When a seminar presenter recently asked how many in his very large audience knew someone personally who’d been killed in a general aviation (GA) accident, over 80 percent of the hands went up. That, he observed, is pretty much the average number of raised arms he sees every time he asks the same question to whatever group is attending his frequent talks. If you are one of those in his audience, it makes you think.
One of the standard lines that one hears as a pilot is this one: “The most dangerous part of any flight is the drive to the airport.” Regrettably, the statement doesn’t stand up to statistical scrutiny. While fatality rates in GA have come down over years long gone by, over the last few years, they have more or less stayed the same. In fact, GA fatality rates, when looked at in terms of numbers per 100,000 hours of flying time, are more similar to motorcycle fatality rates. Driving to the airport in your family sedan is, evidently, statistically safer.
Efforts to reduce fatalities in GA are always in the works. Lately, some of these efforts have begun to focus on ways to revamp student pilot testing and training. Several government and industry agencies are looking into what can better be done to teach students to avoid the traps that GA pilots get themselves into, and from which they often fail to come out.
Of the many considerations put forth for inclusion into pilot training and testing, risk management practices are appearing high on the agenda. Therefore, in addition to mastering the knowledge and skills defined by the current standards set by government agencies (ie. Canada’s Transport Canada, and the FAA in the U.S.A.), students could eventually need to demonstrate that they have developed the wherewithal to manage risks when flying, and incorporate those management skills into each and every flight.
Risk management is, in fact, a hot topic. Given that the vast majority of GA accidents are pilot-induced, they are by extension the consequence of a pilot’s failure to manage risks inherent in the flight. Improving safety through better risk management, then, is the objective of efforts to change the way flying is taught. While aeronautical knowledge and flight proficiency will remain bedrocks of training, to better enhance its relevance, validity and effectiveness, students may need to know and show how to identify risk, and how they would best avoid its hazardous ramifications.
Risks aren’t obvious. It’s hard to judge their probability and their consequences. Risk recognition has always been based on piloting experience: you recall a situation you got yourself into, and (hopefully) remember what you did to get yourself out of it. However, an “I’ll never do that again” list implies that the pilot has learned the lesson after the “risky” event unfolded. It’s time, so the current theorizing is heading, to teach the lesson first.
If risk is hard to identify, its harbingers aren’t. Are you, as pilot, under stress, suffering illness, or overly tired? Is your aircraft properly maintained, and capable of the mission for which you’re considering taking off? Is the environment into which you’re considering flying free of poor weather, mountainous terrain, and higher-density traffic? Are there external pressures on you that are influencing your decision to fly when it would, otherwise, be better to stay on the ground?
One way of managing risk when airborne is to always be cognizant of consequences. For example, if your ground speed is slower than anticipated, relent to the prevailing circumstances and start planning to land for fuel. Many a pilot has pushed through the reality of a situation, dealing with circumstances as they planned or wanted them to be, not as they actually were. These are the types of pilots that may never get a second chance to consider alternatives to the risks that they undertook.
It makes sense to teach and practice risk management. Industry experts are pushing for it to be incorporated into new training and testing paradigms. If GA fatality rates continually show that poor risk management is a root cause of accidents, then there can be fewer better ways to reduce those rates than to teach better risk management before every new pilot walks onto the flight line with a freshly-issued licence.