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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