We all want to fly safely, but it doesn’t work out that way sometimes. The accident record is filled with instances in which a pilot or two failed to fully implement that desire. Although pilots always are finding new ways to bend airplanes, that’s not the norm. Instead, too many accidents are repeats of pilots’ past poor performances: Sadly, we keep doing the same things, but expect different results.
So, what are some of the things we keep doing to find ourselves in the NTSB database? Once we identify what they are, what can we do to prevent ourselves from repeating them? Using the most recent Joseph T. Nall Report from the AOPA Air Safety Institute (ASI), which looks at accidents during 2010 as well as how they stacked up historically, let’s find out.
Poor piloting skills, of course, aren’t the only reason aircraft become involved in accidents. Mechanical failures or maintenance problems also contribute, but their fair share of all non-commercial accidents in 2010 involved only 15 percent of the total, and 10.3 percent of fatals. Unknown causes, defined as “accidents for reasons such as pilot incapacitation, and those for which a specific cause has not been determined,” tallied “only” 11.1 percent of the 2010 totals, but 20.6 percent of fatals.
But pulling out of the data mechanicals and unknowns leaves us with a whopping 73.9 percent of all 2010 GA accidents resulting from some form of pilot error. Fatal accidents attributed to pilot-related causes tallied 69.2 percent for the year.
The sidebar on the opposite page includes some charts, courtesy of AOPA ASI and adapted from their most recent Nall Report, which summarize the data. We’ll look closely at one chart, the kinds of pilot-related accidents we got into in 2010. The other chart depicts the 10-year trend, which is improving, especially when it comes to non-fatal accidents. But, of course, it’s not improving quickly enough to bring pilot-related accidents down and in-line with, say mechanicals. (Maybe we’ll eventually get there but we probably won’t, especially as older, maintenance-intensive aircraft are retired and replaced by newer, more-reliable versions).
Keying on the types of pilot-related accidents, let’s look at a few ways we can improve things.
We’ve long maintained something approaching a morbid curiosity about how often fuel starvation or exhaustion figures prominently in accident causes. Since pilots are trained from Hour One to visually check quantities and ensure adequate reserves, we confess to being genuinely mystified at it all.
Of course, we have to distinguish between starvation—fuel is present aboard the aircraft but can’t be delivered to the engine(s) for some reason—and exhaustion, where the aircraft simply runs out of gas. Since the mechanical category of accident causes would seem to encompass some sort of systems failure preventing fuel from flowing, we’re pretty much left with two choices when it comes to figuring out why a pilot got involved in a fuel starvation accident. One, either the pilot failed to switch tanks for some reason or, two, the pilot mismanaged the aircraft’s fuel systems.
We freely will admit that distraction or boredom on a long flight resulted in our failure to switch tanks in a timely fashion. We’ll also admit to not knowing every random detail about the fuel systems of the aircraft we fly. All that is balanced out, however, by the knowledge the engine(s) have to have fuel to run and it’s our responsibility as pilots to ensure they get it in sufficient quantity to keep the fires burning and props turning.
We also know that headwinds, weather deviations and other operational concerns can force us into consuming more fuel than we’d planned. Over the years, we’ve been confronted with such challenges on many occasions. Our solution? Land and get some gas.
Yes, it takes some time and lengthens the trip. Yes, we might be a bit later than we promised. But at least we will get there, and we can apologize and/or explain in-person. Coming up short may mean we’ll never arrive. This is an obvious arena where poor decision-making skills come into play: What made the pilot think he was immune to what might happen if he tried flying on fumes?
I recently attended a family reunion held near the site of a tragic accident resulting in the deaths of all members of an affluent family aboard a single-engine turboprop. Although I didn’t know I’d be grilled on the tragedy, I knew enough about the facts and the weather in the area that day to know how to answer questions. My basic answer? “They flew into a thunderstorm. What did they think was going to happen?”
Weather observation, forecasting and dissemination have improved greatly over the years. Thanks to the microprocessor and enhanced communication capabilities, we literally can obtain near-real-time radar imagery in our cockpits for the relatively minimal cost of investing in an appropriate receiver. And even before we launch, we can avail ourselves of reams of alphanumeric and graphical data depicting current conditions and what’s likely to happen—or not happen—along our route of flight and at our destination.
With all that data available both in the cockpit and during our preflight preparations, there really shouldn’t be an excuse for getting into a weather-related accident. So, we’re seemingly left with three choices: Either pilots don’t understand the weather data and the choices presented, pilots don’t think anything bad will happen to them or pilots think they and their aircraft can handle anything Mother Nature throws their way.
