Going Direct: Why So Many Plane Crashes?

Young pilot and veteran instructor
A young pilot found themselves in a tough situation when flying with a veteran instructor.

I sometimes hear non-aviation folk asking aloud why pilots “like reading about crashes so much?”

In late June 2019, a Beechcraft King Air 350 crashed on takeoff at Addison Airport, seven miles north of Dallas Love Field. The two pilots and all eight passengers perished in the crash. The NTSB is investigating and is months away from issuing a statement of probable cause. But accidents of this type—an apparent loss of control on takeoff—are most often the result of the loss of power in one of the engines at a high angle of attack and resultant roll into the good engine and into the ground, or in this case, into the side of a hangar.

That day, I covered the story on planeandpilotmag.com and for our eNews twice-weekly newsletter. Many thousands of people clicked on the link to read it.

All of this is to say that, yes, we report on aircraft accidents. Like us, competing magazine brands do, as well. I know the numbers on these stories, too. They’re historically the best-read articles in the magazine, and they’re closely followed on digital media, as well.

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But why are they so…popular, though I use the term advisedly. We pilots don’t “like” reading about accidents. In fact, the extreme opposite is true. We read them despite the fact that they’re often very hard to read. It’s virtually impossible to explain to non-pilots just how devastating it can be for us to read about aviation accidents. Even if we didn’t know the people involved, and we seldom do know them personally, we have hundreds of friends just like them. It’s a good bet, in fact, that we’re very much like them, as well. We read these stories in part to honor the experience of the pilots who were lost or injured in these accidents.

There’s another arguably more important reason. It’s hard to articulate it to non-pilots, but here we go. We read about accidents in order to come to a better, more nuanced understanding of the potential or likely causes, so we might formulate and update a personal safety plan to cut our risk in this inherently risky activity that we love so dearly.

From personal experience, I know this works. Many years ago shortly after I went to work at a large aviation publication, I started flying a lot, 150-250 hours a year, in single-engine piston planes. I was a new instrument-rated pilot, and most of my flying was for one of two purposes—for business transportation and family travel. At the time, I was working with legendary aviation journalist Richard Collins, and I had gone down to visit Richard for a story we were doing on used airplanes. He knew a guy with a beautifully restored Cessna 170. As we were pulling Richard’s Cessna P-210 out of his hangar at Hagerstown, Md., to go meet his friend at a nearby grass strip runway, we got to talking about how my flying was going. I told him that I was doing pretty well with it, but I had two big concerns: icing and thunderstorms. In his famously laconic way, he replied simply that, “Those are pretty good concerns to have.” The message was clear. Keep your ears open and keep learning.

And I did. Over the past many years, my understanding of the web of safety, for lack of a better term, has changed continuously as I’ve read, watched, listened and learned. And I’ve been lucky enough to have some of the best mentors in the business, in the history of the business, really.

GA Safety Culture

Around the same time that Richard Collins validated my concerns about my personal flying, we were also at the beginning of a much needed sea change in the way we looked at aviation safety, focusing on how we can prevent the kinds of accidents that made up most of the FAA docket on any given day.

Over the years, the FAA—chief regulator of all things with wings—has viewed safety chiefly from a punitive perspective. Their operative mission was always to find out who did what and, once that was determined, arrive at how best to assign blame and punishment. Of course, they also worked to educate pilots, but their efforts, as well as the best attempts of general aviation education organizations, did little to move the safety needle.

A file photo of a Short Brothers Tucano Mk 2 turboprop single-engine fighter trainer. It was the model that famed Hollywood composer James Horner was flying when he crashed while maneuvering at low level around rising terrain in Southern California in 2015.

A few years ago I had the chance to visit with the people with the United States Air Force Safety Center, headquartered in Albuquerque, N. M. The command isn’t well known. In fact, before I visited I was only remotely aware of its existence, and even then only because of its accident investigation lab, an outdoor site with multiple aircraft crash sites that the USAF put together in order to teach its personnel how to investigate mishaps. Every week a new class of investigators arrives in Albuquerque for training in mishap investigation. The use of the lab is only a part of the training. The larger part is coming to understand the mission, a mission, I should add, that we in the civil aviation world have benefitted from a great deal over the years. The gains have not been in improved investigation but in informing how we think about accidents. The idea is to look at them as events to help us prevent accidents instead of as events that trigger an investigation. The latter approach has more in common with a crime probe than a safety mission and, as such, focuses on the accident from exactly the wrong perspective.

Some wildly successful civil programs are modeled after the Air Force’s harm reduction paradigm. The Flight Operations Quality Assurance (FOQA) program, an FAA-airlines partnership, monitors flight recorder data to spot risky trends. NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System emphasizes data over enforcement by giving pilots a self-reporting system that will help stop problems that previously pilots hid for fear of, as pilots say, “getting violated.” 

So how to explain the widespread coverage of, and interest in, aviation mishaps? The word, I know, sounds strange at first. “Mishap” seems an intentional effort to downplay the seriousness of what we’d normally refer to as “accidents” or “crashes,” but it’s not that at all. The Air Force uses the term to underscore that there’s nothing accidental about the incident. Mishaps, in its view, are complex events that require a careful analysis into what happened, how it happened, and how it can be prevented in the future. The idea is not to assign blame, but to fix the problem with the goal of keeping Air Force personnel alive and safe from harm.

In this way the Safety Center helped change the Air Force’s culture of safety for the better.

That’s what is going on in our neck of the woods, as well. We’re late to the game, but at least we’re in it now, and the great news is that we’re making progress. And when it comes to aviation mishaps, “progress” is measured in lives saved.

Show Off Your Flying Photos

If you like taking photographs of airplanes, and who doesn’t, why not show your skills in Plane & Pilot’s kickoff photo contest, which begins in September 2019? There’s no entry fee for this contest, and the winner will be eligible for great prizes. 

The theme for this first contest is Your Flying World, and if you’re thinking that’s a pretty broad category, you’re right. We want to encourage as many of our readers as possible to enter this first contest. If it’s flying related and you care about it, then we’d love for you to give it your best shot.

Serving as judges for the contest will be myself along with a couple of famed aviation photographers. Steve Zimmermann, whose incredible work we shared with you (July 2019) in our Air-to-Ground II feature story. Our second guest judge is none other than Jim Koepnick, the famed aviation photographer whose brilliant work you’ve seen in aviation magazines far and wide. It’s one of Jim’s shots that graces the cover of this month’s issue, as well. Between the three of us, we’ve got nearly 100 years of professional aviation photography experience and many hundreds of magazine covers to our credit.

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