Year after year, airline flights operated under FAR Part 121 get top billing for safest category of flight. This should come as no surprise, considering the many well-known safety advantages enjoyed by airline pilots.
They receive the best training around, including high-fidelity, full-motion simulator training not available to most GA pilots. Their job performance is closely scrutinized by their peers, by management, and by the FAA. An average line holder flies 700 to 900 hours every year, so they generally enjoy a high level of currency and comfort with the airplane they fly.
The hardware is often the best that Boeing or Airbus offers, with better performance margins and greater systems redundancies than GA aircraft. The crews operate under rules that aare many times are more restrictive than the Part 91 regulations GA pilots are bound by. A dispatcher shares flight planning responsibility with the captain on every flight, and a wide-ranging maintenance support structure is there to keep things running smoothly. And airlines can totally avoid exposure to certain risky flight operations, such as circling approaches at IFR minimums, simply by prohibiting them in the company flight operations manual.
As a captain for a major airline, Im well aware of the many safety advantages I have over GA pilots with every takeoff. But when its time to take my family flying in a light aircraft, the tables are turned. Or are they? Does the bells-and-whistles world of airline flying provide any practical lessons that GA pilots can take along in their cockpits? In a word, yes.
Since you probably arent the CEO of a large Seattle-based software company, we wont even suggest that you try to spend money like an airline. You can, however, think a little like one.
The operate like an airline tactics can be of use only to the extent you can and do apply them to the kind of flying you do. Everyone has his or her own style of flying, and most pilots already operate under what they consider to be reasonable personal limitations and bottom lines.
You may be perfectly comfortable taking a long VFR cross-country flight at night, over remote country, in a single engine airplane. Another pilot might look at the same set of factors and think it insane to even entertain such a flight. You may think a flight in low IFR conditions in a marginally equipped single-engine plane to be a tad too risky, while someone else might not even break a sweat at the thought. Some pilots dont mind picking their way between thunderstorms, but shrink from the thought of icing. Others may not mind icing, but are wary of mountain flying.
Its clear that there are few hard and fast Thou shalt nots for specific situations, because that kind of advice would be too conservative for some and not conservative enough for others. At the end of the day, pilots still expect a reasonable level of utility from whatever airplanes they fly. So, without concluding that its the airline way or the highway, pilots can still extract enough from the airline experience that their own brand of GA flying can be safer.
Identifying the Errors
There are a few common factors that play a role in many GA accidents, to include personal, business and instructional flights. According to the 1998 Nall Report, published annually by the AOPA Air Safety Foundation, these factors tend to remain fairly constant from year to year. There are many ways to look at statistics of course, but consider these big picture points taken from the report:
• In 1998, weather was implicated in nearly 20 percent of all fatal GA accidents in the U.S. In fact, the vast majority (86 percent) of all accidents that included weather as a contributing factor involved some fatalities.
• About half of all accidents involved a problem or emergency encountered during landing or takeoff.
• Almost 27 percent of total fatal accidents took place during low-level maneuvering flight.
• About 29 percent of all approach phase accidents resulted in fatalities. These included stall/spin scenarios and improperly flown IFR approaches.
• Darkness increased the chances of an accident happening during an instrument approach. Less than 12 percent of all accidents happened at night, but almost 47 percent of all instrument approach accidents took place at night.
• Three-quarters of all GA accidents considered in the 1998 Nall Report resulted from pilot-related causes.
Some of these accidents were caused by pilot behavior that can only be described as just plain dumb. Many of the maneuvering accidents, for instance, took place when the pilot was engaged in intentional low-level buzzing. Although its tempting to dismiss this behavior as indefensible unless you happen to be conducting strafing runs on behalf of Uncle Sam, many otherwise prudent pilots have let their guard down once or twice and done something uncharacteristic.
By contrast with GA, the two largest categories of air carrier accidents today involve inflight upset, and controlled flight into terrain. Between 1989 and 1998 for instance, 31 worldwide airline accidents were caused by inflight loss of control, often precipitated by an unusual attitude encounter. Between 1988 and 1995, CFIT accidents were responsible for more commercial aircraft fatalities than any other cause.
Weather as a causal factor in air carrier accidents is not nearly as common as it is for GA accidents. A Government Accounting Office study of 22,489 aircraft accidents that took place from 1987 through 1996 found that 5,286 of the total accidents were weather-related. Of these, 4,660 (over 88 percent) involved GA aircraft, and only 73 (less than 2 percent) involved air carrier aircraft.
Airlines, on the other hand, have fewer demons to exorcise. A big drop in the CFIT accident rate occurred when ground proximity warning systems were first introduced aboard large jet aircraft in the mid-1970s, but the problem remains a serious one. New generation Enhanced GPWS just introduced within the past several years promises to usher in another period of dramatic improvement in this area. EGPWS is not yet standard equipment on most jets, but should start having a marked and positive influence on the worldwide CFIT accident rate as it becomes widely available.