Any lack of weather understanding is easily remedied: References to help pilots interpret graphics or decode abbreviations are widely available, either in the pilot lounge itself or online. The problem in understanding weather-related accidents then is more complex, involving combinations of factors. Just as when considering fuel-related accidents, weather-related accidents easily can involve poor decisions. At the same time, however, we have to introduce another problem: poor skills.
Maybe some pilots aren’t the hot sticks they think they are. Maybe their aircraft let them down when, say, the wings came off in a thunderstorm. Ultimately, though, we feel pilots simply don’t think any weather-related bad things will happen to them. After all, they’ve flown through this kind of stuff before, plus the Airbus ahead of them isn’t complaining, right?
Ultimately, and as the chart in the sidebar on the opposite page highlights, the vast majority of weather-related accidents involves continuing VFR into IMC. This type of accident has been a long-time bugaboo within general aviation, and there are very few really good ideas what to do about it except education on the hazards, training for what to do (a 180-degree turn) and making it easy to obtain and use the instrument rating.
This type of accident primarily is related to decision-making, although skills levels certainly can come into play.
It’s fun to fly close to the ground or other objects and watch things whiz by at what would be felonious speeds in an auto. It’s even more fun to pull up into a steep climb, experience some G, wow the passengers and make believe you’re Bob Hoover. There’s only one problem with any of this: It’s a great way to get into an accident.
The two principal ways to get into trouble during low-level maneuvering are stalling and hitting something. Other ways involve flying into a box canyon and lacking enough performance to climb out, plus what we’d call impromptu aerobatics, especially in an airplane not built for it. Maneuvering close to other things is fun, no doubt about it. But—and with the exception of a runway or a cloud—most pilots simply aren’t accustomed to flying close to anything. At typical speeds and even in good lighting, lack of accurate depth perception—how close things are—easily can lure an unsuspecting pilot too close to an obstacle. In poor lighting or restricted visibility, flying into things like low towers, guy wires and the like is relatively easy.
Many might think this kind of accident stems from under-developed skills, but accidents resulting from low-level maneuvering really are a judgment issue.
Every flight begins with a takeoff and ends with a landing. By definition, then, we get to practice these operations at least once every time we fly. So why do pilots have such trouble with what are basic maneuvers? One answer is the ground usually isn’t as close when we’re not taking off or landing. The other answers involve peculiarities of each.
According to the AOPA ASI, most takeoff accidents in 2010 involved “losses of directional control during the takeoff roll, but the category also includes pitch and roll excursions after lift-off.” Other takeoff accidents resulted from settling back to the runway and stalling. Misconfiguring the airplane for the takeoff also was an underlying reason.
Landing accidents, like takeoffs, involve a high likelihood of losing directional control. Stalling—either while maneuvering to land or in the flare, too far above the runway—is another issue. Colliding with wildlife and landing long, off the end of the runway, round out the causes.
Takeoff and landing accidents primarily are skill-related, although there is a decision-making component—using a too-short runway, for example, or high-and-hot operations. As with so many other accidents, prevention involves practice, which also helps with decision-making.
Skill Vs. Decisions
There are other ways to look at the accident record. One way is succinctly put in the AOPA ASI Report: “Accidents caused by fuel mismanagement or adverse weather generally give reasonable warning to the pilot. As such, they can be considered failures of flight planning or in-flight decision-making. Takeoff and landing accidents in particular tend to happen very quickly, focusing attention on the pilot’s airmanship (though the decision-making that leads airmanship to be tested can usually be called into question).”
Essentially, then, there really are only two types of accidents: Those caused by a lack of skill and those resulting from poor decisions. The good news is they’re both fixable.
If you think you’re susceptible to an accident resulting from inadequate or missing skills, get some training. Go practice. Go fly, and build some hours, which will not only hone your skills but enhance your decision-making ability (After all, experience is little more than what is gained through poor decision-making.)
On the other hand, if you think you’re more likely to be involved in an accident resulting from poor decision-making, what will you do to overcome that problem? (We would suggest someone who frets about their ability to make decisions probably has no such problem.) Our suggestion is to learn from others: a mentor, your favorite flight instructor, researching and reading about what other pilots say and how they do things.
At the end of the day, it’s up to us to obtain/maintain the skills appropriate to our flying and to make the right decisions, no matter our experience level. Choose wisely.