There’s Nothing New in GA Safety Because We’re Still Making the Same Stupid Mistakes

By Scott Spangler on March 23rd, 2011

2011 Safety Standdown

The notices arrived in my in-box almost hand in hand.  Analyzing the previous year’s data, the AOPA Air Safety Institute’s Joseph T. Nall Report for 2010 gives the good and bad news about general aviation accidents. And the  2011 Safety Standdown itemizes the FAA’s new multi-medium effort to prevent them.

The good news is that for-hire fixed-wing ops, from ag application to Part-135 transportation of humans and cargo, posted a substantial improvement in safety. The number of  accidents dropped by a third over 2008 and the number of fatal accidents (two ag applicators) fell 88 percent.

The bad news is that not-for-hire GA flight activity fell by 10 percent in 2009 (which shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone), but the number of accidents dropped only 5 percent. The really bad news is that while we’re flying less, we’re dying more often. The number of fatal accidents increased 4 percent.

2010 Nall ReportPersonal flights, which used to account for the majority of GA activity, accounted for less than half of all non-rev GA flight time. It made up for its lost dominance by giving us more than three quarters of all GA accidents and 85 percent of fatal accidents.

The report goes on to categorize the number of accidents by pilot certificate. Private pilots, as one might expect, lead the pack, but that’s secondary to the fact that most accidents happen on flights made for personal pleasure.

The bottom line is that pilots haven’t learned from the mistakes made by  their predecessors. So the FAA Safety Team has sorted them into four themes—Positive Flight Attitude, Going Beyond Preflight, En Route Cruise, and Maneuvering Flight—in its new Safety Standdown.

In its continuing effort to make the skies safer through education, the FAA will deliver it in a unified, coordinated effort online, at 90 face-to-face  seminars held across the nation (starting at Sun ‘n Fun on April 2), and in print, in the March/April issue of the FAA Safety Briefing.

Unfortunately, as previous safety endeavors have proven, this effort will go for naught if pilots do not participate—and pay attention. The real challenge is how to overcome pilot apathy, the dismissive, inattentive attitude that comes from the belief that they already know “the same old stuff” being presented in a new package?

So why don’t pilots put their professed knowledge into practice and improve GA safety? Short of an accident, incident, or close call, what will make pilots understand that no one is immune from a lapse in judgment? And what about those pilots we all know who would benefit from the education offered but believe themselves beyond it?

For-hire aviation has an improving safety record because it is predicated on the mutually beneficial checks and balances of two pilot crews. Non-rev GA is mostly an individual effort, so improving safety will only come from individual effort.

One aspect of it is accepting that each of us can do something stupid in an airplane. Another is that in such a small community, to keep the pilot population from shrinking further, we must be proactive keepers of our fellow aviators. When you see or hear of a pilot about to do some something stupid—speak up and point out what might not be obvious. Wouldn’t you appreciate a warning word if you were inadvertently about to do something stupid?

Speaking up includes sharing links to the FAA’s online safety resources and articles with a note, “Hey, look at this.” Or invite those pilots who ordinarily pass to join you at a safety seminar. Heck, make it group outing conjoined with a meal, and maybe a game of pilot’s truth or dare, where everyone shares the stupid things they done and survived.

If we want something new in GA safety, it has to come from those who get in the left seat. And improving the accident rate by not making the same old mistakes would truly be something new. –Scott Spangler

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