Pilots Aren’t Perfect & Flying is Not Risk Free

By Scott Spangler on March 17th, 2010

Reaction to the AOPA Air Safety Foundation’s Nall Report on the safety record of amateur-built experimental aircraft, and comments about my recent post on this subject (The Internet & Homebuilt Aircraft Accidents), led to the somber reflection that is the headline above.

Aviation Safety There are three undeniable, fundamental truths in every human endeavor. First, we make the decisions that, ultimately, determine the level of risk we face in everyday life.  Our inability to fully embrace this leads us to evaluate and rationalize risk to anesthetize the pain of bad decisions, and to deny the ultimate truth, that all human activity is not without risk.

Perfect safety should always be aviation’s goal, but aviators must accept—and embrace—the fact that it is unattainable. Only by accepting and owning the risk inherent in our facet of aviation can we achieve the last possible increment of safety.

Aviation risk is relative, directly proportional to number of people involved and the regulatory requirements for manufacturing, maintenance, pilot training/currency, and the checks and balances that reveal and correct the mistakes people make before flight happens.

Looking at it another way, the greater the freedom, the higher the risk. Make that four undeniable truths.

This freedom-risk ratio determines the hierarchy of aviation safety, with corporate and commercial operators at one end of the spectrum and GA and homebuilders at the other. In this context, comparing their individual rates really doesn’t seem that important.

Ron Wanttaja has studied homebuilt accident data for the past eight years. For EAA he compiled a report on the 2008 data in the Nall Report. Mashing the NTSB reports against the FAA registry he discovered that 84 of the 269 homebuilt accidents did not involve an amateur-built aircraft. This reduced the homebuilt accident rate by a third, but didn’t change the fact that homebuilts still carry the greatest risk—and the most freedom.

rv-6a_3view_trans Ultimately, safety in every aspect of aviation depends on individual decision making. Despite the latest technology, regulations, and time-tested checks and balances, two otherwise occupied airline pilots blew past their destination. And despite the entreaties of his pilot pals, the decisions made by the new owner of an RV-6A (purchased from its builder, a NASA engineer) who died in it, along with the instructor he’d hired to log the 10 hours of dual deeded for insurance. This paragraph summarizes the self-fulfilling prophecy:

“[The pilot] was meticulous when it came to engineering detail, but he often relied on his own judgment and logic over ‘going by the book.’ That characteristic carried over into his flying habits. I think he considered a good pilot as being one that could maintain control and push himself and the aircraft to the minimum/maximum limits to prove he and the aircraft performed to expectations. A couple times on final approaches, I would yell at him to get the airspeed up…to which he would laugh and say, ‘It’s okay, we’re a good 5 kts above stall!’"

During the first flights, the airplane’s engine ran rough, and “I begged [him] not to fly the airplane again until he had the plugs pulled and the mags serviced, and for him to memorize the stall and glide rates of his airplane. He laughed and said, ‘They’re fine, it’s just bad fuel.’"

A week later the author of this email came home to a phone message about the crash. “Immediately, I had a knot in my stomach knowing that the engine cut out on him and he stalled the airplane…Then I read the NTSB preliminary report a few days later.”

Clearly, this pilot seems to have consistently made poor decisions, despite the efforts of his flying friends. But this was not the most disturbing part of the reader’s email. It was his conclusion:

“I think too many pilots are getting into high performing homebuilt aircraft that demand more of pilots than what their training aircraft were able to extend to them. These are aircraft that are unstable when they approach their specified minimums and maximums, and respond in a split second in comparison to store bought airplanes. True, the homebuilt airplanes are likely to have more mechanical issues related to them, but it really comes down to the pilots ability to keep the aircraft flying even without an engine.”

And a pilot’s ability to keep ANY airplane flying has nothing to do with the machine and everything to do with the decisions he or she makes. Because, in the end, good or bad, we pay the price for making them. – Scott Spangler


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One Response to “Pilots Aren’t Perfect & Flying is Not Risk Free”

  1. Stephen Says:

    Everyone can fly the airplane fast, learn to fly it slow, but do it in the practice area and be with an instructor who utilizes high performance techniques. That’s when you soon realize what the slow flight equates!!

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