“Isn’t it dangerous to be a pilot?”
If a pilot had a nickel for every time someone outside the aviation world asked them that question, they would be able to purchase a very large, overpriced, specialty cup of coffee.
What’s the Real Story?
Pilots can assure those outside of the aviation industry that they are often more anxious about the drive to the airport than they are about climbing into an airplane, but this impression runs up against the number of aviation accidents that make the news. To counter this, various groups will point out that the aviation industry continues to monitor itself seeking ways to improve safety.
The General Aviation Joint Steering Committee (GAJCS), a group made up of representatives from aviation stakeholder groups, meets regularly to study trends in aviation safety, and to determine what, if anything, can be done to improve it and cut down on fatalities.
The GAJCS relies heavily upon the Nall Report, a compilation of accidents published by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association Air Safety Institute—to drive its goals. The report, named after Joseph T. Nall—a member of the National Transportation and Safety Board who died in a plane crash in 1989—is designed to help identify trends that result in fatal crashes.
Most of the fatalities that result from general aviation accidents stem from pilot error, such as inadvertent entry into IMC by a VFR pilot, or stall-spin accidents where the aircraft is too low for the pilot to recover.
How Can We Do Better?
Improving safety often comes down to changing the way things are taught and tested, says Doug Stewart, a designated pilot examiner, 11-time Master Instructor, and founding member of the Society of Aviation and Flight Educators.
Stewart is a member of the GAJSC and improving aviation safety is a driving force for him. He suggests changing the way pilots are taught to deal with these situations could promote a more favorable outcome.
For example, in addition to performing a 180-degree turn to get out of inadvertent entry in IMC, pilots should be taught to limit the turn to half standard rate and to add power to initiate a climb. “They don’t need to pull back on the stick, if power is increased. The aircraft climbs on its own,” he said.
It’s not uncommon for the airman certification standards (ACS)—the level to which pilots are tested on their check rides—to be adjusted periodically to promote safety.
Know Why A Pilot Is Learning
Another component to the challenge to improve aviation safety is to ensure that pilots understand why they are learning the things they learn and how it all fits together.
If an instructor didn’t utilize the ACS or scenarios during training, suggests Karen Kalishek, that can be a problem. Kalishek is chair-elect of the National Association of Flight Instructors and a DPE.
“I have seen applicants sent to their check rides who are unfamiliar with the ACS,” Kalishek explains. “Not using the ACS for training is like taking a college course and saying someone is ready for the exam but they have never opened the book.”
Kalishek sees a tendency of prospective pilots to over-rely on technology rather than skill in the cockpit when they are in trouble—such as when they get lost.
“There is nothing wrong with technology, but I see a weakness in pilotage and dead reckoning,” Kalishek explains. “Part of that is because the applicants have the mindset that ‘once I get this check ride over with I’m going back to GPS and fly with my magenta line.’ The lost-and-divert exercise are academic to them. They don’t think it is going to happen to them in real life.”
For pilots, the Nall Report is an excellent resource from which to determine areas where they can focus on training. Traditionally, the Nall Report is released in October.
Now, the Air Safety Institute presents users with near real-time analysis of general aviation accidents updated on a rolling 30-day cycle.
With an eye toward continuous improvement, pilots have the opportunity to change the perception of engaging in a “dangerous job.”