Mid-life crises culling GA pilots

By Johan Lottering

Traditional views on air safety SHATTERED…

MOST striking about a NTSB safety study on Experimental and Amateur Built (E-AB) aircraft safety released in 2012 is the accident pilot demographics. The study included Light Sport Aircraft (LSA). Shattering popular beliefs and defying conventional wisdom it appears the notion of the young inexperienced cowboy arriving on the scene getting killed trying to impress might be one of aviation's biggest fallacies. The cold facts of late reveal that mature experience pilots are the main culprits. Perhaps it's time for introspection?

The study, spanning the decade between 2001 and 2010, revealed the median age of accident pilots is a mature 53 for non-E-AB aircraft and an even more mature 57 for E-AB aircraft. Though arousing suspicions of medical incapacity commensurate with age and stage of life at first, such potential shortcomings were actually not cited in the statistical breakdowns. Could it therefore be that chaps experiencing some late and/or delayed mid-life crises with enough time and money to spend on expensive toys and recreational flying activities are the ones venturing too close to the edge and being culled?

One would expect wisdom comes with experience. Equally alarming therefore is that the Study found the median total flight hours of E-AB accident pilots are no fewer than 1000. To top it all a higher proportion of E-AB accident pilots hold commercial or airline transport licences. The statistics also reveal that pilots of E-AB aircraft have higher levels of total flying experience than pilots of comparable aircraft engaged in General Aviation (GA) operations.

E-AB accident pilots had less than half the flight time experience in the particular aircraft, at 61 median hours than their counterparts in non-E-AB aircraft at 152 hours. And…wait for it… E-AB accident pilots seem to be getting older at an average age of 57 in 2007, 58 in 2008, 60 in 2009 and 61 in 2010. Over the corresponding period the ages of non-E-AB accident pilots remained "consistent" at a median age of 54 peaking at 55 in 2010.

The fatal accident rate was found to be approximately four times higher in E-AB aviation participants than for their non-E-AB counterparts. The paradox is the particular "high-risk segment" of the GA industry has always been at the forefront of design and development and hence an integral part of GA's very survival - considering factors like soaring fuel prices, stifling legislative measures and the globally shrinking flying environment. A certain appetite for risk seems necessary to get ahead and stay ahead, though not necessarily aloft.

It is doubtful whether concerns of a former FAA Administrator Randy Babbit while addressing a Sun 'n Fun Rally audience back in 2010, that the amateur-building fraternity has a "too high an accident rate" might have come as a surprise. It is no less revealing that "…though accounting for only 10 percent of the entire GA fleet, these (E-AB) aircraft were involved in 27 percent of all GA accidents". This was despite a decline in overall GA flight activity in the preceding decade.

Notwithstanding, the E-AB segment has not only grown in aircraft numbers and participants, but flourished in terms of flight activity in the corresponding period. The NTSB study's findings is even more significant considering that in the US E-AB aircraft account for nearly ten percent of the entire GA fleet and only four percent of the representative hours flown.

E-AB aircraft therefore clearly account for a "disproportionate" number of accidents, according to the NTSB. Furthermore, E-AB aircraft have nearly double the accident rates of standard GA aircraft whilst the fatal accident rate is up to three times higher. The 2134 accident aircraft validated as E-AB types included 97 helicopters, 75 gyroplanes, 16 gliders and four balloons.

The E-AB aircraft were engaged in a variety of activities other than personal flying. These included business flights, instruction as well as air show flying and racing. The control group of standard GA aircraft were mainly involved in private and private business endeavours.

A break-down of the statistics show that power-plant problems rated among the Top 10, accounting for 23.2% accidents in E-AB aircraft and 14% in non-E-AB aircraft. Regarding all fatal accidents "Loss of Control in Flight" could be cited in 43% in E-AB aircraft accidents and 29.7% in non-E-AB aircraft. Power-plant problems were responsible for 15.2% of all fatal E-AB accidents and only 8.5% in non-E-AB aircraft.

In February 2014 Ms Poppy Khoza, the Director of Civil Aviation of the SACAA cited serious concerns about aviation safety seeking a solution to reduce "…about 20 fatal aircraft accidents… resulting in an average of 40 fatalities per annum". She would concede that "…embarking on a single panacea… to reduce aircraft accidents would be futile". The SACAA would develop a Cross-Functional Accident Reduction plan (CFARP). The focus would be on "inherent systemic weaknesses" and "…addressing the causes of aircraft accidents" in a "multi-disciplinary approach".

Citing the Swiss cheese safety model much of the focus would be on improving systemic safety. Whether the CFARP can directly be credited for the 17% decline in accident rates by October 2015, would need statistical refinement to establish a relationship between cause and effect or mere correlation. Giving credit where due the new safety awareness campaigns and initiatives seem to be paying dividends. It is encouraging that even the concept of ride-along professionals is being contemplated to ensure adequate cross-pollination and transfer of experience.

Johan Lottering presents General Aviation Safety Seminars.

Two of his works, Avoiding Fatal Flying Traps and Focused Flying, the latter endorsed by Pilots Post Editor Juri Keyter, form part of the course material. The two-day courses include meals and materials inter alia focusing on General Aviation misconceptions, interesting case studies and accident aetiologies which simply shatter traditional beliefs. Underlying effects which are neither covered by the rules and regulations nor found in training curricula - such as societal effects and group dynamics - are among the critically important aspects covered. The slide shows and interactive discussions are far cry from the old "stick to the rules" and/or "use these acronyms" and/or "change your attitude" approach, but rather go into the "why" and "how". One also earns a Certificate soon to be endorsed and recognized by certain prominent Insurance Underwriters. Watch the aviation press and electronic forums for details and don't miss it. It might very well change the way you think and save your life one day.

Johan Lottering - Focused Flying

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