Why so many crashes lately -- many with CFI's?

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Lately there have been three fatal small plane crashes in the Los
Angeles area.

The first was a mid air collision over Long Beach, with a CFI and
student in one of the planes.

The second was a crash near the Tehachapi airport with an
experienced pilot returning from a 4th of July air show.

The latest this week was a plane doing touch and goes at the
Hawthorne airport with a CFI on board.

Now I really don't want to be a downer, but as a beginning student
pilot this scares the heck out of me. And two of these were
students with CFI's on board!

Is it really possible to avoid these kind of accidents if you are
careful and well trained... or are the risks just so high and the
margin for error so small that it is just a matter of fate before
your number comes up?

-- Joel Wacknov, July 17, 2009


Mid-air collisions are very rare, but if you are going to have one the Los Angeles basin is a very likely place for it. You can reduce the risk of a mid-air by staying in constant contact with ATC and/or having a traffic warning system with a synthetic voice (systems that require you to put your head down and look at a screen are probably counterproductive). It also helps to have a plane with excellent all- around visibility, e.g., a Diamond DA40. In the event of a collision, an airframe parachute would be a big help.

The Tehachapi crash you mentioned was apparently in an ancient L-29 Czech military trainer. Presumably that plane was safe when operated on a daily basis by a foreign military, but standard civilian maintenance and training would not necessarily result in safe operation on a once-per-month basis. Whatever caused this accident is probably not very relevant to the typical private pilot flying a Piper Warrior or Cessna 172.

The touch-and-go practice accident is tough to understand, but the fact that they had passengers in the back may have contributed to the problem. The extra weight makes a plane stall at a higher airspeed and also reduces the effectiveness of recovering with power. The plane was a Bonanza, which is not a typical trainer. The CFI on board might have had very little experience with the plane.

You can probably reduce your accident risk by a factor of 10 with a combination of more training, flying in good weather, flying during daylight hours, adhering to procedures and checklists, etc., which makes flying safety more controllable than driving safety.

-- Philip Greenspun, July 19, 2009

When I was working on a pilotメs license 30 years ago many planes had fatality rates of 1 in 50,000 hours. That sounds like a nice big fat number until you start crunching it. Over a period of fifty years, flying a couple hundred hours a year, would add up to 10,000 hours. A one in five probably of death was outrageously unacceptable to me.

Aviation safety has improved. One manufacturer can now claim fatal accident rates of 0.2 per hundred thousand hours. This is approaching the exposure you face driving a car. Way higher than it should be but one Iメm モwilling to live with.ヤ

My gut feeling is that the odds for you are substantially better than the average pilot because you recognize the risks, don't suffer from the "can't happen to me" mentality. If you do most of your flying in VFR you can figure you are safer by a factor several times over. Accidents rates go up in significantly in IMC and especially at night and the, モI absolutely gotta get there by tonightナヤ mentality is especially deadly.

In scuba diving one of the sentinel rules is always dive with a buddy. For many pilots itメs not expedient to find a co-pilot but for the same reasons you want to have another along underwater, having someone next you up in the air is an extra set of eyes and ears - and can make the trip more fun and sometimes cut the expenses in half.

The first couple of hundred hours are especially critical and the quality of your flight instructor makes a huge difference once youメre flying on your own. When I first took lessons I remember a blustery day and after just one decision on my part to do a go around the instructor cut the lesson short and landed the plane. He just didn't want to give lessons to any student pilot on a windy day. I might have been fine getting licensed then, flying around the San Joaquin Valley where winds are usually light, but it could have been disastrous if I got over confident and got caught up in gusts on the Mojave that I wasnメt prepared for.

Flying has its risks, and you can mitigate a number of them, but like life in general, you canメt eliminate them all. And anyone is certainly being prudent and reasonable if they do not want to accept the exposure. For me there is something about flying that is tremendously compelling and satisfying and one of the few higher risk activities Iメll do.

-- Richard Miles, July 18, 2009

As with any high-risk activity, you can substantially reduce your risk by understanding the principles of the activity risk. Eg. learn all about how accidents happen. If you study accidents you will see the same situations over and over. A good book of reference is The Killing Zone which studies private pilot accidents. Another book Flying Alaska is about the flying life of a bush pilot, who crashed a few times, and has delt with conditions well beyond what most private pilots will ever face.

-- Richard S, July 18, 2009

Despite the fact that the FAA collects a tremendous number of statistics, unfortunately they do not have definitive statistics on all of the factors that a pilot can take to mitigate risks, but, intuitively I�d agree completely with the factor of ten idea.

The one stat that they can tell you definitively is that more than 80% of accidents are caused by �human error.� Unfortunately, this is often interpreted in post accident scuttlebutt as �stupid pilot did dumb thing.� Good human machine interface studies are lacking. The reality is that it is easy to get into a situation, even in VFR weather, when the weather is turbulent, and it�s challenging just to keep the plane flying straight and level such that no maverick flying Adonis with an IQ of 200 would be able to keep up with it all and be aware of every risk from other aircraft, terrain and obstacle. These are some additional thoughts:

Buy a fly simulator, install it on a computer equipped well for gaming, and use it extensively to try out scenarios that are hazardous in real life. Work on situational awareness and get quick and proficient in all the navigation skills needed to fly IFR even while you�re at the student pilot stage.

If flying solo, no matter your budget, choose to only fly a plane with at least a wing leveler and preferably a quality autopilot. Use situational awareness equipment, GPS, terrain warning systems, synthetic vision, etc. There are some interesting, inexpensive, roll your own, alternatives that might we worth considering for those of us who can�t afford the systems costing ten�s of thousands of dollars.

Fly slower planes. As you double your speed the energy on impact increases by a factor of four. Diamond Aircraft grew out a business that originally produced gliders, planes that are built to handle well just above stall speed. This may prove to be the primary reason their planes have the highest safety rating. I would stay out of any plane with a demonstrated crosswind component of less than 15 knots and prefer planes that have at least a 20kt crosswind component. An area for which a study is especially needed is STOL aircraft � a term that, in effect, means a plane that can land at low airspeed with comparatively more responsive handling as the flight controls start to mush.

If you�re like me, flying will make you nervous at times, especially once the instructor lets you fly solo. And that�s natural, and a good instinct to have. His exterior demeanor may have appeared calm but internally Neil Armstrong�s heart rate soared when he was trying to set the lunar module down on the moon. As you fly more you�ll notice a tremendous difference in the quality of pilots, how much some work on their skills vs. others who think that all they need to be a great pilot is to get the license. But for those make the effort their odds should be better than one in a million hours.

-- Richard Miles, July 19, 2009

Thanks for the thoughtful replies and practical advice.

Hearing about students with CFI's getting into serious accidents makes you think hard. It's a little like hearing about Priests molesting children -- how can it happen?

But you have convinced me the risk can be managed, not to the level of a being a couch potato, but to the level that makes it well worth the rewards. And obviously none of you would be flying, especially for recreation, if you didn't feel that was the case.

A million hours is over 100 years of continuous flying. If you do all the right things is the fatality rate really on this order? Most people don't survive 100 years of continuous living!

-- Joel Wacknov, July 19, 2009