While THE USA can exult in its lowest general aviation (GA) fatal-accident rate in history, and Canada's raw data for 1996 also look promising, the UK is forced to declare that last year was its worst since 1987. On the other side of the globe, New Zealand has been examining its extensive adventure-flying industry to decide how best to regulate it without a total ban.
Some 18 months ago, when the UK's Civil Aviation Authority announced that 1995 figures confirmed a gentle downward trend in an already-low fatal accident rate, it also cautioned: "There is no room for complacency." The Authority was right.
The USA's GA safety rate in 1996 - a best-ever 1.5 fatal accidents per 100,000 flying hours - was lower than that of the UK (1.9) for the first time since 1991.
Seventeen of the UK's 19 fatal GA accidents involved single-engine sport and leisure aircraft, and the causes were usually human-factor-related, but diverse within that category.
The CAA admits it is at a loss over how to account logically for the now-upward trend in the UK's GA fatal-accident rate three-year moving-average figures, and has appealed to the GA community to perform some self-regulation by keeping an eye on the performance of friends and colleagues.
The same GA Safety Information Leaflet (GASIL) which dejectedly reviewed the 1996 figures has suggested, more positively, that GA fliers who spot certain safety weaknesses or faults in colleagues should give them a warning, advice or encouragement. The CAA has identified several weaknesses, including:
- An offhand or cavalier attitude to rules, regulations or safety practices;
- out-of-practice fliers who need, but do not request, a dual check;
- lack of interest in attending CAA "safety evenings" at flying clubs;
- use of out-of-date charts and information;
- tendency to "show off" when flying;
- failure to obtain pre-flight aviation weather forecasts and disregard of safety altitudes.
US safety analysis
Weather was the most frequent single cause of fatal GA accidents in 1996, with "manoeuvring flight" - often the worst culprit - forced into second place, according to the US Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association's annual Joseph T Nall safety report. More than half the weather-related fatal accidents, which constituted 33.2% of all the 1996 fatal incidents, involved continuing a visual-flight-rules journey into worsening weather, and the resulting crash was normally controlled flight into terrain, or loss of control sometimes involving pilot-induced structural failure, says the AOPA. Weather-related accidents are more likely to be fatal than any other category - 68% of them were fatal in 1996.
Landings caused far more non-fatal accidents than any other event (438 accidents, or 39.7% of the total), but they caused relatively few fatal accidents (ten, or 4.5% of the total).
Manoeuvring flight, defined as carrying out manoeuvres (other than approach and landing) close to the ground, caused 26% of the USA's GA fatal accidents. These were caused mainly by flying too low and slowly, hitting trees or wires, and loss-of-control.
The Nall report quotes a study of more than 200 human-factor GA accidents which concluded that skill problems tended to cause most minor accidents, and decision-making errors predominated in the serious ones.
Adventure-flying can include aerobatics, low-flying, mountain-flying and "flying with passengers external to the aircraft", for example wing-walking or bungee-jumping from helicopters. In the end, however, it is a commercial operation for which passengers pay.
Most existing adventure-flying is illegal and takes place during "scenic" flights or in aircraft or with pilots not licensed for commercial flying, says New Zealand-based consultant McGregor, which produced a draft report commissioned by the New Zealand Civil Aviation Authority (NZCAA).
According to McGregor, the determination of acceptable risk and the transparency of that risk for the passenger, combined with commercial standards and levels of oversight, could be a basis for legitimising certain forms of adventure-flying. The NZCAA is now waiting to be convinced by potential operators that they can meet "equivalent safety standards".
Iain Kerr of the NZCAA's rules and standards department acknowledges that the UK and Canadian authorities are observing the process with horror, but believes that excitement need not be synonymous with unacceptable risk.
Commercial licensing standards would apply to both the aircrew and operators. Finally, the CAA must have the means to monitor practices closely because new ideas for adventure-flying "are theoretically limited only by man's imagination", says McGregor.
It seems that, in aerial adventure, people's imagination needs to be judiciously restricted. At the same time, the average GA pilot would do well to apply a little more imagination to planning before ordinary flights.
Source: Flight International