General Aviation Safety Is on NTSB’s Radar

 - October 8, 2011, 8:00 AM
NTSB board member Earl Weener, who has a decades-long background in flight training, notes that many of GA accidents share the common factor of pilot error.

Amid changes to the format of its annual “most wanted” list, the NTSB has included improvement in general aviation safety as one of its hot-button topics. In the past, the Safety Board had used the list as a sort of scorecard, keeping track of the progress of its specific outstanding safety recommendations, which would remain in the list until they were resolved. That began to prove unwieldy as the number of open recommendations piled up. “Often those recommendations on an item stayed on the most wanted list for a long time,” said NTSB board member Earl Weener. “As you can well imagine, you can’t really have much in terms of priorities if you have almost 60 priorities.” As a result, the board this year decided to streamline its list down to the top 10 of what it identified as the most glaring needs in transportation safety.

By statute, the NTSB must investigate each of the approximately 1,500 GA accidents that occur each year, a number that, according to Weener, has remained virtually unchanged over the last 10 years. “If we look at GA statistics, there’s been no real improvement in the last decade in terms of accident rates, and if anything, it’s gone up slightly,” he told AIN.

“In the face of declining hours flown, the number of accidents may have gone down slightly but the rate of accidents per 100,000 hours unfortunately has gone up, so it’s time to put some focus on GA safety,” Weener said. In fact, the preliminary numbers of accidents for 2010 showed that despite nearly seven million fewer GA flight hours compared to 2000, the rate of nonfatal accidents per 100,000 flight hours as well as the rate of fatal accidents per 100,000 flight hours experienced a modest increase.

The board’s definition of general aviation is admittedly broad and includes all aviation other than Part 121 and Part 135, ranging from banner-towing piston-engine aircraft to intercontinental corporate jets, and Weener acknowledges that not all the segments are a problem. “There is a big difference between airplanes flown by a professional flight crew and the average general aviation flying,” he said. “The corporate and executive [aviation] rivals the airlines, and those are professional pilots. Most of general aviation is what we call personal flying and that accident rate is about double the whole general aviation rate.”

While airplanes used for business but not flown by a professional pilot account for approximately 25 percent of the total number of GA accidents, corporate and executive aircraft accidents comprise about 3 percent of the overall total. “One could take a lot of comfort in that, but on the other hand, where do you get your corporate and executive pilots?” Weener asked rhetorically. “If you get them from the GA ranks, it would sure be nice to have those pilots start their discipline, proficiency and ability to manage risk early rather than wait until they become professional pilots.”

Pilot Error

Weener, who has a decades-long background in flight training, notes that many of the GA accidents share the common factor of pilot error. “We’ve got lots of examples in the accidents that we investigate of poor proficiency, poor decision making and a lack of discipline in terms of when and under what conditions people decide to fly.” While the board takes all factors into account when determining the cause of an accident, in the end most cases come back to the human element. That, said Weener, is where it makes the most sense to devote the agency’s limited resources. “By and large, if you want to pick a starting point where you can make the most improvement and have the most potential, it’s the pilot side.”

Like the improvements in commercial aviation made over the past 15 years through the efforts of the Commercial Aviation Safety Team (CAST), a joint industry-government initiative created to identify and address the causes of airline accidents, the NTSB is hoping for a similar response in general aviation.

The board this year has met with the leaders of the alphabet organizations such as NBAA, AOPA, NATA, EAA, HAI and GAMA, and according to Weener, who spoke on Sunday at the NBAA/Cessna ingle Pilot Safety Standdown here in Las Vegas, the industry’s response to the board’s concerns has been positive.

Joint Safety Committee

In a statement released soon after the NTSB’s Top 10 announcement, GAMA noted that the industry had relaunched its General Aviation Joint Safety Committee (GAJSC) in partnership with the FAA, and that its members are continuing to bring the latest safety technology to even the lightest of GA aircraft. “We look forward to strengthening our already close relationship with the NTSB in these areas as we work together to further improve the safety of general aviation operations,” the organization said.

The NTSB is considering sponsoring a GA safety forum next year that will bring all the industry leaders together to provide feedback. “We’re not trying to run into the industry and tell them what to do,” said Weener. “We’re trying to work with the industry to try to understand how everybody sees the problem, and we’ve got the advantage of having a lot of accident data that we can use to help the industry narrow the focus down to the major issues.”

Weener does not believe it will take much in the way of official oversight to make very large safety improvements, but he is willing to offer the agency’s expertise in order to help. “We don’t have any regulatory authority at the NTSB, but we do have considerable analytic and data-gathering capability,” he said. “Our initial push is to help those in the industry who want to help themselves. My focus really is to turn some of that information back into finding ways to improve general aviation safety based on what we understand from those accidents.”