FAA’s now-retired general aviation chief thinks risk-management tools and methods do not get enough emphasis either in initial or recurrent GA pilot training, even though his own research suggests as many as 75% of personal GA flying accidents can be traced to poor risk-management decision-making.

Robert A. Wright, who retired in 2005 from FAA’s Washington headquarters as manager of the General Aviation and Commercial Div. (AFS-800), spent the latter part of his career at the agency creating and implementing the FAA Industry Training Standards (FITS) program aimed at modernizing pilot training and making a dent in the long-flat fatal accident rate in general aviation.

That work, and additional research he has done in post-retirement consulting, led him to conclude that poor risk-management skills are prominent as the root cause of “a solid majority of general aviation fatal accidents.”

Wright analyzed accident records for three separate populations of aircraft, in which he reviewed probable-cause determinations and factual statements to “test” the degree to which risk management played a role in the root cause of the mishap.

He examined 37 fatal accidents in Cirrus aircraft between 1999 and May 1, 2008; 68 fatal Beech Bonanza V35, Cessna 172 and Cirrus SR22 incidents recorded between 2007 through 2009; and 53 fatal accidents in Arizona involving a range of aircraft from 2001 to 2010.

After eliminating duplicate incidents and those without enough information, the analysis focused on 150 incidents, and Wright found overwhelmingly that poor risk management played a prominent role. Some 71% of the Cirrus incidents in the first study group could be traced to risk-management root causes, along with 70% of the Cirrus incidents in the second group. Eight of the 12 Bonanza accidents studied could be classified as risk-management accidents, and a full 86% – 24 of 28 – Cessna 172 accidents examined fell into the risk-management category. For the Arizona accidents, 76% were judged risk-management related.

An Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee (ARAC) recently offered for public comment draft proposals that would dramatically reshape the way new pilots are trained, tested and certified (BA, April 29/p. 5), reflecting FAA’s goal of incorporating task-specific risk management considerations into each area of aircraft operation.

In comments filed May 2 on the proposed new Airman Certification Standards (ACS), Wright called the concept outlined in the draft “an excellent idea and long overdue.

“By integrating knowledge and skill requirements for each task, and especially by adding risk-management knowledge and skills, the FAA and industry are finally addressing the main causes of fatal accidents,” Wright wrote.

Wright included his research results in comments on the ARAC proposal, and offered six recommendations for FAA to consider – more research to validate risk management’s role in fatal GA accidents; updating FAA doctrine and handbooks to reflect risk-management principles; modifying the knowledge test and practical training standards (PTS) to ensure effective and consistent ways to test risk-management skills; the development of risk-management training curricula and courseware with minimum standards for training; having FAA create a flight review ground training module covering risk management; and modifying the current voluntary FAA Wings program to emphasize risk management and to create a second, “graduate”-level Wings program for more experienced pilots that would include comprehensive risk-management training and incentives to spur participation.

All of these steps could work together to reduce the GA accident rate which, as Wright notes, has been static for more than a decade. Moreover, the National Transportation Safety Board says that although the overall accident rate has held steady at around 6.8 per 100,000 flight hours, the components of that figure have changed dramatically during the past decade, adding that the fatal GA accident rate has risen 25% during that time period.

The Civil Air Patrol, the U.S. Air Force Auxiliary, operates the largest fleet of GA aircraft anywhere – some 550, overwhelmingly Cessna 172s and Cessna 182s – and flies them under demanding conditions, and yet posts accident rates consistently lower than the rest of the GA community. Its most recent reported rate is 4.04 incidents per 100,000 flight hours, well below NTSB’s recorded GA rate, and the organization credits formalized risk management processes for much of that success.

Apart from more rigorous training and currency standards – an annual, rather than biannual, checkride, performed at a standard almost identical to those pilots must meet to get their certificate – “to go fly, we have a flight-release procedure to go through,” explains Brig. Gen. Joe Vasquez, CAP’s national vice commander. A CAP pilot “has to call someone and go through the risk assessment with the Flight Release Officer,” who serves as “another set of eyes looking at every CAP flight” assessing risks before it is released.

In addition, CAP aircraft are maintained to a Part 135 standard, “even though we’re only doing Part 91 flights,” says Vasquez, and “we go a little above the general industry on … training standards” for existing pilots, particularly for aircraft equipped with advanced systems such as the Garmin G1000 glass cockpit.