Safest Fixed-Gear Cruisers

These step-up rides show reasonable safety, with the Tiger the biggest surprise of all


Most airplane owners whove been in the game awhile have a history. Even those with money to burn rarely start out with a high-performance single or a twin as a first airplane. Somewhere in the past, they probably owned a modest four-place, fixed-gear single, what well call an SE cruiser.

You know the species: Something with a bit more panache – and power – than an entry level model that doubles as a trainer but something less than a 300 HP retractable.

Specifically, we have in mind this list: Cessnas 177 Cardinal, 182 Skylane, Pipers Archer and Dakota, the Grumman Tiger and, as a lesser player, the Aerospatiale TB10 Tobago. Sure, the list could be expanded but lets be reasonable. Most potential owners shop the mainstream model which is, of course, why they remain mainstream.

A key consideration for some buyers is safety. As we imagine it, pilots of moderate experience want a cruiser thatll make a mornings work out of a 500-mile trip without requiring heroic piloting skills. Similarly, a safety record bereft of nasty habits will make an SE cruiser a softer sell to the spouse and family, not to mention cheaper to insure. With these considerations in mind, how do the SE cruisers compare purely on safety and accident history? Continuing our periodic series on safety analysis, heres our views.

How We Did This
As noted in our report on trainer safety in the June 2001 issue of Aviation Safety, we have no illusions about the accuracy of NTSB accident data, from which this report is drawn. Comparisons which purport to describe accident rates are fraught with limitations, ours included.

Thats because not all accidents find their way into the NTSBs records and some unknown portion are recorded but miscoded or accident causes are never assigned. In these cases, weve done a degree of reading between the lines based on the accident narratives. If an aircraft is found in pieces with no evidence of fuel after a five-hour flight, for instance, chances are good the pilot ran it out of gas, even if the NTSB report doesnt say as much.

Calculating accident rates – the true measure of relative safety – is an even deeper pit of quicksand. While total accidents and their causes are somewhat suspect, the hours flown for each model are, at best, a hopeful shot in the dark, since no one maintains accurate records on fleet hours by type.

Our accident rate estimates are based on two methods. First, we used the annual hours flown estimates for each model given in the Aircraft Bluebook Price Digest and, as a reality crosscheck for our rankings, we calculated a ratio between the number of accidents for each model and the number of those models in the FAA registry.

Having thus doled out the appropriate grain of salt, we nonetheless think our review of the accident history of each model is compelling and useful in the buying decision in those instances where safety is a high-priority consideration. But fair warning: The data available to us is suitable for informed opinions but not airtight conclusions.

Let Us Count The Ways
As a group, pilots are not overwhelmingly creative in the way they wreck airplanes, which is to say the majority bend metal for the same reasons, year in, year out.

Nonetheless, a tiny minority of pilots do dream up bizarre ways to trash otherwise perfectly good airframes, like the bright fellow who duct taped the air intake hoping to improve heater performance. (It didnt work; the airplane refused to burn after the crash.)

As with the trainers, the general leading cause – or result, if you prefer – of accidents among SE cruisers is what we call runway loss-of-control during takeoff, landing or rollout. (The exception for this group was the Dakota, in which miscellaneous causes topped the list.)

Some runway loss-of-control accidents are due to challenging conditions, such as crosswinds or runways made slick by rain, ice or snow. Yet many more are inexplicable in the sense that we have to ask: Dont any of these guys work on landing technique?

Landing a Cessna 182 or Piper Archer should be well within the ability of even an inexperienced pilot yet a surprising number of pilots cant manage it in the most benign conditions.

Should we blame the airplanes? Do they have some alluring design fault that leads otherwise unsuspecting pilots to grief? We dont think so. Its understandable that any pilot could lose control in a blustery crosswind, less understandable that a pilot would attempt a takeoff on a 1600-foot sod strip covered in snow at near gross weight or that another would commence the takeoff roll at a point with only 600 feet remaining on a 3400-foot runway, with a tailwind. These accidents are inarguably the result of poor pilot judgment.

Engine, Mechanical
Our review of the trainer accident records showed that engine failures or powerplant-related mechanical faults were high on the list of crash causes and this is true in the SE cruisers as well.

In four of the five airplanes we examined, engine failure was the third leading cause of reportable accidents, always behind runway loss of control. The exception was the Tiger, in which engine-related causes finished second behind runway loss of control.

Four of the five aircraft are powered by Lycoming engines while the Cessna 182 has the Continental O-470. (A tiny fraction of new 182s in our sampling period have the Lycoming IO-540, but none were involved in any accidents that we could find.)

The 182s O-470 is deemed one of the most reliable engines in service and our review of the accident record may support this view. The 182 has the lowest rate of engine-failure induced crashes, expressed as a percentage of total crashes for that type. In order of best to worst, the Cardinal, Archer, and Tiger follow with the Dakota posting the highest incidence of engine failure.

But were not sure this tells the entire story. If we calculate engine-failure related causes on per 100,000-hour basis, the 182 finishes worst at 2.3 crashes/100,000 hours while the Dakota is best at 1 crash/100,000 hours.

We dont have an explanation for this anomaly, other than to speculate that the 182s reputation for carb icing may have something to do with it. It leads the league in carb ice-related accidents and some of the engine failure incidents might have been carb ice.

Outta Gas
Running out of gas continues to be a time-honored means of turning a routine flight into disaster. Among the SE cruisers, fuel exhaustion or mismanagement was among the top three accident causes in three of the five models we reviewed.

