This week I was invited to speak to the international gathering of Gulfstream business jet operators. Safety was the theme, but the exact topic was my choice.
What Richard Collins, who has spent even more decades than me studying accident reports, and I have marveled at is how the very same pilots behave differently in different categories of airplane. Why does the highly experienced ATP rated pilot who has a near perfect safety record in business and airline jets often make the same mistakes, and same risky decisions in piston airplanes as a less experienced pilot does?
This safety contrast is most stark when you compare the accident rates of twin turboprops and business jets. The turboprop doesn’t have quite as much performance reserve and system redundancy as a transport category jet, but power loss and system failure is almost never the reason for the accident in either turboprops or jets. Put the same jet pilot in a turboprop and the record shows he will be less safe. Put that pilot in the left seat of a piston airplane, and the record becomes much worse.
If the majority—or even a substantial minority—of fatal accidents were caused by aircraft failures the safety record would make perfect sense. The performance standards and system redundancy required of the jet should prevent serious accidents. But the reality is that in most piston and turboprop fatal accidents the airplane is performing normally.
I have come to think of this as the Chevy Biscayne vs. Super Sport effect. In the late 1960s the big Chevy sedan that your grandparents would buy was the Biscayne which was a pretty low point in styling and performance. But Chevy took the same plain vanilla Biscayne and dropped in its biggest V-8, put a Hurst shifter—remember those—in a center console, tuck and rolled the interior, and jazzed up the exterior trim and changed the name to Super Sport.
Pull the very same drivers out of dad’s Biscayne and put them in a Super Sport and you can guess what happens. In the Super Sport the driver makes very different decisions, and they are not going to be safety oriented choices. I don’t have any statistics on how the fatal accident rates of the Biscayne and Super Sport compared, but I do know how the traffic tickets stack up. My brother bought a Super Sport not long after he was out of high school and in a few months survived a departure from the road wreck and racked up enough additional violation points to be put on the beach for a year. I am absolutely convinced that wouldn’t have happened if he had been relegated to getting around in a Biscayne.
I see the same behavior in myself when I move from one category of airplane to another. In a jet I would never dream of taking the runway without knowing the takeoff weight, the CG, the required runway length considering all factors, the decision and takeoff safety speeds, and a very specific plan of what to do if something goes wrong in the first seconds or minutes.
But when I taxi out for takeoff in my Baron I have a general idea of my weight and know it’s under the certified limit. Same for the CG. I also know there is enough runway available unless something really bad happens at the worst possible time. I’m not casual about takeoff and the flight ahead, but my attitude is just different than in a jet.
I have concluded the reason that I—and apparently other pilots—behave differently in airplanes of different capability is that the risks are not the same. In the jet I know that people have sat around for many years pondering what could go wrong at the worst possible time and then developed a solution to get the airplane back to a runway. What is required of us as pilots in the jet is to perform the procedure correctly and the airplane can continue to fly.
In a piston airplane there is no such assurance. If the worst happens we need luck as well as skill to live through the forced landing. Because luck is part of the equation we need at least a little hope. Once a little hope is added it’s easy to take on more hope, which is just another word for risk.
Believe me, I don’t want all airplanes to meet transport standards because that would be the end of personal flying, but I do want to be aware of, and try to compensate for my attitude difference. I want to be aware of the choices I make in taking on risk and adjust those choices for each situation.
I know some of you are thinking that Sully and Skiles needed skill and luck to get their powerless jet down on the Hudson, but that is such a rare event it earned the name “miracle”. If fatal accidents in piston airplanes were ever to become that rare none of us would have much to worry about.
We are what we fly, and we fly different airplanes for many different reasons. And we can’t eliminate risks simply by adding ratings or hours to the logbook. I just want to be sure I consider the risks before every flight and decide that I understand the risks and that they are worth taking.