NTSB studies how to improve general aviation safety

WASHINGTON, D.C. — In spite of improvements to commercial and corporate aviation safety records, the general aviation accident rate has been stubbornly resistant to safety initiatives, the head of the National Transportation Safety Board said as she opened a two-day gathering to evaluate the current state of GA safety and consider if something should be done to improve it.

Deborah A.P. Hersman also told the gathering that general aviation pilots are “not learning from the mistakes of others,” noting general aviation accounts for 51% of flight time, but 97% of aviation fatalities.

“The status quo is not acceptable,” she added, “we must break through the plateau and bring the accident rate down significantly.”

The accident rate per 100,000 flight hours is slightly more than six. About 4% of the fatal accidents are fuel-related, 11% are engine failures, while a whopping 41% are caused by loss of control.

The high percentage of GA fatalities due to inadvertent stall/spin loss of control accidents raised questions about flight training and aircraft design. New spin-resistant aircraft are coming on the market now, some 75 years after the first was introduced and flopped. The Ercoupe (the Er stood for engineering and research) was introduced in 1938 and made again for a short time after World War II. They were never successful in the marketplace, leading many to believe pilots are more interested in setting themselves apart as special for their abilities than in safety.

NTSB officials noted that pilot numbers are decreasing, but the accident rate continues on a virtual straight line.

This, plus the loss of control issue, brought up a discussion of whether there is a need for more “stick and rudder” training. As one panelist pointed out, one doesn’t have to be a professional pilot to pilot like a professional.

All five members of the NTSB, along with key staff personnel, participated in the two-day session. One board member, Earl Weener, is an avid GA pilot and flight instructor. He pointed out that the reason for the gathering was to raise awareness of general aviation accidents and to climb to the next level of safety.

Participants in the discussions included people from various general aviation groups, the GA aircraft manufacturing and simulator industries, universities, aviation insurance businesses, flight training, aviation maintenance, the medical profession, and the FAA.

Hersman stressed that general aviation safety is not just an exercise of the board’s responsibility, but is personal. Many staff members, as well as board member Weener, are pilots. A few weeks ago, the NTSB’s chief medical officer died when the aircraft he was piloting collided with another aircraft in a mid-air accident.

The NTSB has no authority to establish or to enforce rules and regulations on aviation, but only to make recommendations.

Some recommendations can be expected after NTSB board members and officials devote several weeks of study and discussion to the points brought out in the sessions. Flight training might be high on the list of recommendations. Most participants in the conference agreed on the connection between good flight instruction and safe piloting. This could mean recommendations to the FAA that flight training be increased in hours, changed in requirements, limitations put on flying different models of aircraft, or other aspects of flight.

Speaking for the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) after conclusion of the sessions, Dick Knapinski said general aviation has had long-standing challenges. “We need to reach the unreachable,” he declared, adding, “Everyone in general aviation is affected by accidents. If we don’t want new regulations, each one of us must be involved in raising the safety bar.”


Charles Spence is GAN’s Washington, D.C., correspondent.


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