But we found a curious pattern, too. Both of the Cessnas we reviewed – the 182 and the Cardinal – have the standard set-and-forget fuel system. Pour the gas in the wings and it runs into the engine via gravity; no boost pump needed and since the fuel system has a both setting, tank switching isnt always necessary.

Yet the two models that had the lowest percentage of fuel-related crashes – the Tiger at 5 percent and the Dakota at 7 percent – both have fuel systems that require tank switching, with no both option. But the Tiger has a big advantage over the other aircraft, in that its tank switch is in plain view on a console between the pilot seats, with the switch clearly pointing at a gauge showing the tank contents.

If theres such a thing as a foolproof fuel system, the Tiger comes close. In contrast, the Dakotas fuel switch is on the sidewall, next to the pilots knee, although earlier models had a more complex four-tank system. Nonetheless, at 7 percent, the Dakota posts a laudable fuel mismanagement safety record.

Stall, Spin, Handling
Each of these airplanes has its own handling traits and tricks but we wouldnt call any of them quirky. As a percentage of total accidents, stall/spins are a non-starter.

Given the paucity of accurate data, we think that any accident cause in the 2 percent range – as most of these airplanes are when stall/spin is considered as a cause – gets a free ride. In other words, stall/spin simply isnt a serious risk in these airplanes.

Only one of the models we reviewed – the Cessna Cardinal – had a notable stall/mush record. These are accidents in which the airplane gets too slow on either approach or takeoff and settles back onto the runway or obstacles beyond or before the runway.

In the Cardinal, 6 percent of total accidents were attributed to stall/mush, making it considerably worse than the other models in this regard. What gives?

We think there are a couple of factors at work here. Early models of the Cardinal were underpowered and, indeed, our review revealed that many of the stall/mush incidents involved these airplanes.

Second, the Cardinals percentage of runway loss-of-control accidents is quite high and, at 41 percent, second only to the Cessna 182. Due to mis-coding or errors or interpretation, its possible that some hard landings or loss-of-control incidents were listed as stall/mush. Nonetheless, we think the Cardinal is more challenging to land well than the other models examined here.

Other Causes
Our research has revealed a big three in accident causes: Runway loss-of-control, fuel exhaustion and engine failures. Once past these three as causes, the river widens and the reasons for accidents become more diffuse and difficult to categorize.

But the next major cause is often continued VFR flight into IMC, which, among this group of models, accounted for an average of about 8 percent of all the accidents on record during the period we reviewed, with the Dakota, at 13 percent, posting the worst record.

Obviously, a VFR-into-IMC accident has more to do with the pilot than the aircraft since, presumably, a pilot who cant fly on the gauges will do just as poorly in a Skylane as a Tiger.

VFR-into-IMC accidents tend to occur more frequently among these models than among trainers simply because these are step-up airplanes. But just because an owner steps up to more speed and power, he doesnt necessarily step up to more training in the form of an instrument rating.

Miscellaneous or other causes round out the list of accident factors. These are almost impossible to categorize in any meaningful way. Although they arent exactly acts of God, were hard-pressed to say what a pilot can do to avoid having skydivers tear off the tail with an advertent parachute deployment or having the fuel flow choked off by a swollen O-ring impossible to inspect on pre-flight.

To a degree, consistent and periodic training coupled with pro-active maintenance can help reduce such oddball occurrences but any owner who wants to avoid them entirely should sell the airplane and take up bowling.

Rates Compared
Once again, because of the soft nature of accident data and hours flown, we caution against putting too much stock in the rankings. But the point of this article is comparison, so thats what well do.

We think our review of the data shows that the reputation enjoyed by the Cessna 182 and Piper Archer for being safe, relatively easy to fly aircraft is validated. Both post similar overall accident rates, although the Archer appears to have a higher fatal rate for reasons not obvious to us.

The surprise for us was the Tiger. It has a reputation as being a sporty somewhat hot airplane but if thats true, pilots who fly it appear to be up to the challenge. (Or perhaps the model isnt flown as much and hours data doesnt reflect that. We just dont know.)

In our view, the most valuable information we uncovered is the type of accidents these aircraft tend to suffer. This, more than anything, helps a potential owner reduce his chances of a wreck by addressing those potential traps.

The Skylane and Cardinal, for example, lead the league in runway-related accidents. Yet neither aircraft is so difficult to land that some dual and periodic practice wouldnt sharpen a pilots ability to handle them well.

The Cherokee 180/Archer series seems more prone to fuel exhaustion accidents than the other models, again, something that can be addressed by training and/or better instrumentation.

The Tigers accident history – with a high percentage of hard-to-quantify incidents – suggests it has few nasty habits, just as owners claim. Watch out for the strafe-the-target syndrome, however. The Tigers bugaboo seems to be low flying and buzz jobs, perhaps an unfortunate side benefit of its reputation as Walter Mittys fighter.

The Dakota has a similar eclectic accident mosaic with a rarity: Miscellaneous causes lead the overall list, not runway accidents. And heres another puzzler: Even though it has a similar fuel system as the Archer, the Dakota suffers from far fewer fuel exhaustion and mismanagement accidents. Why? Our guess – and its just a guess – is that its a more expensive airplane flown by pilots with a higher level of training who simply have more experience. It also burns more gas so keeping an eye on the fuel is a must.

Also With This Article
Click here to view “Rankings By Model.”
Click here to view “Rates At A Glance; Accident Summary.”
Click here to view “Using Accident Data.”

-by Jane Garvey and Paul Bertorelli

Jane Garvey, an attorney and owner of a Cessna 182, is a contributing editor for Aviation Consumer. Paul Bertorelli owns a Mooney 201 and is editor of Aviation Consumer.


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