Greater emphasis on unusual attitude recovery training for airline pilots in recent years should begin to yield improvements to inflight upset accident rates too.
In fact, the airline industry has a good track record when it comes to fixing specific, identified problems. For example, a spate of windshear accidents and mid-air collisions years ago focused the industrys attention on those problems. Accident rates for both causes improved significantly when TCAS, various windshear-detecting technologies, and enhanced pilot training were introduced. While such accidents still occur, the airlines have proved that accident rates and causes do not have to remain constant from year to year. They have shown that it is possible to improve the odds – often dramatically.
Applying the Lessons
The deep pockets of the airlines obviously allows them to buy a certain level of safety, but there is more to the airline safety mentality than that. And it is the mindset, as opposed to the budget-busting technology, that can best be carried over to GA flying.
So just what does the airline way have to do with your flying? What habits of highly effective professional aviators translate well to the GA cockpit? And most importantly, how can these help you guard against some of the specific danger areas that claim the lives of a significant number of GA pilots and their passengers each year?
Perhaps the greatest single safety advantage of airline flying, and the one most easily adapted to GA flying, is what can be called pre-decision making – having a predetermined course of action you rely on to guide you in specific situations.
Over the years, airlines have developed detailed procedures and rules their flight crews are expected to live by. These are contained in a carriers flight operations manual and therefore become an extension of the FARs. An airlines FOM is a work in progress, usually guided by the input of hundreds of individuals over many years and based on millions of flight hours of operational experience. There is usually a very good real-world reason why a procedure or rule becomes part of the FOM.
Of course, GA pilots dont have the benefit of a FOM specifically written for their own kind of flying. Nevertheless, it is possible through a little armchair flying and pre-decision making for anyone to gain some of the same benefits.
Consider the takeoff phase, since many GA accidents occur during takeoff.
A typical airline takeoff is preceded by a set series of actions, each of which contributes to the likelihood that the takeoff and climb out will be conducted in a safe and predictable manner. These actions are prescribed as procedure in the AFM and FOM, and crews are expected to adhere to them.
For starters, load planners complete a weight and balance calculation for every takeoff. Aircraft performance calculations are worked up, based on the specific runway to be used, and the current wind and temperature. These calculations take into consideration the aircrafts climb gradient, as well as terrain and obstacles that lie along the departure path. A precise stabilizer trim setting is also calculated, and the best flap setting for the conditions is determined.
Checklists are run and verified by both pilots. At some point prior to taking the runway, the crew conducts a detailed takeoff briefing. The briefing may include any number of items, but generally constitutes at least a last minute review of critical points. How will a rejected takeoff be handled? What are the call outs and memory items in the event of an engine failure? What flight director and automation modes will be used? Is there a published special engine out procedure to be followed if a failure occurs, or should the standard profile be used? Are there unusual factors such as a contaminated runway, or an inoperative piece of equipment that that might affect the takeoff? Will terrain clearance be an issue immediately after departure? What is the initial ATC clearance?
During the takeoff roll, the monitoring pilot makes specific call outs intended to confirm engine operation and aircraft acceleration. Once in the air, a definite division of duties ensures that one pilot is flying the airplane at all times while the other attends to checklists and communications.
Very little about the whole process is left to guess work. While mistakes can and do still occur now and then, such an orderly process makes it extremely likely that the takeoff will be conducted safely.
Note that none of the items I mentioned involves expensive technology or is otherwise unavailable to the average GA pilot (accounting for some of the obvious differences between flying transport category jets and typical GA aircraft). Each however does involve a disciplined, thoughtful approach to the task at hand: getting the aircraft in the air safely. Each of these steps represents a pre-decision made by the crew. If an emergency occurs during takeoff, chances are that a pilot who has approached the flight in such a manner will be far better prepared to handle it than someone who hasnt pre-decided specific courses of action.
While most GA pilots do a good job of planning and executing takeoffs, for example, the accident statistics indicate that some are blind-sided by problems encountered as the flight originates.
Certainly every GA pilot can tailor a takeoff briefing designed around the airplane he or she is flying, even if the briefing is nothing more than a single pilot monologue. Certainly selected emergency procedures can be reviewed, performance calculations checked, and checklists used religiously. Many takeoff accidents would have been avoided had the pilots spent more time pre-deciding – for instance, how they would handle a rough-running engine, a door popping open or a blocked pitot tube during takeoff.
The Risky Approach
Consider the approach and landing phase of flight, another area that accounts for many GA accidents. Again, an air carrier pilot has the benefit of considerable pre-decision making long before getting down to minimums in low IFR conditions. A lot of the guess work about how or even if the approach will take place is removed by knowing ahead of time what the bottom line limitations are.
There is, of course, the Part 91 pilots ability to look and see when weather is below minimums for an instrument approach, something Part 121 pilots are not permitted to do in most instances, but theres more to it than that.
As with takeoff planning, there are many decisions that can be made well ahead of time. There is no reason why GA pilots cant help themselves by using a similar process, adapted to their own kinds of airplanes and flying.
