Unicom

August 1999 Issue




By Air and By Land

Comparing airplane safety to automobiles is sobering, but is it valid?

This letter is in response to Milovan Brenlove’s thought-provoking article on general aviation safety [Reality Check, June]. There is a fine line between disseminating information on the mistakes of others with the goal of improving aviation safety and keeping a pilot alive by scaring him or her out of the sky. I believe that with this article, that line may have been crossed.

Where the article failed was not in pointing out that general aviation is riskier than automobile travel – it clearly is – but rather for neglecting to point out more reasons why it is, and what can be done about it. In Avram Goldstein’s book entitled “Flying Out of Danger,” he performs a similar comparison of aviation to automobile safety statistics, with results very similar to what was published in your article.

However, he raises a caveat that you did not: “Driving an automobile, you are completely at the mercy of other drivers. No matter how good a driver you are, no matter how cautious or skillful, the idiot who crosses lanes or runs a stoplight can end your existence. In flying, ... accidents are your own responsibility. If you don’t do the things that lead to accidents, your chance of an accident will be much lower than the statistical average.”

Then again, this entire letter may be just another attempt at rationalizing the risk away. I’ll let you decide.

-Douglas Fink
Scranton, Pa.


The points you bring up are certainly valid, and Brenlove touched on several of them in his article. While it’s true that some of the primary causes of accidents are what most would consider stupid mistakes – running out of gas and flying VFR into IMC – the fact remains that only by being aware of the risks can we take steps to minimize them.

Risk can be managed, and your “rationalizations” are part of that management. We believe that the steps pilots take to understand the dynamics of flying all contribute to enhancing safety, or else we wouldn’t be here.

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We’re Just Not Flying Enough
Comparing accident statistics between cars and planes just shows us that the private pilot does not fly enough to be safe. This, of course, could have some repercussions on the FARs, but who dares to argue that we need more restrictions or tighter regulations on the experience required to fly as a private pilot?

Accidents generally are not the result of someone lacking the ability to control the airplane, they come from the pilot’s inability to face unexpected circumstances in a very complex flying world and that is the point.

I asked somebody how many hours I will need to be a safe pilot. He answered that to fly during a sunny day without wind probably 20 hours would be enough, but to fly above the north pole in a snowstorm, 2,000 hours will be a little short.

-Daniel Audigier
Via e-mail

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Two Kinds of Pilots; One is Safe
I read Mr. Brenlove’s piece on accident statistics with special interest since the application of valid statistical analyses is a field dear to my heart. While the reported 2.54 per 100,000 hours accident rate is certainly a sobering benchmark, and can indeed be legitimately compared to similar benchmarks of automotive safety, it is also, unfortunately, statistically meaningless. It represents the average of a bimodal distribution.

As far as I can tell, most “accidents” have one thing in common: improper and unsafe pilot attitude. The obvious questions, then, are 1) what is the accident rate among pilots with proper attitudes; and 2) how does this differ from that of pilots with improper attitudes?

In addition to Mr. Brenlove’s sobering global average, I’d like to know just how safe flying can be, when it’s done right – and just how unsafe it really is when it’s done wrong.

-Jim Kemp
Madison, N.J.

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Time-Honored Wisdom
I just finished reading Mr. Brenlove’s excellent article [Reality Check, June] as well as your accident analysis [Accident Probe, June] and I thought I would impart a quote from my first flight instructor.

I started taking lessons from him way back in 1951. His advice to me was, “Very soon you will be able to get your license. If at any time you walk out to this or any other airplane, and you think that nothing can possibly go wrong, I want you to turn around, walk away and tear up your license.”

My flying career as a pilot spanned 20-some years in the Air Force and several thousand hours, but I will never forget those words. His name was Arnold Elser and his airport is now Youngstown Elser in Ohio.

-Paul V. Helsel
Rancho Cordova, Calif.

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A Speck of Correction
In his excellent article “The Eyes Have It,” [Airmanship, June] Paul Berge stated “Watch for the speck that moves. If it grows bigger, you have traffic at 12 o’clock, converging.” This statement is misleading on two counts.

The way to recognize a collision course is that the contact will have a constant bearing and a decreasing range. This assumes a constant course and speed of both yourself and your contact, the most common situation. Therefore, you should really be looking for the speck that doesn’t move. On the other hand, if the contact is moving, you probably will not hit it, but it will pass in the direction it is moving.

In addition, colliding aircraft and ships can and do come from any bearing, not just 12 o’clock.

-Timothy J. Quill
Hanover, N.H.


The only flaw we see in your comments is that the speck that doesn’t move also might be something you already hit – especially if you haven’t cleaned the windshield in a while.

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Left, Left, Left-Right-Left
I think I have a partial answer to the problem discussed by John Lowery [Risk Management, June]. Consider the dyslexic person. I am one. I fathered two dyslexic sons and have one dyslexic grandson so I am very familiar with the problem.

