Is General Aviation Safe or Not?
General aviation, consisting of small private planes, helicopters, gliders, corporate jets and other similar aircraft, make up the biggest component of air traffic overall. While large commercial airliners make the biggest headlines when there is a crash, thousands of accidents and incidents with general aviation craft occur every year, and many go unnoticed outside of their local area or are barely reported at all.
That pattern changed this week, with the publication of a three-part series by USA Today called Unfit for Flight, sounding a wake-up call on the safety of general aviation. The series of articles are titled as follows:
Part One – Unfit for flight
Part Two – Unchecked carnage
Part Three – How much is a human life worth?
The series uncovers the dangers of general aviation and paints a frightening picture of airplane safety. While pilot error is generally considered to be the cause of the vast majority of small plane crashes, the USA Today articles absolve pilots of much of the fault traditionally assigned to them, instead laying blame at the feet of aircraft manufacturers, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). Some interesting aspects of general aviation safety mentioned in the series are highlighted below:
- NTSB General Aviation investigations for small planes and helicopters are minimal and brief; many are literally “phoned in” and overlook defective parts and dangerous designs, preferring instead to blame pilot error
- The FAA puts a value on human life and performs a cost-benefit analysis measuring the value of lives saved versus the costs involved when deciding whether to accept or reject safety proposals that would make air travel safer
- The average single-engine airplane registered with the FAA is over 40 years old, and many are more than 50 years old, built long before modern safety features were invented
- Aircraft designed before certain safety standards were developed can still be built today according to the old safety standards rather than adhering to modern rules
Association group reacts to the articles
The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) calls the USA Today report “extremely flawed,” “sensational” and “one-sided,” highlighting the fact that there has been a 40% decrease in fatalities since the ’90s. AOPA lashed out at USA Today for failing to include this fact in its articles. Actually, the series does state that the death toll has decreased as people have flown less, but the general aviation crash rate has remained the same. AOPA mentions that it, the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA), and Textron (makers of Bell helicopters and Cessna, Beechcraft and other aircraft) had supplied information to the reporter, but it was not used. As of this writing, neither GAMA nor Textron has responded to the USA Today articles on their websites. It is interesting that AOPA, which purports to represent small aircraft owners and pilots, is so critical of the articles which tend to defend pilots and target their criticism against aircraft manufacturers, the FAA and the NTSB.