Opinion

Time to Stop Telling the Big Lie
About "Risk-Free" General Aviation

John King
General Aviation News
October 27, 2000


Every general aviation fatality is a tragedy for the people who knew the pilot. They will mourn the loss of a special person who accomplished much in a short life and was destined to do much more. General aviation, by its very nature, tends to self-select rare, achieving individuals.

It’s easy to see why. Flying requires the willingness to make an extended commitment to the stress of learning to control a machine that takes you thousands of feet in the air. And the folks who make this commitment to fly aren’t doing it to make a cheap impression on others. In fact, after they have mastered all the things they must learn, after they have honed their motor skills and accomplished their goal of becoming a pilot, few people truly understand what they have accomplished, and even fewer are impressed.

But as genuine and special as we general aviation pilots are, we are not nearly as safe as we should be. I think the culture of general aviation has a great deal to do with that. Pilots grossly underestimate the risks they take. For example, a study sponsored by the FAA indicates that when it comes to flying VFR in poor-weather conditions, low-time pilots are more comfortable with it than high-time pilots, and non-instrument-rated pilots are more comfortable with it than instrument-rated pilots.

If new pilots survive long enough, they tend to assess risks more appropriately, but even high-time pilots too often take risks that result in their demise. Why do we do such a poor job of risk management? Because we have all been told The Big Lie. We have been told it so long and so many times, that we now believe it and are repeating it to others.

Because we want new pilots and passengers to feel safe and comfortable in the air, we tell them that flying is safe. You’ve heard the old saw, "The most dangerous part of the trip was the drive to the airport" That's a great line. The only problem is, it's not true. It's not even close. The truth is, it is irresponsible to view general aviation as an entirely safe activity.

If you look at the statistics you will learn that the fatality rate per mile for general aviation is seven times that of driving. So where does this great line come from? The airlines. The fatality rate for the airlines is about seven times better than driving, and about 49 times better than general aviation.

The sad fact is we can do much, much better.

There is one simple thing we can do to dramatically improve our accident rate. We must change the culture of general aviation. Right now we are in denial. We must quit lying to pilots. We must tell pilots that aviation is risky. Other industries do a pretty good job of this already. Whenever you go horseback riding or take scuba lessons, you get a form to sign that says that there are risks involved, that you may be seriously injured or killed, and if it happens to you, you've been warned.

Yet when new pilots show up at the airport to take flying lessons, we tell them "Flying is perfectly safe."

We’ve got to stop doing this. We’ve got to tell new pilots that there are risks involved, but we are going to give them tools to manage those risks.

The problem is that if we don't tell people about the risks involved, they won't focus on managing those risks. Pilots must understand that there are risks in flying and that our most important job is risk management. Then those of us who train pilots must give pilots simple tools to assess and manage risk.

Eighty-five percent of accidents are caused by pilot error, which almost always involves lapses in risk management. There is constant tension in an airplane between risk management and mission completion. The pilot who does not assess risk properly will inappropriately choose mission completion.

Yet while the majority of accidents are caused by lapses in risk management, aviation training continues to focus on physical skill and precision rather than the perception and management of risk.

As an industry we’ve made what I believe are misguided attempts to focus on the human factor. The FAA has placed a new emphasis on the knowledge tests on judgment, decision-making and "the five hazardous attitudes." The problem with this approach is that most pilots come to aviation already established as successful people and simply don’t buy into the concept that they have poor judgment and don't know how to make decisions. They will, however, buy into the need to learn specific tools to manage risk in the aviation environment.

So it is time for us to change the culture of aviation. Let's all get out of denial. Let's admit that flying has risks. Then le's focus on learning, and using, the tools we need to do our No. 1 job: risk management.

Only when we are all in that frame of mind will we make real inroad towards dramatically reducing those 85% of the accidents that are caused by pilot error.

============================================================================ John King owns San Diego-based King Schools with his wife and partner, Martha King. A flight instructor since the early 1970s, he has earned every FAA rating for pilots, flight instructors and ground instructors. He regularly flies airplanes, helicopters and blimps. The Kings have delivered more than five million videos, and in the late 1990s they developed a multimedia program for Cessna Pilot Centers.