Research shows pilot training is the best investment against catastrophic accident risk

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The latest global airline safety analysis by the UK Civil Aviation Authority indicates that, despite advancing technology and improved aircraft reliability, crew judgement and actions remain the most consistent causal factor in global catastrophic accidents. That situation will remain true for the foreseeable future, according to Dr Hazel Courteney, head of research and strategic analysis.

For that reason, she says, quality pilot training at all levels remains the critical factor in preventing really serious accidents.

Speaking at the recent Flight Safety Foundation International Aviation Safety Seminar in Honolulu, Courteney was presenting a study on prioritising strategies with the highest potential to reduce the chances of catastrophic accidents, as well as less serious safety events.

Courteney revealed: "Crew-related issues dominate accident causal factors, featuring in 75% of fatal accidents." She qualified this statement, explaining: "It is important to note that this [statistic] does not imply that the pilot was at fault or to blame, because it is now well-established that 'pilot error' cannot continue to be the scapegoat for the many and various factors that can lead to the error occurring. However, it is important to include crew factors in this data [analysis] because it highlights the crucial importance of pilot performance in safety, and therefore reminds us to invest resources in anything that might support it - [for example] training and simulation facilities - and to minimise influences that might adversely contribute - time pressure, fatigue and distraction."

Courteney's study comments: "Improving safety is getting harder. The easy changes have been made and the obvious lessons have been learned. Accidents are getting rare and tend to involve multiple, unique circumstances." This fact predisposes to situations that test the crew's resourcefulness, technical knowledge and skills.

The CAA study has found that the three top catastrophic accident risks all involve loss of control (LOC) under different circumstances. One is LOC following a technical failure, another LOC "for non-technical reasons", and the final one is loss of control caused by icing. Following the LOC categories, Courteney says controlled flight into terrain remains the next most serious catastrophic risk, followed by post-crash fire and runway excursions and overruns.

The CAA's study is continuing, says Courteney.

Flight International’s 1-2 December Crew Management Conference in Dubai addresses issues raised by Dr Courteney’s research.