Safety in Numbers?

Accident statistics may mislead you on how much risk youre really assuming


Pilots love to scoff at the aerophobes who express fear at the prospect of light plane flying.

The most dangerous thing about flying is the drive to the airport, might be the amiable retort.

Some sayings persist because the truth they carry is evident. Others endure because no one has seriously challenged their worth.

Dr. Gerald Fairbairn, professor of aviation at Daniel Webster College and a long-time flight instructor, challenges the notion that light plane flying is even remotely as safe as driving. In so doing, he suggests a look beneath the surface of aviation safety. Look at what constitutes risk, why it is there, and how it can be mitigated.

Fairbairn is not decisively biting the hand that has fed him these past many years, though it may seem so. He isnt suggesting that pilots give up their wings and take to a rocker on the porch for the remainder of their days. (Statistically, rocking in a chair probably isnt so safe either.) He is, however, asking that aviators at least look at all the numbers in a realistic way.

The entire exercise began innocently enough with a passing thought that Fairbairn personally knew more people who had died in light plane crashes than had perished in automobiles, in spite of the fact that he knew countless more people who spent significantly more time on the road than in the air. While admittedly anecdotal, he asked other pilots he knew what their experiences were. The results most often confirmed his own conclusion. More personal acquaintances had died in planes than in cars.

After a lifetime of having heard and believed otherwise, who wouldnt be skeptical? Then I realized that my own experience matched Fairbairns.

Then when my own unscientific research revealed repeated similar experiences among the pilots I knew, it seemed only logical to examine his theory more closely. Assessing the relative danger of flying may seem a little disconcerting but, Fairbairn says, If we dont have the conversation, we wont fix the problem.

Interestingly, accident statistics have been declining in recent years, which implies that the problem was even worse in the past. In addition, despite recent declines in the accident rate, the actual numbers arent necessarily something to shout about. The NTSB reports that from 1988 to 1998 the number of general aviation accidents per 100,000 flight hours dropped from 8.69 to 7.66. The number of fatal accidents fell from 1.68 to 1.45 per 100,000 flight hours. Those improvements are in fact very modest, in spite of the fact that all the parties involved, both governmental and private, have emphasized the need to improve safety.

If we think we are doing something that is essentially very safe, why change? Fairbairn says. Lets just keep doing it the same way.

Rhetoric aside, Fairbairn argues that general aviation flying isnt necessarily as safe as most pilots think it is, nor is it as safe as it could be. The question then becomes developing ways to kick start solutions to the problem of general aviation accidents.

In some ways he likens the problem to that of drinking and driving. For generations of American drivers, drinking and driving wasnt an issue; it was just a way of life. But when the statistics started to reveal the true magnitude of the problem, people started to act. As a result, in the past few years the number of alcohol-related accidents and deaths on the nations highways have dropped dramatically.

Fairbairn wonders, Can we do the same for general aviation?

The main thing Fairbairn wanted to know was how does flying a general aviation aircraft really compare to driving an automobile? If we look at the big picture for both automobiles and airplanes – and create a common denominator for each set of numbers – we can learn a lot.

In its simplest form, the automobile accident rate is calculated by recording the number of fatalities and estimating how far people drove during that period. In 1996, 1.73 people died in automobile accidents for every 100 million vehicle miles traveled.

In aviation the most common measure is the number of fatal accidents per 100,000 flight hours. In 1996 there were 360 fatal general aviation accidents that resulted in 632 fatalities. The average number of fatalities per aviation accident was, on average, 1.75, or almost double the number of fatal accidents. So the number of fatalities per 100,000 hours was 2.54.

If we want to compare aviations fatalities to automobiles we still need to convert the hours flown to miles flown. Assuming that general aviation airplanes average about 144 mph (125 knots), then 100,000 hours becomes 14.4 million. The general aviation fatality rate can then be estimated as 17.6 fatalities per 100 million aircraft miles traveled.

When comparing apples to apples, general aviation was 10 times more dangerous than the family auto. It would seem that before anyone breaks an arm patting themselves on the back for doing a great job in improving flying safety, they might want to first think about what these numbers mean.

If your first reaction is to try to think of a way to refute Fairbairns statistics with some more fancy number manipulation, then the more serious questions will undoubtedly get lost in the paper shuffle.

To be sure, arguments and rationalizations abound. Look, for example, at the sheer numbers. In an average year 40,000 people are killed in automobiles versus 700 in general aviation airplanes.

Some may argue that general aviation gets a bad rap from the popular press every time there is an accident. Depending on your point of view, the fact that there is on average one fatal GA accident every day can seem either shockingly high or amazingly low. And, lets not forget how much greater the risk exposure is in cars, where almost anything or anyone can do you in regardless of how well you are driving.

