I was looking out the window of the diner on the main street in our little Lake Michigan beach town and saw a big white SUV drive out the wrong way from the one-way entrance for the parking lot across the street. There are signs forbidding this, and arrows and words painted on the pavement. There’s no way the driver could have been unaware he was breaking a rule.
There was no conflict with other cars so the rule defiance caused no threat. I can only assume the driver simply believed the rules didn’t apply to him, at least not at that moment.
The incident made me think about an increase in fundamental FAR breaking that I have been seeing in NTSB accident reports over the past few years. I read every fatal accident report when it becomes final. I haven’t tried to tally how many reports find FAR violations, but I am certain the number is growing.
Of course, most serious accidents involve some sort of rule breaking because, in general, it’s against the law to crash. Operational rules infractions have been an accident cause forever. For example, the VFR pilot who flies into weather below VFR minimums obviously chose to break an FAR. So did the pilot who knowingly–or at least should have known–about conditions that were beyond his capability or that of his airplane. That violates rule 91.13, the careless and reckless clause. And so does buzzing and many other inordinately risky things some pilots do in airplanes.
But what I have been noticing is an increase in violation of fundamental FARs, rule breaking that requires not just one wrong decision in the cockpit, but many, even hundreds of decisions to ignore the rule while safely on the ground.
For example, it’s not uncommon now to read in accident reports that the airplane has not had an annual, or in the case of experimentals a condition inspection, for years before the accident. ADs are frequently ignored and increasingly airplane owners have not properly re-registered their airplanes as required.
NTSB reports show that pilots frequently blow off currency requirements for the basics such as making the three landings and takeoffs in the past 90 days before carrying passengers. Often the biennial flight review is years in arrears. It’s not rare to read about pilots who lacked a category or class rating to fly an airplane, or even to have any valid certificate of any level at all.
The most common rules infractions reported by the NTSB involve medical certification. Autopsies of pilots killed in accidents commonly show the pilot had known medical conditions not reported to the AME. And the NTSB finds that a huge number of pilots, maybe even a majority, involved in fatal accidents are taking medications not reported or approved by their AME.
But just like the driver I watched break the one-way traffic rule, pilots breaking non-operational rules are seldom the cause of an accident. For example, the NTSB goes to great length to examine the maintenance records of a crashed airplane, often finds huge rule violations, and then notes that everything in the airplane appears to have been working normally before impact. And that makes sense. Is an airplane going to break just because it’s been 14 months, or two years, or five years since its last annual inspection?
The same goes for rules like pilot currency. Do you forget how to land if you haven’t done it in 100 days instead of 90? Has the biennial flight review prevented an accident? Does even having a pilot certificate prove that you know how to fly?
And the situation is really murky in the medical area. The NTSB will often list several drugs found in a pilot’s system, including alcohol and illicit drugs, and then note that there isn’t direct evidence the drugs contributed to the accident. A total pilot incapacitation in flight is quite rare, and more often than not, the pilot who becomes incapacitated was not breaking any rules.
Private flying is very much a self-regulated activity. In more than 45 years of flying nobody has ever asked to see any paperwork on me or my airplane except when I voluntarily go for training, a new rating, or take my airplane to the shop for maintenance. Unless you are involved in an accident or serious incident you can almost certainly fly on ignoring nearly all of the FARs without much fear of being caught.
But historically we haven’t done that. The pilots I know and grew up with wouldn’t think of flying their airplane to the shop for an annual without a ferry permit even if it was only one day beyond the limit. And we all pay attention to the 90 day currency rule, even though it, like nearly all rules, is totally arbitrary. And on and on.
Is that attitude changing? The findings in NTSB accident reports appear to say yes. Maybe, like that SUV driver, we in aviation are becoming libertarians. Rules are for somebody else, and if we don’t cause conflict or add risk to others why should arbitrary rules apply to us?
I hope I’m wrong because aviation safety comes from creating and following procedures and norms, arbitrary though they may be.
What do you think?