By Earl Weener
Domestic airline operators have racked up a remarkable safety record in the past two years. Large commercial transport aircraft experienced not a single fatal accident during this period – a welcome trend for commercial operations. I wish I could say the same for general aviation (GA). Sadly, in the recent ten day period from March 25th through April 3rd, ten fatal accidents occured involving GA light airplanes, ranging from a Cessna 150 to a Beechcraft Baron. That’s a rate of an accident per day, and just reflects the fatal accidents. Generally, there are five to six times as many accidents that do not involve fatalities but result in substantial damage or injuries, or both.
A soon-to-be-released NTSB statistical study of aircraft accidents from 2007 through 2009 will show the accident rate for Part 91 flying as essentially flat from 2000 through 2009. There were approximately 6 accidents per 100,000 flight hours, with about 1 in 6 of those accidents involving fatalities. This statistic includes both corporate and on-demand air taxi operations, which have accident rates approaching those of the commercial airlines. These operators, like the commercial operators, are to be congratulated on their safety record. However, as I pointed out, this is not the case for all Part 91 operations.
I want to concentrate on the light aircraft, those airplanes that many of us fly for business and pleasure. For the past three years, 2007 through 2009, approximately 6 out of 10 GA accidents involved personal flights in fixed-wing airplanes. This is the largest category of GA accidents. The accident rate for personal flying is almost twice the accident rate for the GA category overall, 12 accidents per 100,000 hours, with a fatal accident rate of 2 per 100,000 hours. The causes of these accidents are rarely new; most accidents are in some way repeats of previous accidents. Without going into an analysis of all the various accident causes, let me simply point out that professional airline pilots, who fly frequently and regularly, take recurrent training once or twice a year. Alternatively, GA pilots, many who do not fly frequently or regularly, are only required to take a flight check every two years, and that bi-annual review is not nearly as extensive as that required of professional pilots.
The bottom-line: substantial improvement in individual GA safety can come from annual training. I have been a flight instructor for many years and remain an active GA pilot, and I am convinced an annual ride with an instructor will sharpen skills and eliminate bad habits that can creep in over time.
Earl F. Weener, Ph.D., took the oath of office as a Member of the National Transportation Safety Board on June 30, 2010. Dr. Weener is a licensed pilot and flight instructor who has dedicated his entire career to the field of aviation safety.