends. Recently, aircraft have crashed during approaches in IMC, or while enroute in weather. Since the NTSB will keep their causal cards close to their vest during their investigations, we won’t get an official evaluation on those mishaps. However, the trend is that weather is getting wintry, with cloud bases coming down to approach minimums. As the videos of these tragedies show, the planes departed controlled flight, and descended vertically to the ground. Communications with the pilots usually were routine, though a couple of crashes did include distress calls. It may be a trend I’ve noticed, and studied for quite a while: Pilots aren’t proficient, because they’re not flying their planes. Once they pickle the computer couplings, they can’t keep the bird upright in IMC (Sometimes in VMC!) The FAA f-i-n-a-l-l-y recognized said trend, and they’re trying to coax pilots to at least train for manual flights in all regimes. Let’s hope that trend will have an effect on aviation safety.

  29. I read them hoping to learn from the mistakes on others rather than my own. For most of my life I rode dirt bikes. For years I heard fellow riders opine that they know the risks and accept them. Until they had a bad crash. Then, some of them came back and some didn’t. That’s when you could separate the ones who actually accepted the risks. I was in a plane crash that nearly killed me. I have another plane now.