Recent data from the National Transportation Safety Board says, over the past decade, the trend in general aviation accidents has been headed in a positive direction—down. In 2012, the board recorded 1,471 GA accidents, 273 of which were fatal. Those accidents claimed the lives of 440 people. The NTSB data available from 2017 lists 1,233 accidents, with 203 fatal accidents that cost 331 lives. So, what can the industry do to continue driving down that trend?
Back in the mid-1990s, the commercial aviation industry was also wrestling with uncomfortable accident numbers that cost the lives of hundreds aboard Part 121 carriers. The industry decided it had reached a breaking point, creating the Commercial Aviation Safety Team in 1997 around an ambitious plan to take a bite out of the risks of flying. Specifically, CAST—made up of people from a variety of government and industry organizations—set a goal of reducing the risk in commercial aviation by 80 percent by 2007.
Skybrary reports: “To achieve this ambitious goal, CAST developed and started implementing a comprehensive Safety Enhancement Plan. By 2007, CAST was able to report that, by implementing the most promising safety enhancements, the fatality rate of commercial air travel in the United States was reduced by 83 percent.” CAST continues developing, evaluating and adding safety enhancements to its plan for the continued reduction of fatality risk by using, according to the FAA, data-driven approaches to identify and address potential risk factors. The agency says, “This methodology includes voluntary commitments, consensus decision-making, data-driven risk management, and a focus on implementing the agreed-upon safety enhancements.”
In a highly regulated industry like aviation, CAST’s safety enhancements surprisingly didn’t translate into additional regulations but instead focused on the use of new technologies, as well as training and procedures for pilots, mechanics and air traffic controllers—systems with acronym identifiers that have become familiar to pilots. A few include the terrain awareness and warning system (TAWS), improvements to the traffic and collision-avoidance system (TCAS), training in crew resource management (CRM), scenario-based pilot training, and improved area-navigation approach procedures, including standard terminal arrival routes (STARs). In all, CAST produced 229 safety enhancements in its first decade of operation.
Could a CAST-like system help reduce GA accidents, or would our side of the industry require tougher regulations including additional training? As it turns out, around the same time CAST emerged, the General Aviation Joint Steering Committee was created—a group that doesn’t see much press. The GAJSC works to improve general aviation safety through data-driven risk-reduction efforts focused on education, training, and enabling new equipment in general aviation aircraft. The FAA says: “The GAJSC combines the expertise of many key decision-makers across different segments of the FAA, other government agencies and industry stakeholder groups. By working together…government and industry are putting the right technologies and education initiatives in place to improve safety.”
Since 1997, the FAA says, “The GAJSC has developed safety enhancements aimed at mitigating the risks contributing to the leading fatal accidents types: loss of control—in flight, engine failure, and controlled flight into terrain. These enhancements include technology, education and training, best practices, and outreach on a range of topics aimed at preventing these accident types.”
Experts agree that one of the key elements in the success of both CAST and the GAJSC is the lack of new regulations. Sean Elliott explains the importance of recognizing the major differences between the two teams. Elliott, the Experimental Aircraft Association’s vice president of advocacy and safety, says general aviation is, for the most part, “a recreational community. I think the most effective means of influence is [finding] those who can inspire. If you can inspire people to pursue more training, inspire people to interact with instructors and mentors, and do things that are meaningful and help their flying without requiring it or regulating it—that’s always more effective.” The FAA says it’s confident that “by focusing on strategic partnerships rather than strictly on regulatory interventions, it can more accurately identify trends and efficiently implement solutions to improve safety across the general aviation community.”
Bob Wright—retired from the FAA as the manager of the general aviation and commercial division—says it wasn’t just luck that the industry chose an inspirational mode for training rather than a regulatory one. “Every time someone raised [the idea of regulating additional training]…most of us knew there would be a fight,” he says. “The fact that we got the flight review approved—back in the early ’70s—by itself is a miracle. We only got it approved by not making it a pass-fail event. That puts the onus on the instructor to interview the student or the pilot and determine the content of the flight review.”
While a flight review, including one hour of ground and one hour of flight every two years, is mandated, those are simply minimum standards of training. Jim Anderson, senior vice president at Starr Insurance Companies, says: “We should always be looking for ways to improve. If you look at the auto industry, the cars that were built 20 years ago are far different than they are today. We have increased safety standards, air bags, technology, auto braking and everything else. We’ve gone along the same journey, although maybe not as much technology in the airplane. But despite those efforts, aviation fatality rates have stayed about the same. I don’t think society today is tolerant of an industry that says there’s no room for improvement. We should…always be challenging ourselves, whether as a pilot, an OEM or a flight instructor.”
Elliott says a bit of clever packaging doesn’t hurt either. The EAA’s skunk works is currently beta-testing an app called Proficiency 365. Elliott says the new app “basically tracks and scores some of the baseline proficiency-level activities you have as a pilot. It’s a bit competitive because it creates a score that pilots can compare with their friends, whether it be for bragging rights or just because some pilots want to be better at their flying.”
But what can be done about rogue pilots, the ones who seldom attend traditional training sessions? Elliott points to another group as a successful guide to possibly reaching them: Mothers Against Drunk Driving. He calls MADD, “probably the best community-sourced example of people saying enough is enough…for people that are hurting our overall community. When someone makes an honest mistake, you want to help them find the right path. Unfortunately, I think we all know a truly bad pilot doing something that everybody knew, sooner or later, would end in an accident. We have to be willing to stand up and say, ‘Hey, Joe Smith, you’re going to hurt yourself, and you really need to do something about it.’”
The FAA is not omnipresent to handle all these issues. The key to pilot action is the realization that those bad actors are hurting the GA community and the public’s image of us as a whole. Without community action, Elliott says: “That’s how we get bad regulations and over-onerous requirements. That’s how insurance rates go up.” Rather than just take a deep breath and admit you finished a flight review or an instrument proficiency check, Elliott suggests you “tell people about a recent training scenario, and tell them it was fun and [that you] learned something along the way. We have a responsibility to share inspirational messages to those [who] are a little more unreachable to try and show them why we feel so passionately about [GA flying].”
Good Pilots Seek More Learning
Members of aircraft-type groups such as the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association, the American Bonanza Society, and the Malibu and M-Class Pilots Association often say they join specifically for the training opportunities the groups offer. But safety enhancements from the GAJSC have also sparked a host of individual instructor and pilot-developed content that has spread like a wildfire thanks to the internet. A few of the popular sites include Jason Miller’s The Finer Points, Tom Turner’s Mastery Flight Training, and that guy just out to experience as much of general aviation as is humanly possible, Steve Thorne as Flight Chops. No list would be complete without a mention of the variety of topics covered by the FAA Safety Team (FAAST) members around the country.
This story appeared in the September 2020 issue of Flying Magazine
(Editor’s Note: The text has been corrected from its original publication in the September issue)