One of my favorite jokes is the offhand remark that “Everyone talks about the weather, but no one ever does anything about it,” a quote that has been attributed to Mark Twain. Twain’s comment about the weather reminds us that there are some things, such as death, taxes and fuel prices, that we can complain about until the cows come home, and it won’t do a lick of good. The weather arguably adds the funniest possible punch line to the joke, though, since, while we can imagine things we can do to cut taxes or extend our lifespan, there’s not much we can do about that cold front.
The question is: Is safety in light GA like the weather in that regard? Are we doomed to suffer a horrible annual toll of accidents and fatalities? The conventional wisdom would be to shout me down for even asking that question, but asking it is a start to a critical conversation, a conversation we don’t often have in aviation because we’re too busy talking about safety, and one of the critical assumptions about safety is that we can do something to improve the record.
The record has improved slightly — at least it appears to have improved. There are slightly fewer accidents and fatalities, but the question is: Is the apparent small improvement in safety the result of our efforts or some other phenomena that are related to accidents in some way that’s not well understood?
I can think of a few major candidates, effects that improve safety without being directly related to it — two of which are higher fuel prices and fewer pilots. As fuel prices rise, pilots fly less, especially those, to state the obvious, who are most sensitive to high fuel prices. I’d venture that some of these pilots are the ones who are most likely to have accidents, because they fly less, train less and fly older, less-capable equipment. Is it a bad thing that safety improves because some of the higher-risk pilots aren’t flying as much as they used to? I don’t think so. Indeed, if we could somehow know in advance which pilots would have accidents, it would be our duty to stop them from flying. I think you’d all agree. After all, many, many lives would be saved.
The recently released AOPA Safety Foundation Nall study identified its usual suspects, but the study was accompanied by a remark about light GA safety that was revealing: The idea was that many accidents in GA were the result of the vagaries of human nature. The implication was clear, that as long as people are people, careless and overly optimistic, and no new intervening factors are introduced to keep pilots from making stupid decisions, they’re going to keep putting themselves in harm’s way — and with predictably horrifying results.
My guess is that people will continue to be people and that no new technology will emerge that will prevent them from acting upon the vagaries of human nature.
So are we doomed to keep having too many accidents in GA? I think not. That’s because there’s good news too. People in the industry are changing the way they think, talk and act about safety. One friend suggested we stop using the word “safety” — because by talking about safety instead of the underlying problems, you’re avoiding the real issues.
It used to be that the people who supposedly were in charge of safety were regulators, and many of them believed that by getting every pilot to follow the rules, they would achieve their safety goals of cutting down on accidents. Predictably, this proscriptive approach had no effect. It continues to have no effect.
Today, people genuinely interested in stopping accidents are taking a different tack. They’re looking at what mishaps are occurring, and they’re trying to find ways to prevent them. For example, pilots sometimes continue on into bad weather instead of landing and waiting out the storm. By teaching pilots how to evaluate the weather and its riskiness, and then teaching them how to find a different airport and land there, instructors can help cut down on a particularly risky behavior. Human nature being what it is, these skills won’t prevent pilots from making demonstrably poor judgments. It will, however, give them the tools needed to make better judgments.
Results-based approaches like this change the way we talk about safety. It’s about time we did. After all, if all the work we’ve done over the years to improve the accident rate hasn’t worked, isn’t it time we tried a different approach?
Or we could just keep complaining about the weather.