Woody 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.
Think about the contrast between aircraft and auto engines. When was the last time your car engine just flat-out died for some reason other than it ran out of gas? I currently drive a 2004 Infiniti G35 that I bought as a salesman’s demonstrator, and it has never quit cold on me. Before that, I had a Nissan Maxima that I drove for 10 years with the same reliability. Before that, there was a Toyota Celica that endured for 170,000 miles and also never failed me.
Additionally, aircraft engines are designed to be inherently more reliable than auto powerplants. They’re rarely subjected to the abuses of car engines. Aircraft piston engines typically operate at lower compression ratios, turn only about half the rpm of automotive mills and normally run at a continuous power setting of 75% or less, rather than being cycled from idle to high power several dozen times on every drive. When aircraft engines do fail, it’s usually no fault of their own. Most often, engine problems are a result of abuse. Pilot-induced engine failures do happen when pilots overlean and overheat their engines, introduce contaminated fuel, mismanage good fuel, shock-cool or otherwise abuse the power source out front.
Structural failures, though extremely rare, are also possible, though again, most occur with help from the pilot, either through willful neglect or by simple ignorance. Corrosion, flying through thunderstorms, failure to properly preflight and a variety of other ills can cause an airplane to come apart in flight. Sometimes, though rarely, inherent design faults can bring down an otherwise good airplane.
That means you can all but exclude mechanical or structural failure from the list of accident causes. This leaves pilot error as the probable cause of three out of four accidents. Traditional wisdom has it that most accidents are rarely a result of a single problem. Sometimes, an avionics or mechanical problem precipitates a cascade of other errors that eventually bring the airplane down.
According to Bruce Landsberg of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation, low-altitude maneuvering and continued flight into deteriorating weather are two of the most common pilot errors. Low-altitude maneuvering scores high for two reasons: pilots who inadvertently stall while operating at low airspeeds near the ground, and those irresponsible hot dogs who decide it would be cool to buzz the girlfriend’s house and misjudge their airspeed, altitude and ability.
CFIT (controlled flight into terrain) accidents usually result from a pilot who pushes weather, thinking he can sneak through a small section of IFR conditions to VFR, only to discover that he’s in over his head, doesn’t know his exact position and is too proud (or stupid) to ask for help.
There’s little we can say to discourage pilots from making stupid mistakes, but even with pilot error, the numbers are encouraging. Accident statistics improve virtually every year. We transport about 65,000,000 people annually and only lose about 600 of them to accidents. That means you have about a one-in-a-million chance of being a victim in an aircraft accident, the lowest rate of all transportation forms.
When an airplane does come to grief, most of us go to school on the circumstances, the pilot’s actions or mistakes, and we vow we’ll never make that error. But the reality is, we very well may. No matter how much we vow not to make the mistakes we read about, we sometimes do, and not just once but twice or three, four or 27 times. Personally, I make a conscientious effort to avoid the same mistakes over and over. I try to find new ones.
Senior Editor Bill Cox is a 14,000-hour student pilot who’s still learning to fly. He provides consulting for media, entertainment and aviation concerns worldwide. E-mail him at [email protected].