USA Today splashed across its June 18, 2014, front page the breathless headline, "Unfit for Flight" to dramatize the deadly enterprise of flying general aviation aircraft (small airplanes). We learn in bold print there have been 45,000 deaths attributed to small aircraft and dozens of multimillion-dollar verdicts that reveal lies and coverups.
There is only one problem: Nearly every inference about aviation in the article is wrong. Let's put this in perspective statistically. If a private pilot flew 10 hours per week, 52 weeks per year, for 30 years, it would take over five lifetimes to be involved in a fatal accident.
The real story here is media bias and editorial malpractice, not the dangers of aviation or manufacturing defects. The article insinuates that huge numbers of people are dying in small airplanes, and that the cause is largely manufacturing defects. Both conclusions are untrue. Deaths in general aviation are actually few relative to comparable activities, and when there is an accident manufacturing defects rarely play any role. The writing in the USA Today article is so transparently biased that the author draws conclusions obviously inconsistent with his own presentation. An example is a chart showing a significant decline in generation aviation accidents with the headline "general aviation accident crash rate remains steady." In spite of that absurd claim the chart clearly shows the death rate since 1983 declined from 107 per million flight hours to 65; and the total number of accidents declined from 1,068 to 444 over that same period. And those 45,000 deaths so boldly presented? Sure, over a period of 50 years; that's right, 50 years, or an average of 900 deaths per year (and declining to 444 in 2011). I guess 450 deaths per year are just not sexy enough for headline space. Compare 450 general aviation deaths to the 35,000 killed each year on our highways. If this author were writing about the dangers of driving, the headline would scream that driving has caused 1,750,000 deaths (and then in small print we'd learn that the number is the total over five decades). The author also failed to mention that the non-commercial helicopter accident rate has dropped 30 percent, another statistic that is not amenable to headline hyperbole.
The innuendo in mentioning the high-dollar verdicts in the headline is also terribly misleading, and the worst kind of journalism. In the absence of facts, smear with insinuation. This is an age of multimillion-dollar settlements from hot coffee. Settling is often all a manufacturer can do without implying any guilt at all in order to cap potential damage no matter how meritless a suit may be.
Let me pause here to present my aviation credentials. I am an active pilot with over 5,000 hours total time. I hold an Airline Transport Pilot rating, own and operate a single engine jet, and have been actively involved with general aviation for nearly 30 years. I have no financial interest or any connection to any aircraft manufacturer. I have often enough been an adversary to aircraft manufacturers and have no love for them. But this article is a smear campaign against an entire and rather noble industry that distorts and twists the truth to reach a preconceived conclusion independent of the facts. Few industries are more highly regulated or more closely scrutinized than aircraft manufacturers. Have some acted badly, covered up defective parts, or made short-sighted decisions that compromised safety? Absolutely. And those cases should be prosecuted fully and the companies punished severely. The USA Today article rightfully points out these horrible cases, with their terrible human cost of pain and suffering; but then makes the critical mistake of drawing broad conclusions that do not follow the facts.
Cases of malfeasance, no matter how horrible, are no reason to broadly condemn an entire enterprise. Airplanes are beautiful, complex machines with hundreds of intricate parts moving in perfect harmony, subject to severe mechanical stress, wild swings in extreme temperatures and harsh rain, wind and turbulence. Airplanes operate in an unforgiving and ever-changing environment that leaves little room for error. With this burden, and under the scrutiny of heavy regulation, manufacturers do a superb job of producing safe, durable, reliable machines that can function dependably over decades in these tough and challenging conditions. My beefs with them have always been in the area of customer service, not the safety of their product. What makes a small airplane accident so newsworthy is rather rare nature of a crash due to the overall reliability of personal aircraft.
The USA Today author demonstrates a terrible ignorance of aviation. Here is a typical canard: "While the airline crash rate has plummeted to near zero, the general aviation rate is unchanged from 15 years ago, and roughly 40 times higher than for airlines." But the comparison is absurd; the statistic measures a population of professional pilots who undergo mandatory recurrent training twice per year, who fly highly sophisticated machines with triple redundancies and multiple jet engines, with two pilots in the cockpit, supported by an army of mechanics and a massive ground crew feeding them information on weather, routing, and airport conditions. General aviation should be compared to driving, not commercial flying. GA pilots are by definition amateurs who do not make a living from flying; we often fly alone in simple machines with little or no redundancy, usually with one piston engine, and are responsible for gathering our own information on weather, flight conditions, and the health of the airplane. Yet even with that awesome disadvantage, with wild differences and pilot skill and experience in the GA community, with a fleet mix of old and new equipment, we still see relatively few deaths from flying. Hell, 50 people die each year snow skiing. SCUBA diving kills about 150 per year. Recreation boating claims about 750 people each year, significantly more than general aviation. Nothing about general aviation is out of line with any other sport that entails inherent risk. There is no grand conspiracy or systematic flaws in manufacturing. Instead, what we see is simply the unreliable element of human nature.
