The FAA this week sent out a general aviation safety “fact sheet” identifying several technologies the agency says can help significantly curb the fatal accident rate. While the list includes several of the typical technologies we think of as promoting safety such as Nexrad weather receivers, traffic and terrain awareness systems and ballistic parachutes, the agency singled out two devices in particular as having “the greatest likelihood of improving safety.”
Can you guess what they are? We’ll give you a hint: They aren’t included in very many general aviation airplanes today (which is maybe why they topped the FAA’s list). The somewhat surprising safety-enhancing technologies the FAA named are: seatbelt airbags and angle of attack indicators.
The FAA has set a goal of reducing the GA fatal accident rate by 10 percent by 2018. Loss of control accidents – mainly caused by stalls – are responsible for 40 percent of fatal GA accidents, the FAA notes. No surprise there. The proposed rewrite of Part 23 regulations governing aircraft certification will seek to enhance safety while slashing certification costs by up to 50 percent. Part of that effort involves identifying technologies that can improve safety. Some are already slated for adoption (think ADS-B) while others are still under consideration.
One technology that is almost certain to be included in the new Part 23 rules is AOA. The FAA says it has streamlined the approval of angle of attack indicators for GA aircraft and is working “to promote the retrofit of the existing fleet.” Angle of attack indicators give the pilot a visual indication as a stall approaches. The debate over their usefulness in the cockpit is far from settled, at least in the minds of some GA pilots who may need more convincing, but there's little question they are coming.
Seatbelt airbags, on the other hand, no doubt can enhance safety under certain circumstances – although not in the classic stall/spin accident with its extremely high impact forces.
But won’t AOA indicators and airbags be expensive? The FAA says they don't have to be. “Previously, cost and complexity of [AOA] indicators limited their use to the military and commercial aircraft,” the agency wrote in its safety fact sheet. “The FAA is also streamlining the certification and installation of inflatable restraints with the goal of making all GA aircraft eligible for installation.”
So there you have it. The FAA wants every GA airplane to have seatbelt airbags and an AOA indicator, in addition to other safety gear. If you doubt that the technology can be added to your airplane cheaply, there might be a silver lining: The agency says it is focused on reducing general aviation accidents through “a primarily non-regulatory, proactive, and data-driven strategy to get results.” In other words, no mandate, and they’ll show you the numbers backing up why they believe these technologies indeed can save lives.