At EAA we track and total fatal accidents in experimental aircraft according to the federal government fiscal year that ends in September. And the fantastic news is that there were 20 percent fewer fatal accidents in experimental aircraft for 2013 than the year before.
In fiscal year 2012 there were 69 crashes of experimental aircraft that claimed at least one life, but for this past year the total was 55. The FAA sets a “not to exceed” goal of fatal accidents in experimentals aimed at reducing the number by 10 percent over 10 years and the goal was 69 for 2013. The safety record came in way, way under target as well as the total of the previous year. The pattern for the past few years had been to miss the goal by at least a few accidents on the wrong side.
The accident total includes all categories of experimental aircraft, not just homebuilts. There are more homebuilts flying than any other experimental category and they accounted for 35 of the 55 fatal accidents. The next largest category in the fatal accident total was exhibition with 10 accidents. Exhibition category is made up mostly of warbirds, though a few airplanes that were built originally to standard category rules have been highly modified and fly as experimental exhibition. One of those, a Swift, crashed fatally during the year. E-LSA accounted for 8 fatal crashes.
Other experimental categories include research and development of new designs intended for certification, and market survey which allows manufacturers to demonstrate a new design before the airplane receives final certification. Those categories have typically included only a few airplanes and safety has been pretty good. There was only one fatal accident in a research aircraft.
In any event, the incredible drop in the number of fatal accidents is such stunningly good news I’m not sure what to think. Are EAA’s and overall industry safety efforts paying off so radically? And so quickly?
I don’t want to be skeptical of such an improvement, but if the accident total had gone the other way and there was a 20 percent jump in fatal accidents would I believe experimental aircraft had suddenly become that much more risky? I don’t think so. We would all look for a reason if the record became worse, and we should do the same after such an improvement.
The real problem in analyzing any general aviation safety statistic is that we simply don’t know the exposure. The very basic data of how many airplanes flew, how much they flew, and under what conditions just doesn’t exist.
When you examine longer term accident trends you can see the impact of economic slumps that certainly reduce the total number of flying hours and thus cut the accident total. We all know that the pilot population has been declining for the past 30 years, so flying hours are going down, and the total number of accidents in overall GA flying has also dropped.
But I don’t know of a reason that flying in experimentals would have gone down last year. The economy was better than the previous few years, and as far as we know more homebuilts were completed and certified than were retired. So there is every reason to believe that exposure to risk in experimentals was at least the same in 2013 as it was in 2012. And that would mean the actual accident rate dropped dramatically.
I do believe that there has been a change in the culture of E-AB flying. In past years accidents in homebuilts were a taboo subject not discussed and rarely analyzed. Risk and wrecks were simply accepted as a price for the wide freedoms we all have to build and fly our own aircraft. But that attitude is no longer acceptable. Risk can’t be eliminated from any form of aviation, but it can be mitigated without destroying the freedom to fly. And I believe that is what we see happening in E-AB flying.
Another possible explanation for the good news is the dominance of quality kits in E-AB. Every kit maker conducts extensive flight testing of their designs and brings a degree of uniformity to the performance and flying qualities of the finished airplane that just wasn’t there when most E-AB were scratch built, or maybe even one-off designs. Safety always improves when undesirable characteristics are identified and weeded out of any airplane design and that’s what the increased uniformity of kits is doing.
Of course the number of experimental aircraft flying and the total number of fatal accidents is small enough that a statistical quirk may explain the huge improvement we saw in fiscal 2013. We still need to be alert to longer term trends.
But until proven otherwise I’m going to congratulate EAA and all who fly experimental airplanes. Our combined efforts are paying off and we have solid evidence that improved safety is possible without diminishing the adventure of flying experimental aircraft.