How risky is aviation? Ask an experienced pilot or aircraft owner, and the response may be that flying is about as risky as driving. But the number of general aviation accident incidences has remained steady for nearly two decades, with an average six or seven accidents for every 100,000 hours flown. With roughly one in every of these five aviation accidents proving fatal, properly assessing and managing aviation risks is crucial for pilots, owners, and even support teams in order to avoid a potentially deadly and costly accident in the sky.
Based on information from the National Transportation Safety Board, the National Business Aviation Association, and the Federal Aviation Administration, we’ve compiled a list of the five biggest risk factors facing pilots in the air and on the ground this year, and offer solutions to help reduce the chance that an aircraft you own or operate might become a (tragic) statistic.
Aviation Risk #1: Single Pilot Aircraft
Single-pilot operated aircraft have consistently higher accident rates compared to a dual-pilot crew; a single pilot is 30% more likely to be involved in an aviation accident. There are a number of reasons a solo pilot is more susceptible to accidents, but the largest contributing factor is usually task saturation.
Task saturation, having too much to do without adequate time or resources to do it, has been named as a National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) top area of focus for aviation safety. One of the ways the NBAA suggests pilots avoid task saturation is to offload tasks to a co-pilot -- which a single pilot simply can’t do.
The problem of task saturation gets compounded by the other aviation risks we’ll cover, which ultimately all contribute to a pilot’s inability to properly assess and respond to risks. According to NBAA, data suggests that as many as 70% to 75% of fatal single-pilot aviation accidents stem from failure to properly assess a known risk.
A single-pilot is a greater risk for an accident, no matter how experienced or well-trained. The simple solution to this aviation risk is to add a co-pilot. If adding a second pilot is out of the question, you can still manage this risk factor. Single-pilot operations have an even greater need for tools, training, and risk management proficiency to safely navigate the skies. By focusing on ongoing training and risk management procedures, single-pilots can reduce the risk of accidents.
Aviation Risk #2: Loss of Control In Flight
Nearly half of all aviation accidents are caused by “Loss of Control In Flight”, and loss of control accidents result in more fatalities for business and commercial operations than any other accident category.
National Transportation Safety Board data from 2008 - 2014 confirms that loss of control (LOC) is the biggest killer in general aviation. LOC has been linked to over 40% of fixed-wing general aviation accidents, which is why the NTSB has placed an emphasis on preventing LOC accidents on its 2017- 2018 Most Wanted list of transportation safety improvements.
Factors leading to loss of control accidents can vary from pilot distraction to weather. According to the FAA, the most common type of LOC is a stall. When an aircraft is close to the ground, opportunities to recover from a stall are limited, which is why stalls during approach to landing, maneuvering, and initial climb are the deadliest phases of flight for LOC accidents.
According to the NTSB, better training on how to eliminate distraction, avoid stalls, and manage weather issues will put pilots back in control and help prevent loss of control accidents from occurring.
Aviation Risk #3: Fatigue
Well-rested pilots are an essential ingredient in aviation safety. This aviation risk not only impacts pilots, but air traffic controllers and maintenance personnel who perform safety-critical functions, as well. Between 2001 and 2012, nearly 20% of NTSB investigations identified fatigue as a probable cause or contributing factor in accidents across all transportation modes, including aviation.
The effects of fatigue can be subtle but serious. Studies on the cognitive effects of fatigue have shown that inadequate sleep decreases short- and long-term memory and attention, impedes spatial attention, impairs visual performance, and leads to deterioration of decision-making skills. Pilots may not recognize loss of attention, slower reaction times, and poor judgement until it’s too late.
Reducing fatigue related accidents not only requires that companies provide pilots with enough off-duty time to get adequate rest, it also requires a personal commitment from pilots to pursue adequate rest and lifestyle choices that lead to best-quality sleep.
Aviation Risk #4: Distracted Flying
The best training and procedures can be undermined by a distraction in the cockpit. Pilots already need to keep track of where they are, where they’re going, and manage countless systems and communications with crew, air traffic controllers, and dispatchers. Outside distractions such as personal electronic devices, nonessential conversations, and activities unrelated to flight can lead to accidents in the air and on the ground.
The NTSB has investigated a number of aviation accidents resulting from distractions, including:
- A nonessential crew conversation during taxi leading to wrong runway takeoff accident in 2006.
- A flight crew distracted by nonessential conversations flew 100 miles past its landing point in 2009.
- A fatal helicopter accident in which an air ambulance pilot was distracted by texting in 2011.
- A pilot updating a Facebook post caused a general aviation accident in 2014.
Not all pilot distractions come from inside an aircraft, either. Even when crew members are paying close attention to flight activities, outside distractions can also interfere. Laser strikes on aircraft continue to increase, despite the threat of fines and criminal penalties from shining a laser up at an aircraft. While there have been no known accidents related to “laser illumination of aircraft” to date, the incidents can cause distractions and even temporary blindness or long-term eye damage to pilots.
In 2006, when the FAA began reporting these incidents, there were 384 reports of laser attacks. In 2015, that number had increased to more than 6,000 incidents.
Pilots and mechanical personnel can reduce distractions in flight by following “sterile cockpit” procedures that restrict conversations and activities to the task at hand, and by keeping phones and other personal electronic devices off and out of the task environment.
Aviation Risk #5: Impairment
Federal Aviation Regulation 91.17 prohibits pilots from flying within 8 hours of consuming any alcoholic beverage, while under the influence of alcohol, while having a Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) of 0.04% or greater, or while using any drug that adversely affects safety.
Despite tight restrictions on drug and alcohol use, fatal aviation accidents still occur in general aviation aircraft as a result of pilot impairment.
A 2014 National Transportation Safety Board report, “Drug Use Trends in Aviation: Assessing the Risk of Pilot Impairment,” showed increasing trends in pilots’ use of all drugs, potentially impairing drugs, drugs used to treat potentially impairing conditions, drugs designated as controlled substances, and illicit drugs.
The report’s findings showed that illicit drug use was found in only a small number of cases, and was highest in the youngest age group (40 and under) of study pilots.
All other drug use was higher in the oldest age group of pilots (aged 60 and over), which is consistent with data for the US population in general. Aging pilots, just like the rest of the aging population, are more likely to use one or more prescription drugs. The report found that pilot use of marijuana had increased from 1997 to 2012, nearly doubling from 1.6% to 3.0%. The most commonly found substance in fatal aviation crashes was not an illicit or prescription drug, or even marijuana. It was a sedating antihistamine found in OTC medications known as diphenhydramine. Even taking an over-the-counter medication can lead to impairment and fatal accidents in the air. Pilots can reduce instances of impairment by carefully adhering to FAA regulations regarding alcohol and drug use. Pilots taking any medication should talk to medical professionals to determine the effects of those medications and whether there are any dangerous interactions that can occur when using multiple medications. Additionally, they should read the package warnings for all medications and not fly after taking sedating and impairing medications until the condition they are treating has resolved and they are no longer experiencing the effects of the medication. Lastly, pilots should follow the FAA recommended minimum wait times between the last dose of the medication and performing pilot duties. Risk management is important in every job, but the stakes are much higher than most for those working in the aviation industry. An accident in the air can result in the loss of not only an expensive aircraft or third-party property, but also of something much harder to put a pricetag on: human life. Both pilots and aircraft owners can help protect themselves against the potential for costly and/ or fatal incidents by being aware of the common aviation risk factors we discussed here today, having a plan to manage and reduce these risks, and adequate aviation insurance in place as a safety net if something goes wrong.
When you’re in the business of flying, risk management is more than just good business, it’s critical.