There is a great deal of discussion of basic flight training failure, but the airline safety record says we have never done better. The GA accident picture remains little changed and not good, but for U.S. based airlines, we are in an unprecedented and, frankly, almost unbelievably good, safety peroid.
The last U.S. based major jet airline accident to kill a passenger happened in late 2001 when the vertical fin failed on an Airbus departing JFK. In the same more than decade long period the U.S. based regional airlines have had only two fatal accidents.
To show you how good and amazing that record is, consider that before 2001 the longest fatal accident free period for the major airlines in this country has barely been two years. And I’m not sure if the regionals had ever gone more than one year without a fatal crash.
The U.S. based airline accident record is so good it has left us all wringing our hands about weird accidents such as the Dash 8 turboprop at Buffalo two years ago. That was clearly a terrible piece of flying by the crew, but here we are, two years later, still yammering on about that wreck as though similar accidents occurred every year, or even every couple of years. They used to, but they don’t now.
Of course, luck as been on our side when it comes to airline safety in the U.S. If the geese had shot down Sully and Jeff Skiles at a different altitude, or a different location, the results could have been tragedy instead of a miracle ditching. The NTSB records list a fatal accident at Chicago Midway when a Southwest crew slid off the far end of a slippery runway and busted through the fence killing a person. But that person was in a car on the street, not a passenger in the B-737. And other airline crews have run off runways in the past decade, but in every incident no passenger was killed.
But luck, both good and bad, has always played at least some part in the airline safety record so it’s hard for me to believe that over more than a decade good luck has stacked up in our favor at an unusual rate. After all, hitting a flock of geese is bad luck. The good luck came after the bad when Sully and Jeff were able to reach the Hudson River and make an expert ditching exactly where ferry boats crisscross the water every few minutes.
So, if, as some say, the primary training system is so broken, why has the U.S. based airline safety record been so astonishingly good? And the essentially perfect airline safety record comes with a big majority of civilian trained pilots at the controls. The number of airline pilots who got their start in the structured and selective world of military flying has been on the decline for many years, but the safety record has zoomed to unbelievable heights.
There are many possible explanations for the airline safety record over the past decade and my favorite factors are probably at odds with the beliefs of many pilots. I think the two most important ingredients are new avionics and development and enforcement of rigid flying procedures.
By the time this terrific safety record began all major airline jets had TCAS to identify and show an escape route from a potential midair collision. All jet airliners had sophisticated wind shear detection and warning devices. And all airplanes have enhanced EGPWS to warn of an impending collision with terrain.
In the past midair collisions, wind shear and CFIT (controlled flight into terrain) contributed significantly to fatal airline accidents. We now have automated systems to prevent those accidents. And superior takeoff configuration warning systems in nearly all airplanes prevent the flaps up, or out of trim takeoff attempts that have claimed airline jets in the past.
The controllers also help with better radar, and automated systems watching the radar that in turn warn crews of being off course, or too low. Virtually all approaches are flown using radar vectors, and equipment both onboard the airplane and on the ground, tell crews and controllers exactly where the airplane is, where it’s going, and where hazardous weather lurks.
On the human side airline and other jet training has almost totally eliminated the freelance behavior of pilots. There is a procedure for every phase of flight, or every abnormal or emergency condition, and that’s what pilots learn and practice. And nearly all airlines, and a few business jet operators, have programs that monitor how closely pilots abide by the procedures. It’s big brother watching, of course, but following a carefully thought out procedure beats pulling it out of your socks.
Of course, there is the extremely rare event such as losing both engines that can’t have a specific procedure to follow and Sully and Jeff came through perfectly. But that’s the one in a billion event. Compare that to a crew who couldn’t follow the most basic procedure of adding power to maintain airspeed, and pushing forward when the stall warning activates as in the Buffalo crash.
Most of the pilots who have achieved the terrific safety record in U.S. based airlines and business jets learned to fly initially in the GA training system. Put those same pilots in GA airplanes and they have produced the same, not good, unchanged safety record GA has experienced for decades. So clearly it’s not initial training that makes the difference, but the equipment and operating procedures that the major airlines and business jets, and increasingly the regionals, fly. So if it’s not failure of initial training that is the problem for GA safety, what is?