January 2014: General Aviation’s Safest Month Ever?

With one day left to go in the month, January 2014 is shaping up to be one of the safest ever in terms of general aviation fatal accidents and fatalities. Perhaps coincidentally, it was also one of the coldest months in decades.

There have been four fatal crashes this month in the United States involving noncommercial piston-powered airplanes, resulting in six fatalities. That’s well below the monthly average of 22 fatal crashes and 36 deaths — although accidents do tend to dip in the winter when GA pilots are doing less flying.

To get a sense of how dramatic an improvement we’re seeing this month, we went back through five years of National Transportation Safety Board accident reports and looked at all fatal accidents involving U.S.-operated fixed-wing piston-powered aircraft. The average for each January from 2009-2013 was 13 fatal crashes resulting in 22.6 deaths — making for a better than three-fold safety improvement.

From these raw figures we don’t know the “accident rate” — that is, the number of fatal accidents per 100,000 hours of flying. In fact, we won’t have that information for well over a year until the FAA releases the data. Last year, there were 259 fatal accidents that killed 449 people and an accident rate per 100,000 hours of 1.07.

Of course, it could be that this month’s anomaly was caused in part by the extreme cold across much of the country. We’ve heard anecdotally about flight schools and flying clubs grounding their fleets on bitterly cold days.

To find out if pilots really have been flying less this month, we contacted FlightAware.com and asked them to crunch the numbers. Sure enough, GA piston flight activity recorded by the site was down 17 percent this January compared with last January.

So the drop in fatal accidents might not be quite the good news story it appears to be at first glance. But then again, maybe it is. Of the four fatal GA crashes this month, two were in Michigan, one was in New Jersey and one was in California. In other words, three out of four occurred in cold weather states.

The FAA and NTSB have set a goal of reducing the monthly GA fatal accident rate below 1.0 per 100,000 hours. We’ve been tantalizingly close on a few occasions but haven't seen this symbolic barrier broken yet.

Once the final numbers come in, January 2014 just might beat the government’s safety goal and move GA from the red column and into the green for the first time.

Even if it’s for only one month, it would be a welcomed start.

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