Four-Letter Words

Ignorance about accidents may be another link in the poor judgment chain


Go to the index of any publication devoted to flight training and try to find the word accident. Hint: Dont look between accelerated stall and adverse yaw, because you wont find it there.

This apparently dirty word is rarely used in any pilot training manual or handbook. If it does appear, it will usually be part of nebulous advice such as safety is no accident or a reference to the regulation that accidents must be reported promptly.

In fact, accident training is not required for student pilots and, for all practical purposes, none is provided. This is the primary reason why most pilots are not familiar with the circumstances and trends that comprise the general aviation accident record.

Most flight training has the specific goal of passing a check ride rather than creating a safe pilot, which is the only explanation for why students in training are virtually shielded from information about accidents. Because the FAA doesnt put them on the written or practical tests, the rationale must be, teaching them to candidates must be a waste of time and money.

Maybe new pilots will eventually absorb accident savvy through haphazard exposure. Maybe they will just pick it up during bravo-sierra sessions in the hangar. In any event, it is obvious that accident study is not considered an essential or desirable part of the training necessary to become a safe pilot. This is unfortunate, because it is not true that the most dangerous part of a light airplane flight is the drive to the airport.

It may be difficult to believe that a reasonably active pilot could be ignorant about accidents. Safety is preached everywhere. The FAA conducts or sponsors frequent meetings and seminars around the country. There are several groups providing excellent accident analyses and related safety publications. Many colleges and universities offer courses in aviation accident investigation. And, of course, when a celebrity is involved in a GA mishap, it is discussed in detail in every media format.

Why Do People Crash?
In spite of all the meetings, seminars, courses, publicity and media coverage, most pilots do not know the principal causes and contributory factors pertinent to aviation accidents. If you dont believe this, just ask any pilot to list the primary causes of general aviation fatalities, and the approximate percentage each contributes to the total. Its unlikely youll get an answer close to reality.

First, there is no requirement for accident knowledge in the FAA Practical Test Standards for any pilot certificate or rating. Teachers are aware that minimum requirements should not define an entire syllabus. However, full-time flight instructors are aware that most training programs are geared toward passing the written, oral and flight tests. This means that accident schooling is an unlikely option.

Second, there is a belief that any emphasis on accidents may frighten the public, and thus deter some from beginning or continuing flight training. But we should not accept the possibility of student pilot apprehension as a justification for ignorance. Knowledge of mishap reality should not cause fright. The thought of licensing an uneducated pilot ought to be much more frightening. And an untrained pilot has reason to be terrified of what he doesnt know.

Could one reason why the personal flying fatality rate doesnt change much from year to year be that those who are ignorant of the past are doomed to repeat it?

Although the subject is essentially ignored in pilot training, there is a considerable amount of accident information available. This fact should tell us that both the public and the industry regard this as a very important topic, yet it is omitted from training. During a nearly half-century career in general aviation – including experience as a ground instructor, FAA approved pilot school chief flight instructor, designated pilot examiner and FAA aviation safety inspector, I have never seen a syllabus that contained any material on accidents.

The FAA itself scrupulously avoids reference to the distasteful word. Each Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) has a Safety Program Manager assigned to conduct the FAA Aviation Safety Program. The program was once called the Accident Prevention Program and the inspectors job title was Accident Prevention Specialist. Expunging the word, however, doesnt change the reality of the job.

The Automobile Paradigm
Driver education programs generally include accident study to inform (scare?) the students about what happens as a result of irresponsible actions or lack of skill on the highway. The California Education Code stipulates that a course in automobile driver training contain 11 specific subject areas. No. 2 is major causes of accidents. High school students see graphic videos such as Red Asphalt, and police officers speak to classes about the details and grief relative to local accidents.

Thats not to say student pilots should be presented with grisly photos of accident scenes, as driver education movies have done for decades, but something about the primary causes of aviation accidents is appropriate. Somewhere between the two extremes there is room for a much-needed addition to the flight training philosophy.

