Every now and then it seems like all you hear about are private aircraft accidents. To a certain extent, that’s due to a herd mentality among media–one crash begets heightened attention and quick reporting of the next one if close in time. But it’s also true that fate occasionally allows a cluster of accidents. In fact, the majority of general aviation accidents (small aircraft not flying for a charter customer or corporate owner) you never hear about, because they’re covered only by local media. Even when people have been killed, it takes a very slow news day and a heightened level of media attention to get the disaster on the national news outlets.
The truth is, general aviation is getting safer year by year, although there is no question that flying in a small aircraft is–statistically and on average–many times more hazardous than commercial airline flying. But remember, this is an average: it does NOT correctly reflect the safety of a careful, well-trained general aviation pilot in a well-maintained airplane.
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The biggest challenge in my view in the aftermath of a small aircraft accident is finding out all the contributing factors which led to the disaster so we can apply those lessons and prevent similar disasters in the future. While the blessedly few and far between commercial accident garners a full Go Team and sometimes years of careful scrutiny from the National Transportation Safety Board, small accidents usually draw only a single NTSB field investigator who usually has a very short period of time -measured in days – in which to solve the crash and file a report. Despite truly heroic efforts, many NTSB field investigators have to walk away from fatal air mishaps feeling that there was far more to it than just a bad pilot decision. The resources and the money, however, just can’t support the extremely detailed reports we’re familiar with from major accidents, and that fact means that we are prone to have repeat accidents from the same causes because we haven’t adequately learned and applied the lessons.
The Human Factors aspects–what led a human to fail when a human failure was at the heart of the loss–is a prime example. Okay, so we had a pilot continue flight into instrument weather conditions when he or she wasn’t qualified to handle such a challenge and that was a primary cause. But what leads a pilot to do such a thing? Bad raining? Bad attitude? Liquor? A hidden physical problem? When we’re unable to get all the contributing factors on the table, were unable to focus regulators and educators alike on eradicating the tendency of pilots to fall into the same traps.
So the next time you hear of (for instance) a light aircraft found in a ravine with a pilot and three passengers deceased in an accident which occurred in bad weather, don’t jump to conclusion that pilot error was the cause, or the only cause. Most accidents are far more complex.