General Aviation Safety Goal Not Very Aggressive

It’s a pretty wimpy goal when you think about it. In its Flight Plan 2009-2013, which lays out safety goals for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the agency specifies its objectives for the next five years. The FAA plans to reduce commercial airline fatal accidents by 50%. This is on top of the goal of reducing these accidents by 80% over the past ten years. The FAA deserves to be commended for establishing a bold goal, achieving it, and yet raising the bar still higher.

Too bad the agency doesn’t establish a similarly aggressive goal where most of the deaths are occurring, in General Aviation (GA). Over the past five years, 2004-2008, 2,818 pilots and passengers have been killed in GA operations (Part 91 of the Federal Aviation Regulations). Fatal accidents have been occurring at a rate of roughly one per week. Non-fatal GA accidents have been taking place at a rate of about 30 per week. Frankly, it’s an unbelievable toll of carnage and bent, broken aluminum.

Basically, two jumbo jets worth of people have been killed each year in Part 91 flights. Contrast the GA accident rate to that attained by airliners flying in Part 121 operations – scheduled service – for the past five years. There have been no fatal accidents in two of the last three years, and only six in the three years before that. Instead of nearly 3,000 killed in GA, the airliner death toll amounts to 85 people.

Yet the FAA says its goal over the next 10 years is to reduce the GA fatal accident rate by 10%. Note that the FAA publishes a five-year plan but sets forth a 10-year safety goal.

There are a couple of ways to look at this goal. First, reducing the Part 91 fatal accident rate by 10% over the next 10 years will drop the number of fatalities from 5,511 to 5,229 – 282 fewer. Remember, this is over 10 years, so we’re not talking much here – on average about 28 fewer deaths per year, or reducing the deaths by about one every two weeks.

Excuse me, but flying less in the current recession will save that many lives – they won’t be in an airplane in the first place.

Second, The FAA maintains that the past three years have been “the safest ever recorded by GA.” The data maintained by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) tell a different story. If we calculate from the NTSB data an average GA fatal accident rate per 100,000 flight hours for the past three years of 1.24, that rate has been bested in at last three of the past ten years.

Third, none of the FAA initiatives to reduce Part 91 fatal accidents have much to do with root causes. The FAA talks about developing and publishing Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) approaches, and to better manage the Automated Flight Service Station (AFSS) contract “to provide quality flight services,” like weather reports.

What’s causing most of the deaths in Part 91? A reading of the accident reports points to pilots tending to mismanage their fuel state and flying from visual flight rules (VFR) into instrument meteorological conditions (IMC). The FAA strategies do not address these chronic causes of Part 91 accidents. Guess what? In its 2008 Nall Report (the most recent) of Part 91 safety, the Airplane Owners and Pilots Association – the principal lobby group for private pilots – devotes an entire chapter to fuel management and weather as accident factors. As the Nall Report noted:

“Forty-one of the 50 weather-related accidents were fatal. Nearly half of all weather-related accidents resulted from pilots attempting to continue VFR flight into instrument meteorological conditions (IMC).”

And,

“Maneuvering remains one of the leading causes of general aviation accidents with 91 total and 51 fatal accidents.”

To make Part 91 flights markedly safer, the answer does not appear to be more high-tech systems, but rather a renewed commitment to basic airmanship and decision making. Both would be enhanced by more simulator training, and more FAA oversight. The FAA is loathe to add training requirements and probably does not have enough inspectors to assure the safety of Part 91 flights – as the FAA appears stretched to find the manpower for oversight of the scheduled airlines.

In other words, the FAA has not addressed the root causes of Part 91 accidents, because to do so would mean tightening requirements and hiring more people. Both cost money. Tightening training imposes costs on industry. Hiring more inspectors adds to the FAA’s budget woes. So instead of a goal of say, reducing fatal accidents by 50%, the FAA says it will reduce them by a mere 10% over 10 years. If the Part 91 fatal accidents are reduced by just 1% in 2009, the FAA will be on track.

The 10% goal over a decade is laughable. One wonders if the FAA regards Part 91 accidents as the aviation equivalent of motorcycle deaths on the highways – as something not much can be done about so why try.

But in a very practical sense, the latitude for dramatic improvement is perhaps limited by a number of intangible factors. First, the average Part 91 recreational pilot’s currency is nowhere near that of the average professional airline pilot. Amateur or professional – who’s going to make more fundamental mistakes or poor decisions? Whose training is more likely to have been minimal and in some cases superficial? Is the average GA pilot going to be intimately familiar with his airplane, both in an operational and a technical sense? Some are, most aren’t.

When the aircraft and/or the operating environment starts challenging the GA pilot’s experience and ability to cope, who’s likely to fold first? The low time airman, of course, and GA is full of them. The very nature of GA makes it more vulnerable to accidents. Frequently, an accident will stem from pride and willfulness. If a GA pilot is taking friends or family away for the weekend, he’d by very reluctant to press on in the face of marginally adverse or gradually deteriorating weather.

The typical GA accident is rooted in a very average decision, or sometimes just the lack of a decision when one is needed. Here is an essential conundrum: should the average GA pilot fly more or less? “More” would increase the number of accidents but would produce a safer and more experienced pilot population overall. “Less” is likely to produce the converse: more agreeable statistics but a higher risk level, especially for the multitude of neophyte pilots. To become experienced, a tyro pilot must first run the gauntlet of real risks in order to learn. The rising cost of GA operations means that “less” is more likely to be the future prospect. Obviously, formalized training requirements would mitigate the lack of experience, besides which an inexperienced pilot might take away the wrong lesson from a brush with death.

Part 91 pilots will be free to go on killing themselves and their passengers at a rate nearly 40 times higher than Part 121 scheduled airline operations. This is an indefensible situation, especially for the guileless passengers. They have no real yardstick against which to measure the risk of the undertaking. General aviation safety, it seems, rests on the dubious foundation of tokenism and pivots around the shaky fulcrum of luck. The 10% objective in 10 years shows that the FAA has effectively thrown up its hands and given up on decisive change.