The FAA is receptive to the idea that reference to accidents is appropriate during flight instruction. Advisory Circular 60-22, Aeronautical Decision Making, recognizes the poor judgment chain, and acknowledges that the CFI is the key element in any program designed to help students develop good sense. The circular recommends that the CFI teach risk assessment, recognition of stress, hazardous attitudes, and behavioral modification techniques in order to reduce the number of decision-related accidents.

Decision-making training is presented as a desirable elective to be included in conjunction with conventional flight training. Unfortunately, there is no suggestion that actual accidents should be studied and analyzed. Inexperienced pilots cannot be expected to make good decisions unless they know the specific events that have led to disaster. It is only through review and analysis of real mishaps that the general aviation community will be able to work intelligently to prevent them from happening again.

It turns out that the average pilot (including CFIs) is certificated with a license to learn, not knowing much about actual accidents except what he or she may have picked up here and there. The lessons learned from the mistakes of others, however, are valuable and have come at a very high price. Year after year, about 75 percent of accidents and fatalities are related to pilot error. This poor judgment chain can be partly due to this prominent weak spot in almost every pilots inventory of knowledge.

A remedy could be relatively uncomplicated. The FAA Flight Standards Service would need only to revise the PTS technical subject areas for all certificates and ratings to include accident analysis as a task objective. Knowledge test subject matter could have questions about accident statistics and causal factors relative to the rating sought. After these alterations, primary and advanced training curricula would include accident discussion in lesson planning. This change in training philosophy could be accomplished without any amendments to the FARs, simply by revising FAA test standards.

The change would motivate flight and ground instructors to present accident study as a routine part of flight training. After the introductory Flying Is Fun flight, many lessons could begin or end with the CFI relating at least one actual accident pertinent to the lesson. In ground school, weather accidents would be included in meteorology study; getting lost and running out of fuel accidents would fit into the navigation course.

For example, recognition of critical weather situations is one of the knowledge requirements for a Private Pilot applicant. Another is aeronautical decision making and judgment. Those lessons include only the physical phenomena, followed by an instructors admonition not to fly in bad weather. A revised training syllabus could inform students about what actually happens when the advice is ignored.

Know Thy Enemy
Every student should be required to know, before the first solo cross-country flight, that weather-related accidents account for about 20 percent of all pilot-induced fatal mishaps. He or she should also know that weather accidents are more likely to be fatal than any other classification. Further, the primary student should realize that over 70 percent of all weather-related fatalities involve VFR into IMC accidents.

These important facts should be reinforced with a review of chain-of-events scenarios relating how pilots actually blundered into weather accidents. Weather study is useless unless the knowledge can be applied to specific events and the resulting mishaps.

The same strategy could be tailored to apply to all certificates and ratings. Pilots routinely move up to multiengine airplanes because of the comfort and safety provided by the additional fan. Why not teach the new multiengine pilot about those situations where one good engine has taken pilot and passengers only as far as the scene of the accident?

If handled competently and conscientiously, these changes to both primary and advanced training curricula may alleviate, rather than exacerbate, the fear of flying. Anyone seriously contemplating flight training knows there are risks and wants to know what they are. We are likely to lose the most intelligent students if they sense a failure to teach something important.

There is evidence that pilots at all experience levels are hungry for accident knowledge. FAA inspectors and FSDO appointed counselors who conduct safety seminars have noted that when real accidents are discussed, the audience comes to a more attentive posture and participates enthusiastically in the discussion.

The amount of money invested in training is significant. A student pilot may be contemplating purchase of an aircraft costing six or seven figures. He or she has a right to expect flight and ground training to be thorough. This requires that the scope of pilot test standards and knowledge requirements be expanded to include this extremely important, if somewhat unpleasant, aspect of aviation.

As it is presented today, accident prevention training consists almost entirely of handing out words of caution: Watch out for other aircraft. Dont fly when youre tired.

This brings to mind the old adage about giving advice: Wise men dont need it, and fools wont heed it. But heres an advisory quotation that should be incorporated into the education of every pilot: Learn from the mistakes of others. You cant live long enough to make them all yourself.

-by Donnal Smith

Donnal Smith is a retired CFI, CFII, ATP and designated pilot examiner.


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