The FORBIDDEN Question

By Rod Machado

During my high school years, it was known as the forbidden dance—the Lambada. Do it on the dance floor in front of the principal and you’d be “dancing with the scars” resulting from that encounter. Some things are just risky to do, if not outright forbidden to think.

Take, for example, the question of aviation safety. There’s one question that I’ve never heard anyone ask in a public forum; it’s forbidden. To answer it implies a willingness to accept that which can’t be changed (an implication that’s neither proper nor true). The question is: What is the lowest level of general aviation accidents we’re capable of achieving without depriving pilots of the flying liberties they now enjoy?

I told you it was forbidden!

The idealist’s response to the question is that he or she is not willing to accept anything other than a perfect safety record. OK, fine. Me, too. What I’m willing to accept, however, has nothing to do with the safety record we are actually capable of achieving. If you could show me any activity involving a moving vehicle comparable to flying (i.e., similar risks and liberties) having a perfect safety record, then consider me an apostate. I’ll abandon my disbelief that a perfect safety record is possible faster than the spin on a top quark. After all, who doesn’t want “zero” accidents?

The pragmatist in me realizes this is only possible if we confiscate the keys to every flying machine along with the pilot certificates of those who operate them. If the airlines don’t have a perfect safety record after all these years, how would such a thing be possible in general aviation? It can’t.

What level of safety is possible? How low can we reasonably go with the aviation accident rate? To answer that question, you need a baseline. For example, you know you’re a good dancer when a really bad dancer (your baseline) takes the dance floor. This is why others always encouraged me to dance—OK, to jerk and twist—during wedding receptions. Of course, every time I did, a medical person would run up and stick a spoon in my mouth to hold my tongue down.  

In 1964, the FAA decided to do something about the appalling flight instruction accident rate. In response, my friend and FAA inspector, Pete Campbell, created the flight instructor refresher course (a means of renewing a CFI certificate every 24 months). The result? During the next seven years, after 200 seminars attended by over 16,000 CFIs, the flight instruction accident rate decreased by 67%.

Clearly, aviation education reduces accidents when the root cause of those accidents responds to aviation education. In 1964, there was a big need for education in the flight instructor community. However, given today’s proliferation of aviation education and the many high-tech means by which it is dispensed, why hasn’t the general aviation community witnessed a commensurate decrease in accidents? Look at the data for the past 20 years. Generally speaking, the aviation accident rate hasn’t really changed that much during that time (it's unknown whether the reduced accident rate over the last two years is a trend or an anomaly).  

Trigger alert! Find a safe place, cuddle up, and pull that blanket over your head because you might not like what you’re about to read. The possibility exists that GA has reached a static “safety to liberty” ratio. It’s possible that our personal flying liberties are balanced by the inevitable accidents that result from this freedom. In other words, aviation education’s influence over a pilot’s behavior might not produce the same results it did in the flight instructor community five decades ago.

I certainly hope that’s not the case, and the optimist in me wants to believe it’s not. Then again, I don’t believe that we can maintain our present freedom to fly unless we collectively make an attempt to answer the forbidden question. Why?

There will always be someone, some group, some government entity, inspired by their goodwill and humanity, that attempts to make aviation safer at the risk of making it more restrictive and less accessible for everyone. They’ll say, “We’ll save hundreds of lives if we can just add one more regulatory requirement!” And they’ll say it without any understanding of what that ambition might cost in terms of our flying liberties.

The most useful questions are often ones without definitive answers. The forbidden question is one of these. Asking it helps us better understand if an accident reduction goal is probable while preventing us from believing every accident goal is possible. Improbable accident reduction goals might lead well-intentioned individuals or groups to legislate for aviation safety while unknowingly stripping pilots of their hard-earned liberties.

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  • Dave Van Horn - January 06, 2017

    Excellent question and I propose a secondary one — how far can we reduce the accident rate without killing unpaid aviation? GA, as we all know, has been shrinking for years. GA, especially personal flying, has a much higher accident rate than the airlines or military and suggestions for improvement invariably involve copying some aspect of airline and/or military procedures, being “more professional”. The key point glossed over is that THEY GET PAID. They get paid to tolerate things that would cause many who fly just for personal satisfaction to quit and do something else. We often say one has to have the passion for flight but passion, like money, is not unlimited. Even when it is in the name of safety, every time we add a requirement to do something that someone wouldn’t otherwise choose to do we add hassle and/or cost, reducing flying’s appeal. Fewer flyers, less business for airports, airports close and the utility of aviation shrinks for all of us. We need to recognize the tradeoff, that the increment of safety hopefully gained by each requirement also accelerates the decline of unpaid GA, and ask whether it’s worth it. Whether our acceptable level is zero accidents or something higher, will pushing to achieve it inevitably drive out everyone who isn’t paid and make aviation purely a for-hire endeavor?