And consider the history of accident trends. From 1971 to 1981 the number of GA accidents dropped by almost half. Since then, the decrease has been much less remarkable.

Plot the fatality rate since 1971 and youll quickly see that, if the same line appeared on an EKG, wed be pushing up daisies in our favorite final resting-place. Its great to look at GAs safety record with a certain amount of pride, but its equally clear there is a lot to do and maybe even more to change.

Coffin Nail or Call to Arms?
For sure the whole issue begs a host of questions. The fact that GA flying may be 10 times more dangerous than driving could put another nail in the coffin of a struggling industry that is just now beginning to enjoy a rebirth. On the other hand, blindly ignoring that fact may needlessly bury a pilot who didnt truly understand the nature of the risk he or she had chosen to accept.

Will an honest assessment of aviation safety scare people away from flying if that means telling them up front that flying an airplane isnt as easy or even as safe as driving a car? The answer is quite probably, yes. Some who would have considered flying as a hobby, in light of an honest evaluation of the risks involved, might opt for that rocking chair.

However, the realities of flight training might do that already.

Im not sure we have that much to worry about, Fairbairn says. It seems we send enough beginning pilots out there and give them the chance to scare themselves to the point that they quit before we can do anything to change it anyway.

Even if the statistics are vague, the true threats in flying become clear once training is underway, adding to that population of students who quit shortly after their first solo. And quoting statistics doesnt matter if the experience is satisfying. For example, the motorcycle industry hasnt seemed to suffer from offering its constituents an honest appraisal of the dangers inherent in riding. People who ordinarily disdain risk are enjoying two-wheeled travel on the open highway like never before, thanks to the reward inherent in the experience and the fashionable air motorcycles have taken on.

But the question of new recruits is perhaps less important than keeping pilots – and their passengers – alive. Year after year, the leading causes of general aviation accidents are high performance airplanes flying into adverse weather conditions and maneuvering (read: buzzing).

We know where the problems are, we need to think about how we can change our pilot training so we can make a difference, Fairbairn says.

The Professional Approach
For part of the answer I went to Flight Safety, the folks who have done for corporate and light plane pilots what the airlines have done for air carrier operations. Their philosophy is that, by presenting the curriculum in an organized manner, they train to proficiency. While most of their customers achieve the required proficiency, some do not.

Much of what Flight Safety does stems from a belief that the days of flying from one town to the next for that $100 hamburger are gone. The individual who uses a high-performance airplane today uses it for personal transportation in a technical world that is only getting more complex.

The Flight Safety company line: If that pilot who wants personal transportation doesnt get a thrill out of the technical aspects of flying, he or she should probably get out of the business.

In many ways, Flight Safety has put its money where its mouth is by using the latest technology to pursue its goals for pilot education. The theory is that a quality program that imposes formality on a pilot not only creates a better pilot but, in the process, it may also play a part in defining what an unsafe pilot might be. While it may not be possible to plug smarts into a pilot, the company may be able to help pilots to become better decision-makers.

Paramount in solving the problems Flight Safety considers the most important is addressing the dynamics of cross-country flying. Not everyone is looking to approach flying as though theyre an airline captain, to be sure. Some are sport pilots; others just like the feeling of being aloft. For them, the risks are decidedly different than those that plague the high-performance cross country flier.

For example, look at the problem of pilots who fly high-performance complex airplanes into weather conditions beyond their capabilities. The question is how to prepare them to make the right in-flight decisions.

Task-Specific Training
One place to start is to spell out the increased risk that exists to pilots who are transitioning to those types of planes. Consider the average 500 mile trip. If a pilot recognizes that cutting the travel time by a factor of three may increase risk by a factor of 10, then he or she might train, prepare and operate a little differently.

Another chronic problem is controlled flight into terrain, or CFIT. The Flight Safety Foundation has addressed the issue by developing a CFIT Checklist for pilots to use. The FSF says pilots should use the checklist to evaluate specific flight operations and to enhance pilot awareness of the CFIT risk.

The rationale, again, is that the increased awareness should lead to increased vigilance and preparation. It would seem equally logical that we should develop a similar type of checklist to identify and quantify the increased risk exposure pilots face whenever they are about to take off, especially for a flight beyond the local area.

Some of the risk factors to consider are the likelihood of encountering a major weather system on a 1,000-mile or even a 500-mile trip, how quickly the pilot needs to respond when flying airplanes that are faster (or slower) than he or she normally flies, and the relative safety of day IFR, night VFR or other environmental factors.

