Statistics indicate improvement in general aviation safety, but weak points remain dangerously so


General aviation safety seems to be in good health in that accident numbers and rates overall are either decreasing or standing at lower than local historical averages in the major reporting countries. But despite a generally improving safety culture, the most common accidents are recurring, often with fatal results.

On both sides of the Atlantic, safety agencies report that pilots flying under visual flight rules (VFR) still regularly travel into instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) despite knowing that there is a risk. This category of accident continues to top the killer list, and often occurs in an area with which the pilot is familiar, where familiarity can encourage the crew to take risks in marginal conditions. But it also happens in remote, wild parts of the world where it would be surprising that any pilots unfamiliar with the area should fly without being well briefed, equipped and appropriately trained.

Norway's Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) has judged it necessary to suggest that its neighbouring European national aviation authorities warn private pilots considering flying to Norway to prepare themselves for rapid and dramatic weather changes, particularly in coastal and northern areas.

The NCAA report which triggered this warning cites an example from early August 1999 of a non-Norwegian pilot flying a Cessna 182Q, equipped with double Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite navigation systems. The pilot chose to fly VFR around the North Cape, passing through forecast frontal weather to a coastal airfield destination - Honningsvag - which was predicted to be clear. The pilot, who had no instrument rating, had spoken to the forecaster and as a result had delayed departure from Tromso, Norway's northernmost city, by a few hours. Although the forecaster advised delay until the following day, the pilot flew anyway.

The aircraft was last seen flying past Hammerfest airfield at 300-400ft (90-120m) above sea level, shortly after which it crashed at Reinoya, an island in a fjord, killing both people aboard. The Norwegian investigators say that the weather over the coast and the sea included fog patches right down to the surface.

GPS factor

The investigators believe that the aircraft's GPS may have been a factor in the accident causes, observing that "the Board has seen a tendency for some pilots to accept flying in marginal weather since the GPS was introduced to general aviation. The accuracy of this navigation system gives them the confidence that they will manage to find their destination." The NCAA also notes that concentration on setting or reading the GPS has caused spatial disorientation accidents in Norway when its use is associated with rapid weather change.

Similar observations about GPS' clear virtues mutating into hazards have been made by the US National Transportation Safety Board and the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, particularly on flights in Alaska and northern Canada.

"Pilot decision-making", identified as a factor in many fatal accidents, is cited in the US Federal Aviation Administration's "Safer Skies Agenda". Organisations like the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association and the National Business Aircraft Association, working together in the General Aviation Joint Steering Committee (GAJSC), are trying to determine better ways of communicating to ordinary GA pilots the importance of keeping up-to-date with the best safety practices. Other areas of concern - often inter-related - include all the old favourites: accidents associated with poor weather; controlled flight into terrain; runway incursion accidents; and loss of control - often while manoeuvring close to the ground.

Although they are still working on the issues, the GAJSC has published its "expected outcomes", generic solutions to each accident category factor. To aid pilot decision-making, for example, the GAJSC proposes: "The provision of new decision aids and educational training, and enhancement of existing guidance material." So at this stage the proposals have not been sufficiently developed to be of use.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) has just completed a "benchmarking review" of its general aviation safety, comparing it with that of Canada and the USA.

The ATSB defines GA as all fixed-wing aviation apart from scheduled airline flights, and it has concluded that Australian GA fatal accident rates have not only been falling, but are actually better than the figures for North American states. Australia has reduced its fatal accidents per 100,000 flying hours from 1.41 in 1990 to 1.00 in 2000. The respective figures for the USA are 1.55 and 1.11, and for Canada 1.87 and 1.29. All three are getting better, but Australia is improving fastest.

Warbirds and displays

A specialist area of general aviation safety which forces its way into the public consciousness from time to time is air display safety. Air show accidents, sometimes fatal, are not unusual. Any such an accident is, by definition, a very public event, although it is rare for spectators to be hurt or killed as a result of an air display crash.

Vintage aircraft, particularly former military "warbirds", are among the most popular participants in air displays. The crowd will expect some manoeuvres to show them off, even if not full-scale aerobatics. Two fatal warbird accidents occurred at this year's June air show at Biggin Hill, UK: one involving a de Havilland Vampire, a single engine fast-jet trainer from the 1950s; the other, a Second World War P63 King Cobra. Both were carrying out limited aerobatics when they crashed.

Subject to possible recommendations following these specific investigations, the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) says that it does not see any need for change in the extensive European Joint Aviation Authorities guidance document covering air show safety. What the CAA has done, however, is to send out letters to all UK-licensed air display pilots. This letter re-iterates safety considerations specific to pilots flying vintage types, provides pilots with a check list and asks them to be self-critical of their own and their aircraft's performance potential, taking into consideration everything from aircraft maintenance to how recently they have flown the type.

Most of the focal points listed concern the pilot's degree of familiarity with the aircraft, its performance and its systems, because although display pilots usually tend to be experienced professional aviators, their total hours on type may be quite low and they may have accrued few recent hours of flying time on it. Old aircraft, especially the high-performance propeller-driven types, are also almost inevitably more difficult to fly and manage than their modern peers. Finally, the low-altitude manoeuvring flight demanded by display audiences is rarely the pilot's full-time flying job. If all the worst of these conditions come together in a single flight, it is clearly a high-risk operation compared with most other forms of flying, unless the pilot tones down the display with his/her limitations in mind, or the limitations of the man/machine combination.

Talking of the regulations and safeguards already in place to control air show safety, John Davis, chairman of the Air Display Association Europe and a display check pilot, remarks: "I think that the box we fly in is adequate [to protect audience safety], but we should be ready to change what we do within it if necessary." He points out that, there are 400-500 air displays a year in the UK, and the last time a spectator was killed was in 1952.

Source: Flight International