Pilot Error! Or Was It Really Something Else That Caused The Crash?
By Jim Trusty
In no way does writing this article absolve any pilot of stupidity, mental laxity, or any other excuse they may have uttered—after the CRASH! It is an explanation of sorts that all in the aviation community will understand and everyone else will appreciate. I have seen some numbers that say from 60-90% of all aviation incidents, accidents, dents, dings, crashes, and fatalities are caused by pilot error, NTSB says 76%. The number seems to get the highest when the pilot(s) die as a result, because we no longer have their expert opinion as to the true cause. Sad but true!
Equipment failure, weather, fuel deprivation or contamination, improper weight and balance, Air Traffic Control, sabotage, and a hundred other plausible things could be a part of the final answer as to the reason, yet in a high percentage of every investigation, it is proven that “Pilot Error” is the root cause. Let’s take a look at why.
First, let’s define Pilot Error: The Pilot in Command is responsible for everything that takes place during a flight, including most of the problems listed above, and more! As professional pilots, we quickly understand that a lot of what happens to us in the air can be flown through, that it is not always the fault of the airplane, that we control most of what goes on prior to takeoff, that ATC is controllable by a competent, prepared, and experienced pilot, and that the weather is still a puzzle to almost everyone.
In researching this article, I was amazed by the reports put together by the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration of accidents they have investigated. I have to admit in a lot of cases that the Pilot in Command could have made a much better decision than they did, and that might have avoided what happened next. Do we mean they made a mistake? Yes, they did, but it is even more than that. I just finished watching a NOVA Program entitled “The Worst Airplane Crash Ever”. This took place on the Canary Islands in 1977 when 2 747’s crashed into each other and killed almost 600 people. Both crews were high time, big iron, icons of aviation, and yet they made the mistake of taking off without being cleared. Now that’s “Pilot Error”!
Steve Wilson of the NTSB was quoted in 1996 with what many believe is the best explanation when it comes to this subject. He was asked, “What is the cause of most aviation accidents?” He responded, “Usually it is because someone does too much, too soon, followed very quickly by too little, too late.”
When we think that some of these flying machines are exceeding 500 Knots when they encounter a problem and that the human mind is trained to think normally with items moving forward on solid ground at about 40 MPH, we quickly discover one of the problems. In aviation, we call this “getting behind the airplane,” and it happens very quickly and far too often.
The difference between thinking at 40 MPH and 500 Knots puts the pilot so far behind the airplane that if they crashed he would not be hurt or even get dusty from the debris.
What can we do to cure some of these “Pilot Error” problems that arise regularly? Certainly we now ask more of our pilots in the various training programs. Mandatory recurrency training is offered at every level. We have constant supervision by the Federal Aviation Administration, and several ongoing safety programs that stress education work better at reducing accidents than enforcement alone. The aircraft we fly, the equipment on board, the fuel, the pilots and staff, the mechanics and line personnel, are all the best and most well trained anywhere in the world. What more could we possibly be expected to do in the name of preventing “Pilot Error”?
What we have in place actually works very well if you consider these numbers. We have about 50,000 deaths per year from some mode of transportation, and of this figure aviation accounts for less than 1.5% or usually close to 630 fatalities. Automobiles still have the record at 86% or 43,000. For our part, 670,000 pilots fly less than 200,000 airplanes over 9,000,000,000 miles on 58,000,000 flights with 660,000,000 passengers and spend over 42,000,000 hours in the air. If you look at the number of passengers lost and transported you will see that our fatality rate is one in a million. (All of these numbers are approximations and have been rounded when possible.)
No other industry in the world has a better safety record than aviation and it has improved steadily over the last 20 or so years. In fact, we have had a couple of years where absolutely no crashes or deaths occurred. If you ask, why can’t we do this perfection thing each and every year, I have no answer except to say that I think it is an impossible task for the human mind to work perfectly 24 hours a day, every single day of its life.
I can tell you that no one wants to maintain a perfect flight record with no accidents more than the pilots of our great country, and I also know that the Federal Aviation Administration certainly is in agreement with those thoughts. We can only continue to train, use newer and better equipment, be more weather aware, and concentrate on the task at hand.
We also ask you, our passengers, to stick with us and the aviation industry as we work through this period of adjustment, and to remember one very important thing in this equation: We are in that airplane with you and we also want the trip to end well.
I would be interested in hearing from you if you have any suggestions on this subject that I can pass on as I fulfill my daily duties as a Corporate 135 Pilot/ “Gold Seal” Flight & Ground Instructor/Aviation magazine writer. I thank you for taking the time to read this material. It certainly involves all of us and our futures.
Finishing up on this subject, let me ask for your help in improving on the following statistics. Some say that eighty-one percent of all the general aviation accidents are linked to pilot error. Half of all those are blamed on loss of competency or lack of currency. I’m willing to be a little more careful and to take everything about the next flight more seriously each and every time that I fly. Are you? Promise?
One crash every 16,000 hours of flight and one fatality every 83,000 hours of flight and I still think that we can do a little better. Agree?
Remember that the three main causes of human error are Preoccupation, Forgetfullness, and Inattention. (Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda). If we can recognize and cure these we are on the way to a safer world of aviation. . .
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