Illustrations by Luis Ruiz
Fly Safer Now: Avoiding Cruise Catastrophe
The accident statistics don’t lie, and they are chilling. Since the FAA began collecting records in the early 1980s on the number of fatalities, the number of deaths in general aviation accidents has topped 400 every year.
The good news is the number of accidents, fatal accidents and fatalities has dropped steadily over time, as have the accident and fatal accident rates. Since 1973, the rate of fatal accidents for every 100,000 hours of flying has been cut in half, from around 2.4 per 100,000 hours to about 1.2 per 100,000 hours. Since 1946, one of the deadliest years in U.S. aviation history, the fatal accident rate has been cut by 83 percent. These are great gains.
Still, the accident rate is unacceptably high. Compared with automobiles, GA airplanes are much riskier, though how much so depends on how you compare aviation apples to roadway oranges: per mile, per vehicle or per hour occupied. Motorcycles are, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, about 35 times more deadly than cars. Even so, motorcycles are still safer than airplanes.
The purpose of these safety discussions is not to delve into the statistics. Regardless of how you crunch the numbers, there’s clear risk involved in what we do. Instead, the plan is to formulate strategies to counter that risk.
So, what are the most hazardous scenarios in GA flying? It’s an easy thing to know but a surprisingly hard thing to quantify. Because of the way the National Transportation Safety Board categorizes probable and contributing causes of accidents in its official final reports, which are written by many different inspectors with their own perspectives on causal factors, it’s impossible to categorize accidents in any cohesive way.
The risk scenarios I’ll be discussing here might not be named as such by the NTSB or FAA, but they will be instantly recognizable to every one of our readers. The first subject will be accidents in cruise.
Cruise flight is generally when things are going smoothly, when the complications of the climb have been dealt with and the necessities of the descent — getting the ATIS, checking the arrivals or the approaches, and tidying up the airplane — don’t yet need to be addressed. Still, every year a number of airplanes come to harm, often with fatal results, during what is normally a benign phase of flight. With the power set, the airplane trimmed up and needles centered on the airway, what could go wrong? In truth, not many things. But when something does go wrong, it can be potentially lethal.
We should remember that the carefree cruise phase of flight is the point at which Air France Flight 447, an Airbus A330, went out of control over the Atlantic when its pitot static system iced up. Everything seemed fine until it wasn’t. By then, the crew, unprepared to deal with an emergency, was unable to save their own lives or those of their passengers, though doing so was well within their capability. In retrospect, the failure was both easily understandable, given the nature of the failure, and impossible to comprehend, given the potential simplicity of the resolution that never came.
Based on sheer accident numbers, the cruise phase of flight by itself is not a great risk area. Of fatal GA accidents, more than 20 percent occur during cruise flight, but of those, about 15 percent are directly related to the weather, which I’ll discuss in a separate piece. The remaining five percent or so are related to fuel problems, mechanical failures and other systems problems, according to the NTSB.
Problems with the mechanical machine are hard to predict and difficult to prepare for. In any given year, just a handful of fatal accidents are directly attributable to mechanical causes, but they deserve our attention. From Trans World Airlines Flight 800 and its center fuel tank explosion (if you subscribe to the official cause) to Swissair Flight 111, which was taken out of the sky by an electrical fire that investigators say began in the entertainment system, it’s clear that danger from systems issues is both very real — if somewhat rare — and extremely fickle.
Engine failure is the biggest and most common offender. The loss of an engine poses a great risk to pilots of both singles and twins, as it frequently leads to off-airport landings or loss of control, as was the case with Sen. James Inhofe’s son, who died in a crash when his newly bought Mitsubishi MU-2 lost an engine and never made it to an airport.