A version of this article appears in the June 1 edition of Business & Commercial Aviaiton.
Recently aviation’s alphabet groups in Washington, D.C., joinedin an eight-month “Got Weather?” national safety campaign. The effort appears simple enough. “Have you fine-tuned your pre-flight decision making skills?” asks the FAA Administrator in a video accompanying the campaign. “Are you confident that you can complete a flight if you find yourself in changing weather?”
Administrator Michael Huerta’s personal message was not his first. This time last year, he wrote a letter to the general aviation community warning that the number of fatal accidents had remained “stubbornly flat” and urged pilots to “make sure you’re ready — really ready — to fly.”
Again the message was straight forward, but the effort is not. Reducing the general aviation accident rate overall, and the fatal accident rate in particular, has eluded Washington’s efforts. The(NTSB) was looking into an average 1,500 general aviation accidents a year in the U.S., resulting in 475 fatalities and injuries.
A spate of catastrophic airline crashes in the 1990s, including a 1996 ValuJet crash in the Florida Everglades that killed all 110 persons aboard, got the attention of the highest levels of Washington and coalesced the commercial aviation community. Something had to be done about airline safety. The following year FAA launched a Safer Skies initiative, setting what then looked like an improbable goal of reducing the commercial fatal accident rate by 80% within a decade. However, the Commercial Aviation Safety Team, or simply CAST, was created for the purpose and took a data-driven approach to achieving the goal. By 2008, the CAST had won the National Aeronautic Association’s coveted Collier Trophy for its work, which had resulted in an accident rate decline of 83%.
Washington was clearly focused on commercial aviation safety. But the question is did the same hold true for general aviation?
There certainly were efforts, but perhaps not in so coordinated a fashion. With FAA’s support, a General Aviation Joint Safety Committee (GAJSC) did form as part of the larger Safer Skies effort and some good work on safety was accomplished. But it lapsed after a while.
Business and general aviation associations remained active in their safety efforts. Also, manufacturers evolved technologies to bring situational awareness to general aviation cockpits. The results? The efforts fell short of moving the needle on general aviation safety. In fact, one 2010 NTSB study showed aircraft equipped with glass cockpits were actually experiencing a higher fatality rate than those with conventional instruments.
So, what to do to make real progress?
In 2011, the GAJSC reconvened and began to take a hard look at the statistics since the CAST’s concerted data-driven approach that had everyone on board — from line pilots to the FAA administrator and everyone in between.
Embracing CAST’s methodology, the GAJSC set a goal of lowering the general aviation accident rate to one fatal accident per 100,000 hr. flown by fiscal 2018. The goal garnered the important backing of the highest levels of the transportation community.
But, as with the CAST, the -GAJSC’s goal is ambitious. To progress toward that rate, the number of fatal accidents needed to dip below 253 in fiscal 2013. But midway through last year, the number of fatals was outpacing the goal and the numbers appeared to tick upward.
The administrator, who had stepped up the agency’s general aviation safety campaign since assuming the office, called a summit with all the stakeholders to discuss a unified strategy. “We cannot become complacent about safety,” he had said. “Together, we must improve the safety culture to drive the GA fatal accident rate lower.”
Short-term, the groups agreed to work collaboratively reminding the pilot community of potential pitfalls and decision-making. Their target was aimed specifically at loss-of-control accidents. The general aviation groups all disseminated Huerta’s letter to the pilot population last spring. And then, in a follow up action, Huerta, along with the heads of 11 general aviation organizations, sent a joint letter to the pilot population, expressing concern that airmen are taking medications without fully understanding their effects on flight.
Some of the longer-term improvements include changes in pilot testing and training standards, assembly of accident data to determine root causes and the rewrite of small aircraft (Part 23) certification standards to get critical safety equipment to market sooner. FAA backed that up with the release of a new streamlined approval process to encourage installation of angle of attack indicators.
In addition, beginning in 2011 the NTSB put general aviation safety on its “Most Wanted” list and issued safety alerts focusing on decision-making skills, risk assessments, and practical strategies to mitigate common safety hazards — all themes that the FAA and the industry associations have been stressing. And with the summer flying season approaching, the FAA and industry backed up that focus with the “Got Weather?” campaign.
While the message is simple, the task is complex as the variations of general aviation itself, embracing everything from low-time pilots flying simple machines off grass strips, to veteran airman driving turbine-powered aircraft through hard instrument missions into busy hubs.
Even so, 2013 finished strong. Accidents appear down 17.4% in fiscal 2013 with the actual numbers estimated within the targeted range of the GAJSC. And it looks like that trend is continuing. It seems the safety needle is moving towards the green at last.