Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Risky Business

Little-known tools that can help make your next flight safer

This form, developed from thousands of hours of research, helps pilots by making them aware of risks before a flight. The factors rated here contribute most to GA accidents. Click image to enlarge.
A real-life example of this was an accident in a Cessna 421. The highly experienced pilot and student noted one engine had been running rough and spoke about it to witnesses. They took off, but returned to the airport because of the engine problem.

The next day, they were unable to determine where the issue was coming from. During a subsequent run-up that day, the engine ran rough once again. Wanting to get the airplane back home, the pilot decided again to take off. At 400 feet AGL the engine quit. The pilot attempted a turn back to the runway but spun into the ground, killing himself and two others.

"The NTSB determined the probable cause was a mechanical failure, because it was later found there had been a fuel flow problem," explains Barnes. "But what killed this pilot was not the faulty engine. It was his decision to fly the airplane in that condition, and then to try a turn back to the runway at too low an altitude."

Looked at in those terms, 95% of all GA accidents have some direct relationship to a human factors issue, and only 5% can be accurately blamed on systems. "Sure, there are 5% that just happen," Barnes says. "And the outcome would be the same whether you or I were flying. But the other 95% are what we concentrate on."

Barnes points out the irony in today's training environment: We spend about 5% of our time on human factors and 95% on systems. The FAA, ICAO, NAFI and others are realizing that spending the least amount of time on the leading cause of GA accidents doesn't make sense, and they're trying to change that. Part of that's discovering—and addressing—the factors that cause pilots to make inexplicably poor decisions about a flight.

Barnes, like others, advocates a farreaching cultural change, where pilots create a careful, measured and conservative plan to manage the risks in a flight. This plan, according to Barnes, starts with your next flight. "It begins with trying to know everything there is to know about that flight and assessing the risk systematically." He demonstrates the tools that are available right now to help do that.

Risk Assessment Tool
The FAA took data from hundreds of carefully selected GA accidents and dissected the numbers in different ways. They looked at the root causes of the accidents and assigned values to each causal factor. They determined that three "systems" are involved in any accident: the pilot, the airplane and the environment ("P.A.E."). Then, they developed an ingenious form that combines all the research into a simple format that pilots can use before a flight to determine how risky their flight will be.


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