A Look At General Aviation Safety

Jul 22, 2014

Credit Joe Kunzler/Flickr

On Saturday morning, a Mooney single engine aircraft crashed three-quarters of a mile from the Lake Placid airport, killing the three people aboard, only the latest small plane crash in a region that has seen several in recent years. In the aftermath of that accident, WAMC’s North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradley takes a look at general aviation safety.

On the same day of the Lake Placid crash, there were three other fatal general aviation accidents in the country. The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating crashes that killed three people in Arizona and Florida and one person in Texas who was using an experimental aircraft.

Preliminary data from the NTSB’s 2009-2010 Transportation Administrator’s Fact Book on general aviation activity show that in 2010, there were 1,435 accidents with 450 fatalities. General aviation ranked fourth, trailing 32,885 highway fatalities, 672 recreational boating deaths, and 813 rail fatalities.

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, or AOPA, is the largest general aviation association. AOPA Foundation and Air Safety Institute President Bruce Landsberg jokes that general aviation is probably the most regulated personal activity on the planet. Landsberg, the industry co-chair of the General Aviation Joint Safety Committee, says there are extremely high standards for the airplanes, pilots and instructors.  “In general aviation roughly 75 to 80 percent of the accidents are caused by the pilot either doing something, or not doing something, that they should have done. I did just a little back-of-the-envelope research here, but over the last five years there have been 22 fatal accidents in the state of New York.  During almost the same time period for automobiles there were nearly 6,000 people killed.”

While there is a risk to flying, Landsberg notes that it is not unreasonable if the pilot is careful and the aircraft is well maintained. And, he says, there is a great emphasis on flight instruction safety.  “We make the point that not only do you have to physically be able to control the airplane and teach your students to physically control the airplane,  but we want people to assess  circumstances and say ‘okay this looks like it has a high risk potential’ and make sure your student understands.”

President and CEO of Professional Flight Training Al Itani is a designated pilot examiner for the FAA’s Albany Flight Standards District Office. Based at the Schenectady County Airport, Itani says all pilots must receive continual training to remain certified.  “Most of the time we spend during training is emergency procedures. You’ve got a single engine airplane, when you lose an engine, how do you manage that situation? We simulate an engine failure and we test them for that. But you know, there’s no way you can figure out how a person will react in a really high pressure scenario. But they are very, very well trained and we don’t get  too many accidents. Not  like cars.”

The AOPA’s Bruce Landsberg has seen preliminary reports on the weekend accident in Lake Placid.  “From what we know at this point, and I will stress that my comments are preliminary, we had two airplanes approaching a non-towered airport from opposite directions. That’s perfectly fine. So they each turned away from the other and then re-entered the traffic pattern. The Mooney pilot,  when he started his go-around, did not retract his flaps. In a go-around you do need to retract them. And when he started to make a turn back towards the airport, or was on final, the aircraft stalled and they lost lift and fell to the ground. Flying is not without risk, but it can be very, very safe.”

An annual inspection of every airplane is an FAA requirement.