Not all dyslexics have the same disabilities, but generally they are left/right confused. My copilot wife is always alert to correct me when I am told to turn left and I start to turn right. I have been flying since 1958 and have logged more than 3,000 hours from Alaska to South America.

I know my limitations. I chose a Cessna 337 so that I could avoid the single-engine operations problem. Over the years I have had to shut down an engine five times, but it’s been no big deal. Research shows dyslexics have a problem in how the brain handles information. The problem can be both visual and auditory. If you have both you are really in trouble. Of course this also gives trouble to pilots in situations where memory comes in to play.

Incidentally, it has nothing to do with intelligence, some of us are very bright – Thomas Edison, for instance. I do agree that more study should be done on this matter.

-Frank Thomas
Taos, N.M.

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Tone It Down, Already
I have been a subscriber to Aviation Safety for over 10 years and I find one change in the publication very disturbing – the inclusion of crash photographs in accident descriptions. I fail to see how accident photos augment the message I understand you are trying to transmit.

Understand that this publication shows up in our household and others in the household read it. Most pilots have a safety attitude focused on risk management, or they wouldn’t fly at all.

By contrast, many people who do not covet the left seat avoid it because they are risk-averse. Unless it’s your intent to empty my cockpit of family members (even if we fly safely and practice everything taught in your publication), I suggest you leave sensational photographs to the tabloid publications, especially with their sensational captions such as “On average, general aviation flying is about 10 times more dangerous than making the same trip by automobile.”

What’s next? Decapitated corpses? Yoke shafts penetrating bleeding chests? Blood spatters from folks who walked into a propeller? Or the tabloid favorite: the child’s teddy bear in the rubble?

Focus on the objective, please. How to fly smart and avoid accidents. The publication was just as effective before you put in these pictures.

-Charles C. Evans
Via e-mail


Accidents are a fact of life, but sometimes it helps to be reminded just what the cost might be for neglecting diligence. We think accident scene photos help underscore the seriousness of what we’re doing every time we take off, but we have not – and will not – publish any photo we think is sensational, lurid or gory. And if you think the caption you cite is tabloid material, you haven’t browsed the weeklies in the supermarket line in a while.

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Heart-Stopping Misinformation
I read Aviation Safety because I am not an aviation “professional” and I can best learn from the pros. But this can go both ways, and I frowned when I read in “Grounded in Reality” that “while there are now much more accurate means of predicting sudden heart attack, such as ultrafast computed tomography scanning (EBCT), the same old obsolete heart test is used.”

While much can be said to criticize the relatively crude EKG, there isn’t anything that’s clearly better for the purpose and is affordable for routine use.

Although there’s been a lot of hype regarding EBCT, I know of no good evidence that its predictive value is useful. In fact, a top medical journal recently published a large study that concluded the test is worthless for the prediction you discussed. Part of the hype regarding this technique is due to physicians making a lot of money recommending this test.

It would be unfortunate if many pilots requested and paid for this test based on your article.

-Drew Doorey
Via e-mail


Dr. Doorey, a cardiologist and professor of medicine at Thomas Jefferson University, is a member of the medical advisory boards of EAA and AOPA.

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Starving for Respect
You are probably being misunderstood more times than you care to think. People wonder why instructing is such a low paying job! You have just pointed out that, “some (instructors) won’t even make you buy their food.” [Editor’s Log, June]

I hate to be the one to fuss at you, but I have point out that this is the attitude that hurts many instructors livelihood. Too many people believe that instructors just “do it for fun.” Yes, they might be low-timers desperately trying to get time, but the service and information that good instructors can and do impart has great value.

Is paying someone more qualified than you not worth something? How much is wings level worth in the clouds?

Furthermore, many of the ones who just might “buy their own food” are the ones who are trying to make a career of it. Not necessarily instructing, but flying in general. So, here they are trying to get hours in the logbook, working in the restaurant at night, or pumping gas, and some “customer” has the nerve to ask them to fly for free.

This client is probably a company owner or a well-known magazine editor-in-chief (sorry) making many times what this instructor is making, but that is OK, he is “paying his dues” to break into aviation. When I finally realized the mistake I was making and the other pilots out there that I was hurting by flying for free, I quit my restaurant job and started charging professional prices for the professional services that my clients were hiring, I made almost $35,000 gross my first year. Stop encouraging our clients to offer time building without paying!

And for you pilots and instructors out there who will fly for free, please stop. You only hurt yourself and others out there trying to make a living. If I could only have a dollar for every time that I have gotten the wings level for a non-IFR rated client...

-Thomas Hill
Greenville, S.C.


Being asked to provide free services is a sore subject among many flight instructors, just as it is for doctors, lawyers and other professionals, which hopefully explains the leap you made between what we thought we said and what you thought we said. There’s a lot of ground between “you’re on your own for lunch” and saying you won’t pay someone for his time. For the record, our CFII of choice is a professional, not a time-builder, makes a solid living, and gets a check after every flight.