  • Mike Matthews - October 20, 2016

    Rod, Your message really hit home with me. I fly and teach out of Marana Regional Airport, just outside of Tucson Az. And had an opportunity to address a FAAST seminar on airport safety. I have kept the words I addressed to the pilots who showed up for that seminar, most of whom flew out of or often flew into KAVQ. Your comments about “break even” safety level added another chemical to the catalyst of effects in and around our venerable airport and community. I agree that it’s up to us now to lower accident levels if we can. Collectively and/or individually. Following is that text:

    One of the reasons we have met today is to discuss an accusation that has been made regarding Marana Regional. Our field has been characterized as unsafe. Not just unsafe, but Out of control unsafe. Dangerous, to be avoided. Unsuspecting pilots to be warned.
    I don’t believe this field is inherently unsafe. There is a mix of circumstances, traffic and location that gives this field a unique set of challenges related to safe operations and procedure. There is light sport, the full spectrum of GA aircraft, warbirds, jet traffic, helicopters, instructional traffic in great #’s from the NW, Balloons, and all of it mixing unpredictably and funneling right into our fabulous facility. We get constant traffic from several fields in Phoenix, up from Tucson International and Ryan, From LaCholla, Eloy. We get transient traffic passing through from all over the country. We have Pilots of great skill and proficiency alongside those who’s skills are at a diminished or even to dangerous level combined in what could nicely be described as a quiet and tranquil field one moment and a hornets nest in the next. And it’s become, more hornets next than tranquil of late.
    I know from frequent conversations that we all have tales to tell. Out, in the air doing pattern work alone or with maybe one other pilot, early and peacefully in the morning and within a circuit there is a Jet on 10 mile final, several students inbound solo, their voices nervous broken, radio and position calls missing or unintelligible, an unannounced arrival suddenly on the downwind or over the cement plant,(our local entry point for the no wind runway) if they are indeed over the cement plant, a helicopter, sometimes 2 inbound below pattern altitude unseen in the ground clutter or transiting over the highway, a GPS approach inbound from the NW, another in trail, aircraft holding over the field at the NDB, a base leg entry from over I-10, another suddenly over the top, intending to enter the downwind, one of the downwind pilots deciding that the safest thing do is a 360 on the downwind “for spacing”. In the middle of this, someone departs on the X runway, vowing to “stay clear of” or “Not be a factor” to the other traffic. And it’s entirely possible that someone will call out for “Traffic Advisories” and announce intentions to land on the opposite runway. Your heart rate has just gone from a pleasant restful 80 to 140 while your trying to remember to “Aviate, navigate, communicate” and no traffic cop, no tower, because this is, after all “Uncontrolled airspace”. And it is the big reason we get all this traffic. Combined with our local, comfortably distant from controlled airspace, our restaurant, our parking, our fuel, our service personnel. We are victims of our convenient accessibility and close position to just about all of southern Arizona. Because we are so good, it can get really bad.
    We cherish this space even though it can and does become almost overwhelmingly challenging to conduct truly safe operations. Do any one of us create this out of irresponsibility or a lack of understanding of the potential stakes? Do we foster an atmosphere of carelessness or a cavalier attitude about our operations, I don’t in the main, believe that this is true. I do see that when it gets really busy, a small bit of carelessness or lack of preparation, or frustration over an expected relaxing flight to our favorite uncontrolled field can become a tense exercise in concentration and technique. Requiring skillful aeronautical judgment, spacing, communications and scanning beyond our comfort and proficiency level. Beyond what we may have been able to afford in time and money to remain reasonably proficient at.
    You wouldn’t know it to look at the traffic load here, but we have fewer pilots, flying fewer hours, in an aging fleet, in a mix of dissimilar types and degrees of proficiency all trying, for a broad spectrum of reasons, to use, to get into and out of our field. We have a greater responsibility to each other to see to it that, with all the pressures existing on GA and our field to “be careful out there”. With all that in mind this meeting is to foster the beginning of an ongoing conversation that will lead to a safer place to fly. And the only real solution is to talk about it here, keep that conversation going and take it out to the rest of the aviation community. We are unlikely to get help from any outside source. And do we want oversight? We have no way of knowing what form that will take, but experience says we will be less than comfortable with it. We really need to do it ourselves. Can we do that? What are our options? The question is now out there. Let’s think about solutions.

  • Carl Stidsen - October 12, 2016

    No pilot ( except the Special Attack / “Kamikaze” of WWII) ever plans to deliberately crash. But the sky is indifferent to our attempts at control and "utterly unforgiving of incompetence " as one well-known quote states . It is up to us to do it right the first time , every time when we fly. So – there is no way to forecast or plan a minimum safety level , short of grounding everybody.

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