Editor's Log

January 2004 Issue

No Answers

FAA can’t measure the success of its efforts on safety without a reliable measure of flying

Like most pilots, I wish I had a nickel for each time I’ve been asked the question, “Is flying safe?” And it’s a little irritating to have only a couple of responses to offer.

Option 1: “It depends.” Yeah, that sounds wishy-washy enough. Put yourself in your passenger’s brain for a second. “If this guy can’t answer a simple question like that, why in the world should I think he’s got the smarts to pilot this airplane?”

Option 2: “Of course it is. It’s my butt up there too, you know, and I wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t safe.” OK, now the pilot sounds delusional. There are “always” reports of airplanes crashing. There’s fire and death and destruction. Safe my eye.

Option 3: “About as safe as riding a motorcycle.” Oh great, the pilot is either one of those kamikaze urban bikers who do wheelies away from stoplights or else he’s a Hell’s Angels wannabe. Pass, thank you.

Clearly none of these are acceptable to pilots who want to justify both their passion for flying and their common sense for accepting the risk involved. But the simple matter is that there’s no answer to that question.

But there could be. The FAA bureaucrats who seem to want to micromanage the lives of pilots almost down to boxers or briefs have neglected to provide the ammunition to answer the very questions about safety they presume to ask.

This is a little like asking Brett Favre to throw pass after pass yet never allowing him to see if the last one was complete.

Look at any of the statistics presuming to assess the safety of airplanes – ours included – and you will (or should) see a disclaimer that you’re getting ballpark figures because no one has yet figured out how to put a good number on the exposure pilots have to the various risks. So we guess.

The FAA distributes surveys to a sample of pilots occasionally that ask how much the pilots fly. Those responses are extrapolated to the pilot population as a whole. The trouble is, people don’t generally know, so they guess. And they usually guess high.

Ask your AME about the number of hours reported on medical applications. Some guys report 100 per year five biennia in a row, but their logbooks show 600 hours. Ask your mechanic how many owner-flown airplanes that come in for annual inspections haven’t racked up enough hours in the last year to need an oil change.

It’s time for the FAA to start keeping track of airplane usage. Have mechanics file the number of hours flown in the last 12 months after every annual inspection. Tabulate the results by model and type. Make it freely available to the public. Then we can start to get answers that make sense.

In the past we’ve been hesitant to encourage more FAA bureaucracy, but the bureaucracy is driven by the perception of safety, and right now that perception is less certain than an al-Qaeda confession.

-Ken Ibold