GA accident rate falls slightly as flight hours increase

The recently released Nall Report, a review of general aviation safety, shows that flight activity increased in 2010, while accident rates showed little change from previous years.

Prepared by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association’s Air Safety Institute, the 22nd edition of the Joseph T. Nall Report is based on data from 2010, the last year in which enough accident data is available “to be statistically valid and give a complete safety picture,” Air Safety Institute officials said.

According to FAA estimates, flight activity in all four segments of GA increased in 2010 from 2009 levels, with the biggest jump in commercial helicopter flight, which was up 21%. Non-commercial fixed-wing activity rebounded 3% from the record lows of the year before, while commercial fixed-wing hours were up 4% and non-commercial helicopter flight time was up 7%.

General aviation accident rates in 2010 showed little change from recent years. “Slight declines in non-commercial fixed-wing rates only brought them closer to the 10-year moving averages, while commercial accident rates, both fixed-wing and helicopter, remained almost unchanged,” the report states.

While the number of fatal accidents increased to 20 from the record low of 16 the year before, both total and fatal accident rates were still lower than the corresponding fixed-wing rates for the first time, according to the report.

The report notes that there were 21 fewer non-commercial fixed-wing accidents than in 2009, including 19 fewer fatal accidents. When combined with a slight increase in estimated hours flown, the statistics show slight reductions in both overall and fatal accident rates, the report continues. “However, the resulting figures of 6.30 accidents and 1.16 fatal accidents per 100,000 hours were almost exactly in line with the 10-year averages,” it noted.

The increases in the number of accidents on commercial flights, both fixed-wing and helicopter, “were proportionately smaller than the increases in estimated flight time, though a slightly larger share were fatal,” according to the report, which adds that “changes in both overall and fatal accident rates were negligible.”

There is good news: The accident rate among amateur-built and experimental light-sport aircraft showed its first real improvement in at least six years.

“The accident rate for traditional homebuilts dropped 9%, and the fatal accident rate was down 28% from 2009,” said Bruce Landsberg, president of the AOPA Foundation. “Mechanical problems continue to account for disproportionate numbers of accidents in these aircraft, and a recent National Transportation Safety Board study confirms the elevated risk during the flight-test period.”

After decreasing for five straight years, the number of fuel management accidents on non-commercial, fixed-wing flights increased for two years in a row even as the total number of accidents has decreased, said the report. “There were almost 20% more fuel-management accidents in 2010 than in 2008, and the proportion of fatal accidents blamed on fuel mismanagement increased by more than 40%, from 3.6% to 5.1%.”

Mechanical failures caused about 15% of fixed-wing accidents, including about 10% of fatal accidents, according to the report.

More good news: Fewer landing accidents occurred on student solos than at any time in the recent past, falling more than 40%.

“There is always the discussion about how to teach decision-making and help people make the right choice,” Landsberg said. “The vagaries of human nature make this a really difficult problem to hand to flight schools and universities. The airlines depend on a system to avoid high risk where one person is never allowed to make a decision in a vacuum. But this is the essence of personal GA flight, especially among private owners.”

The complete Nall Report is available online. Hard copies are available by sending an email to safety@aopa.org.

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