Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Safety—A Tough Sell


Blame it on pilot error


piper coltWoody was one of those pilots we all thought would live forever. He was something of a legend in the ferry-flying community: an aviator who had been everywhere in pretty much everything, had never wrecked an airplane and seemed to live a charmed life. A former African missionary, he was a friend for 20 years who knew more about flying the world than anyone else I had ever met, and we all assumed he was invulnerable to the dangers of ferry flying.
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piper coltWoody was one of those pilots we all thought would live forever. He was something of a legend in the ferry-flying community: an aviator who had been everywhere in pretty much everything, had never wrecked an airplane and seemed to live a charmed life. A former African missionary, he was a friend for 20 years who knew more about flying the world than anyone else I had ever met, and we all assumed he was invulnerable to the dangers of ferry flying.

He wasn’t. As is so often the case with ferry pilots, he died alone in the water and with no contact with anyone, in this case, somewhere off the Azores in the middle of the cold, unforgiving North Atlantic on a stormy winter day. Details are sketchy, in fact almost nonexistent, and we’ll probably never learn what happened. No debris or oil slick was found. He was just—gone.

Okay, it’s true ferry flying is an aberration. We often operate at weights far over gross (2,000 pounds over in a Duke or 421). We may fly for 15 to 20 hours at a time while sucking fuel from standard wing tanks and as many as a half-dozen fuselage ferry tanks. Sometimes we fly IFR in the clag with temporary instruments, portable GPSs and HF radios. It can be a demanding environment, the risk can be fairly high, and whatever brought down Woody might not apply to the rest of the world. Still, even among pros who have survived several hundred international crossings, the message is that lack of due diligence is more likely to bring you to grief than the fall of the cards.

The sad fact is that 75% of all accidents are a result of pilot error. In other words, if we all did our jobs perfectly, three of every four accidents wouldn’t happen. Unfortunately, humans aren’t capable of such precision, no matter their level of training or natural ability. Accidents happen every year, and the broad-brush probable cause is usually pilot error.

Inexplicably, 25,000-hour ATPs sometimes make the same mistakes as 25-hour student pilots. The inevitable conclusion is that pilots often don’t learn from others’ mistakes. What many folks don’t consider, however, is that flying is almost ridiculously safe, airplanes are so reliable as to strain credibility, and accidents are most often notable only because of the media’s appetite for the sensational. “The Mooney Cardinal crashed in clear weather on Tuesday, July 14, in an empty field 20 miles from the nearest town when one of its three engines failed. All seven occupants walked away, but had the crash occurred three months later and 40 miles farther west, near the elementary school in Birdseed, Iowa, during recess, dozens of children might have been killed. The FAA reported the pilot had not filed a flight plan for the 72-mile flight, and that may have caused the accident.”

Perhaps because of such incredible misinformation, the nonflying public often assumes that little planes rain from the sky. In fact, the real numbers suggest all those assumptions are ludicrously incorrect.

As a whole, pilots are extremely competent and well-trained. The number of incidents averted by quick-thinking pilots is unquestionably logarithmically higher than accidents, because those near-mishaps go unreported. Imagine for a moment all the close calls you’ve had in an automobile, and compare that to the number of real accidents you’ve experienced—I’ll bet the ratio is several hundred to one. If anything, pilots are even better trained than drivers, and we probably avert an even higher ratio of accidents.

Some pilots don’t fully appreciate exactly how reliable aircraft engines are. If engine manufacturers can be faulted for not coming up with many new designs in the last 50 years, they should also be credited with building supremely reliable products.




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