Stupid Pilot Tricks
Formal accident investigations claim that pilot error is responsible for 86 percent of all accidents. We in the aviation community know that this number is low; pilot error is a bigger contributor than that. The accidents included in the 86 percent usually involve some obvious mistake like low altitude aerobatics ("hey, Mom, watch this"), flying into severe weather, flying when ill or tired, or taking off with more weight than the airplane is designed to handle. But pilot error is deeper than that. Aircraft are complex machines that require careful, constant and expensive maintenance. If time or money are constraints, and they often are, and anything about maintenance is neglected, that too is pilot error. So too we see pilot error when in the face of a mechanical failure a pilot fails to land safely as a consequence of poor training. Yes, some failures are catastrophic and unrecoverable; but many can be survived if a pilot is properly equipped to handle the emergency. Failure to do so in a recoverable situation is pilot error.
Helmet on the Couch
USA Today makes a common mistake in this article based on a fundamental misunderstanding of risk. Flying 300 mph at 27,000 feet in an aluminum tube is not equivalent to sitting a home on the couch wearing a helmet. Yes, we will continue to strive to reduce the risk of flying through proper pilot training, vigilant aircraft maintenance and good manufacturing practices; but the risk will never be zero. People will die flying, as they will when driving, skiing, mountain climbing, boating, diving, and walking to work. And here we get to the essence of the misunderstanding. Inadequate pilot training, faulty parts, and other such factors contribute to bad outcomes, but that is not the whole story. To put manufacturing defects into perspective, and to see why the USA Today article was so far off the mark about how general aviation is horribly unsafe, we need to grasp some essentials in the art and science of risk management.
Risk Is Not Just Risk
We can start by first breaking down the concept of risk into two main categories, inherent and operational. Then we'll see how that distinction is necessary to refute absurd articles like the one splashed across the USA Today headlines.
Flying creates an inherent risk; going further, we can say that flying is inherently dangerous. Think of the guy in a helmet watching TV in his living room as a comparison. Defying gravity at high speed will always entail risk inherent to the activity. But we're sold on the inverse of this reality, told that flying is inherently safe. It is not; we only create that illusion by successfully minimizing the risk with appropriate diligence. This inverse reality impacts how we perceive aircraft accidents. Even when we attribute the cause to pilot error, the assumption is usually that the pilot was doing something inherently safe, and then crashed by taking an unsafe action. But that is not true. Instead, the pilot was doing something inherently risky, and failed to manage the risk properly. Those two explanations of the accident are not equivalent. Which brings us now to operational risk.
Operational risk is that caused by our own decisions and actions in pursuit of a goal or objective. We willingly take on operational risks by measuring the anticipated consequences of our actions against potential gains. We can choose to take an action that is more dangerous than not taking that action. I might risk a slip on ice if I were walking to an important meeting, but avoid that risk if I had simply intended to go snag a cup of Joe. We have a much greater degree of control over operational risks. Unlike with inherent risk, here our decisions and actions are the direct cause of any grief we may experience.
Operational risks represent the greatest threat to safety in aviation; not defective manufacturing. We face these threats on every flight in every condition at every airport. Our decision-making itself is what creates the risk. As an aside, I should note too that general aviation pilots are exposed to a greater degree of operational risks than commercial pilots. For example, we have no duty-cycle limitations. That freedom places on us a greater potential for higher operational risk because we are allowed to make dumb choices not available to airlines. The most obvious operational risk is weather avoidance; but also included in this are our decisions about proper maintenance, currency, quality of training and a host of other factors. USA Today wants us to believe there is a crisis of manufacturing defects in aircraft causing airplanes and people to fall from the sky; it is simply untrue. The author exaggerates the numbers (you know, by a factor of 50), and then incorrectly attributes cause. Other than that...
Managing Does Not Mean Eliminating
Another significant point missed completely in USA Today: risk management does not mean in the real world eliminating risk although the two are commonly confused. Rather the idea is to recognize risk, reduce potential risk to the greatest extent reasonably possible, and mitigate that which cannot be avoided. We have an obligation to make flying as safe as humanly possible. But "as safe as humanly possible" does not mean risk-free.
Flying is inherently dangerous; we cannot eliminate all aspects of operational risk; and no form of risk management is perfect. What that means: people are going to die flying airplanes. An accident does not automatically mean someone did something wrong. An accident can simply be the manifestation of flying's inherent risk, even if everybody did everything right. You do not believe me? A large bird strikes and severely damages the propeller of a single-engine airplane flying between Greenland and Iceland. No matter the level of training, maintenance, planning, and pilot skill that brought the aircraft to this moment, the fatal outcome of that strike is inevitable. And nobody is to blame; only the inherent risk of flying.
"Stuff" happens. Let us never confuse risk management with risk elimination; the two are entirely different animals. Let us do everything within our power to improve safety. But we must acknowledge that in spite of those efforts, we will never eradicate the dangers inherent to flying. From every accident we must learn all that is possible. But not every accident is an indictment of aviation's training, safety and maintenance programs, nor necessarily reflective of poor pilot skill or judgment, nor indicative of a conspiracy of manufacturers to sell us faulty parts. The sensationalism of the article in USA Today does nobody any service. They got it wrong completely. Flying is relatively safe because we have made it so by managing inherent risk and minimizing operational risk; piling on manufacturers with exaggerated claims, bloated numbers and inaccurate conclusions does not help us advance toward a better record of safety. USA Today made itself part of the problem rather than contributing to the solution.