For instance, my airlines FOM and the AFM for the B757 contain hard and fast definitions of what constitutes an unstable approach and stipulates when the approach must be abandoned if it becomes unstable. The approach must be abandoned if, when below 1,000 feet agl, the airspeed is greater than 15 knots above or five knots below target speed, or vertical speed is more than 1,500 fpm. In those cases, a go-around is in order.
If the runway visual range is 2,400 feet or less, the airline pilot is required to use so-called monitored approach procedures, especially designed to ensure that the visual transition from IMC approach to landing and rollout is accomplished safely. If braking action is reported as nil, were simply not going to attempt a landing. End of story.
If the controller issues a clearance to land and hold short the airlines FOM procedures will define if the clearance is acceptable. Circling to land on another runway from an instrument approach is not permitted unless weather at the time is at least basic VFR, or category D circling minimums if higher.
There are many other examples of such pre-defined decision making during the approach and landing phase that airline crews must abide by. Safety is enhanced by having a clear understanding of just how it will be done ahead of time, and clear boundaries to stay within.
GA pilots who are able to come up with their own bottom lines for the airplanes they fly can enjoy similar safety benefits. Having a definite set of criteria for what constitutes an unstable approach in a Piper Warrior will make the decision to go around that much easier when you realize your approach fits the description to a T.
Knowing ahead of time your own personal visibility and ceiling limitations for conducting a circling approach at night makes it that much easier to decide to head for the alternate when the weather is legal, but not quite within those personal limits. Knowing what your personal crosswind or tailwind limitations are for a wet runway could likewise lead you to safer landing decisions in the heat of battle. You cant look to your AFM for this kind of information because it probably isnt there. No one is going to decide this stuff for you; you need to think through these yourself.
Adopting the Mind-Set
Let me be clear on one important point. I am not in favor of greater regulation of GA flying. GA does not need, nor can it afford, to be held to the same regulatory standards as the airlines. Most pilots would agree that they dont need Big Brother telling them exactly how to fly their airplanes in every situation. But there are many opportunities for GA pilots to devise their own personal limitations that will lead to safer decision making. And they can adjust those self-imposed limitations up or down, depending upon their level of currency and experience in a particular airplane or operation.
For another example of just how easy adopting the mind-set can be, consider fuel starvation accidents. These almost never happen to air carrier flights but occur all too often in the GA world. Why? Simply put, the airlines do a more consistent job of planning and pre-decision making.
Each airline flight has several individuals (a dispatcher and two or more crewmembers) watching the store, so it is less likely that a single persons mistake will progress to an accident. The carrier knows the history of a particular flight that it has operated over a period of time, can more easily anticipate known causes of delays and congestion, and plan fuel loads accordingly. IFR reserves are always carried, regardless of the actual weather. If weather at the first alternate is deemed to be marginal (something specifically defined in the FOM), a second alternate is required.
On the other hand, GA pilots lack this kind of overview and team approach. They can find themselves in situations where they think they have enough fuel to outlast the enroute delays or they hope the weather will improve enough to make it to their destination airport. Instead of focusing on the regulatory minimums for fuel planning, they need to be deciding what real-world fuel minimums apply to them.
They need to know fairly precisely what the fuel burn is on their airplane the way they fly it, not just what the book says.
Perhaps enough fuel to fly to the destination then the alternate with 45 minutes of reserve is enough. Then again, maybe the real world demands another hour of fuel on top of that, or enough fuel to reach a second alternate. As the pilots experience level in the particular kind of flight operation grows, fuel loads can be adjusted accordingly. By considering these scenarios in detail well ahead of time, pilots can better avoid the kinds of scenarios that lead to most fuel starvation accidents.
One final example of better pre-decision making involves IFR approaches, especially those conducted at night. As the Nall Report makes clear, it is an area where too many GA pilots come up short. If you dont get to fly very many night IFR approaches, youd better think seriously of making your personal limitations far higher than the legal minimums.
Consider that an otherwise highly experienced airline captain with less than 100 hours in an airplane type is said to be a low-time-in-type pilot. He or she is restricted from flying with another low-time-in-type pilot and must observe higher approach minimums than a pilot with more than 100 hours in type.
Depending upon your own experience level, you may wish to follow this lead and observe higher visibility minimums until your comfort level is commensurate with the demands of the approaches, especially at night. Or, you may decide not to accept night circling approaches at a particular airport where obstructions or terrain make such approaches especially challenging. You may even decide to make night IFR approaches the subject of some recurrent dual instruction.
Whatever your pre-decisions, the effort spent will positively make you a better, safer pilot. Remember too, that it is always possible to make your personal limitations less restrictive as your experience grows. It is only after an accident occurs that change is too late.
-by Vincent Czaplyski
Vincent Czaplyski, a long-time general aviation and airline pilot, is a B757 captain for a major airline, as well as an aviation consultant and writer.