National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) member and pilot Dr. Earl Weener told attendees at an EAA AirVenture 2014 forum on Wednesday that the safety of corporate aviation is “very good and getting better.” He said personal general aviation flights continue to account for the majority of aviation accidents, and most of those are caused by a loss of aircraft control in the air and on the ground.
Weener pointed out that spatial-disorientation accidents continue to be “particularly lethal,” but loss of control on the ground “damages your ego more than anything else.” He said NTSB data shows that the three main causes of aviation accidents continue to be stall/spin accidents exacerbated by uncoordinated turns approaching landing, loss of control on departure and loss of engine power.
A surprising number of spatial-disorientation accidents involve instrument-rated pilots, he said. “Having an instrument rating doesn’t guarantee anything. It gives you the opportunity to fly more safely,” he noted.
Weener believes that new technology continues to make flying safer. “I think the airplanes are a whole lot safer than the pilots are,” he said. “We have more autopilot drivers than flyers. When automation fails or doesn’t do the job, often hand flying is done without a lot of proficiency.” Noting recent commercial accidents, including Air France Flight 447 and Asiana Flight 214, Weener said, “Overdependence on automation leads to accidents. Automation is good, but it needs to be used properly.”
The installation of relatively inexpensive angle-of-attack sensors in general aviation aircraft that do not already have them would go a long way to improving safety, according to Weener. “I wonder how well the instructor community understands angle of attack,” he asked. (Weener has been a member of the National Association of Flight Instructors for 48 years.) “The wing doesn’t care what your airspeed is, it just cares what your angle of attack is. Some military pilots fly angle of attack and don’t even care what the speed is.”
The misuse of weather technology in the cockpit is another concern for the NTSB. Weener said weather data from satellite services such as XM is often 10 to 15 minutes old and should not be used for making decisions concerning “tactical penetration.”
The data “is already old when you look at it,” he said. “Pilots think they are in light rain and instead they end up in the thick of it.” Weener said systems like XM are very useful if you use them as a route-planning device to make decisions substantially ahead of the weather.
He said more pilot discipline would “go a long way” to improving safety. “Are you fit for flight, is the airplane fit for flight and what is the weather?” he asked rhetorically.
Weener is one of three NTSB board members who are licensed pilots.