A fellow Daniel Webster College faculty member and pilot who has spent many hours ferrying single-engine airplanes across the Atlantic, as well as over some of the most inhospitable terrain in the world, has his own opinion about day flying and night flying.

During the day the chances are good that if I lose an engine Ill break out at some point and be able to find a place to land, says Ed LHommedieu. If I lose that engine at night, even if its VFR, its just as dark at 100 feet as it is at 10,000 feet. I still wont be able to see anything in time to make a real difference.

Yet most flight instructors teach students little about dealing with the realities of light plane cross country flight when training a pilot to fly a high-performance complex airplane. They focus on the mechanical aspects of operating the gear, dealing with a turbocharger, using cowl flaps and other systems.

What they dont always do is talk about cross-country planning, getting and interpreting the critical weather information, or how to take the information we have and make the necessary difficult decisions under the pressure of trying to make a specific destination in a timely fashion.

Instead of just teaching someone how to make that new airplane work, maybe one answer is to suggest part of the checkout should be a trip in the real world. Under the supervision of a qualified instructor, the would-be transport pilot could experience first-hand some of the issues a pilot faces on a trip to the other side of the country.

The decisions that have to be made in real-world flying are seldom black or white. An instrument approach, for example, is rarely as simple as following the gauges to decision height and then taking off the Foggles.

Pushing the boundaries of safe operation just a little is often much riskier than an inexperienced pilot might suspect. Wouldnt it be better to first learn how to make those decisions without having the added pressure of needing to get to a meeting that just cant be missed?

Tricks of the Trade
Then there is maneuvering, the other area in which pilots seem to repeatedly get themselves into trouble. Though the situation appears to be significantly different from flying VFR into bad weather, the underlying causes are very similar. Poor decision-making and poor judgement put pilots into situations in which the margin for error becomes exceedingly small.

Take, for example, the case of the simulated engine failure that every pilot is exposed to over and over. The scenario is almost always the same. The instructor pulls the power and says, Youve lost your engine. What are you going to do?

The student responds with some attempt at dealing with the problem, but all the while the airplane is descending. Sometimes it gets as low as a few hundred feet above the ground. But if its not over an airport, the instructor has been watching the descent, clearing the engine, and preparing for the climb-out since the maneuver began. The student, however, is most likely very unaware of the instructors preparation.

The result of that exercise may be a student who says, Hey! That was really cool. I cant wait until I can do that by myself.

A better result would come from a student of an instructor who explained the dangers of operating at a low altitude, becoming distracted by looking for the old homestead and how little opportunity there is to take any action if something goes awry.

It is clear that in the areas in which instructors put a lot of emphasis, the results are lower accident rates. In those areas in which they dont provide as much attention, the results arent nearly as good. For instructors, the problem is to honestly evaluate the real dangers and develop effective teaching methods to forewarn inexperienced pilots.

A proficient pilot with faulty judgement and decision-making skills may not be so proficient after all.

Safety, According to Whom?
General aviation has made great strides with respect to producing better pilots and significantly safer airplanes over the years, and everyone involved can take equally great pride in their individual and collective accomplishments.

But many would argue that if we represent a Pollyanna version of flying as something that provides huge rewards for little effort with minimal exposure to risk, we are doing a disservice to all who would join our ranks.

I vividly remember the day we had our first and only accident in which we lost a student and her instructor. As our young, eager cadre of flight instructors gathered in our ready room to hear from the head of our program, their shock at the tragic loss was evident in all they said and did.

In the silence of the room as they waited for his words of encouragement, the cheerfulness and joy they so often displayed was terribly absent. The words Tom Teller spoke were of wisdom rather than encouragement.

This is a tragic reminder of something none of us can ever afford to forget, he said. What we do up there is dangerous.

In a program that has spanned more than 20 years and averages over 14,000 hours of flight instruction a year in some very unique airplanes, Tellers words have served our instructors and students very well. Any loss is one too many, but the numbers clearly indicate that paying attention to the risks is the only way to prevent the losses from happening.

Knowing the dangers involved can heighten our awareness, but it doesnt have to destroy the joy of flying. Thinking that flying an airplane safely is just a walk in the park is simply not true. If that truth causes some to walk another path, then everyone is better off for their choice. For those who stay, letting them know the real risk exposure of their choice is just as important as teaching them how to fly.

The next time you get out of your car at the airport and think the hard part is over and its time for the fun to begin, take a moment to think again.

For sure the fun is about to begin, but everything worthwhile comes with a price attached. In flying we get a lot only because we are required to give just as much.

-by Milovan S. Brenlove

Milovan S. Brenlove is an assistant professor of Aviation at Daniel Webster College and a former air traffic controller.


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