According to that scion of contemporary information- Wikipedia- “‘safety’ is the state of being ‘safe’ (from French sauf)- the condition of being protected.” And the list of things for which we value safety is substantial: physical- social- spiritual- financial- political- emotional- occupational- psychological and educational. We all recognize that within aviation- ‘safety’ carries a significant connotation – one on which we ...

Dave Higdon  |  01st May 2009
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Dave Higdon
Dave Higdon

Dave Higdon is a highly respected, NBAA Gold Wing award-winning aviation journalist who has covered all...

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General Aviation Safety Improves- mostly

According to that scion of contemporary information- Wikipedia- “‘safety’ is the state of being ‘safe’ (from French sauf)- the condition of being protected.” And the list of things for which we value safety is substantial: physical- social- spiritual- financial- political- emotional- occupational- psychological and educational.

We all recognize that within aviation- ‘safety’ carries a significant connotation – one on which we incessantly focus out of the different risks imposed by a mode of travel that operates in three dimensions.

No one ever forgets the old line- “What goes up must come down.” We instinctively strive to make all our ups and downs end uneventfully in flying – each and every time. It’s a given. According to a pair of related snapshots- private aircraft pilots and machines are generally doing better in their safe-flying efforts. That’s always good news.

But in another given: not every one of us succeeds every time. People make mistakes; circumstances change; machines malfunction or fail. And from the same two recent reports- there appear some elements in which we didn’t improve – or maybe even tracked backwards a bit.

As a whole- though- pilots of private aircraft can smile a bit more because overall we’re flying more safely.

The Nall Report
The annual Nall Report of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation examines data from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)- sifted and analyzed to look specifically at details related to general aviation flying- with the focus on that 90 percent of private aircraft that weigh no more than 12-500 pounds.

According to the 2008 Nall Report released in March - the 19th annual - accidents among private aircraft in 2007 grew by 82 to 1-385 compared to 1-303 in 2006- producing a rate of 6.47 accidents for every 100-000 hours flown. The gain- obviously- is unwelcome and an unhappy result.

But there’s a flip-side to that total which bears a little celebration. In 2007- according to the Nall Report- the fatal accidents dropped to historic lows - both a couple of ways.

First- a total of 252 of the 1-385 total accidents produced fatalities in 2007- an all-time low that yielded a rate of 1.18 per 100-000 flight hours – which is near to the all-time low rate experienced in 1999. That fatal accident number is down 5.6 percent from 2006.

Second- the total number of fatalities suffered in 2007 dropped 9.7 percent from the prior year to 449 – itself an historic low. Overall- these numbers reflect improving trends – with the exception of the total accidents- that is.

Of more interest to many who read this august publication will be the ASF’s breakdown on the accidents by type of operation flown and the type of aircraft involved. These numbers show evidence of the seriousness with which business aviation takes its operations as well as something on the level of exposure.

A Mostly Good-News Picture
The 2008 Nall Report shows some interesting figures on the level of flight safety within business operations – at least- within that vast swatch flown by aircraft weighing no more than 12-500 pounds.

A large percentage of general aviation aircraft predominantly flown for business boast multiple- usually two- engines and often more-advanced systems as well as more seasoned pilots flying more than the annual average. These traits show up in the accidents attributed to flights flown for business purposes.

According to the Nall Report- business operations accounted for a significant 14.1 percent of the total time flown by general aviation aircraft in 2007 – or a little better than one hour of every seven. By comparison- however- business operations accounted for only 3.1 percent of the accident total- or 44- in 2007; fatalities befell business operations only 4.3 percent- or 11- of the fatal accident total.

But that paring – fatalities in 11 of 44 accidents suffered by business flights – prompted the ASF to give business flying a 25 percent lethality rate. By comparison- personal flying – largely flown by lower-time- less-frequent pilots in single-engine aircraft – accounted for 39.4 percent of the hours flown in 2007- but more than 69 percent- or 965- of the total accidents and almost 73 percent- or 186- of the total fatal accidents.

Among the factors influencing the safety performance of pilots flying for business is a tendency for them to fly more frequently and to maintain critical skills in tough judgment areas- particularly instrument flying. Of equal importance is the tendency of aircraft flown for business to be equipped to handle more challenging conditions.

Interestingly- of the 44 accidents experienced during business flights in 2007- 29 were considered to be pilot-related and nine of those produced fatalities – the majority of the 11 business-flying accidents with fatalities. And both numbers represented improvements over 2006.

Among corporate aircraft operated by dedicated crew- 2007 saw only five in more than 3 million flight hours – a testament to the safety orientation of corporate pilots and their flight departments. Overall- however- and among some of the business flight accidents- weather remains a significant factor that disproportionately strikes at the personal pilot in contrast with the business flyer.

Still not bad…
In early April- the NTSB released its preliminary numbers for aviation safety in 2008- and- as with the 2008 Nall Report on 2007’s numbers- the picture is a bit mixed – but still good overall.

According to the NTSB- general aviation operations suffered a total of 1-559 accidents- a number that includes private aircraft weighing under and over the 12-500 pounds that demarks the Nall Report. Of those 1-559 accidents in 2008- 275 were fatal accidents that took a total of 495 lives – one less than in 2007. The accident rate for all of general aviation worked out at 7.11 per 100-000 flight hours- up from 6.92 in 2007.

The NTSB also noted that during the last 20 years- the highest accident rate was 9.08 in 1994 and the lowest rate came in 2006 at 6.33.

The board expressed particular concern for a spike in accidents and fatalities among FAR 135 operators- which includes on-demand charter private flights. According to the NTSB figures- such on-demand flight operations – operations which include aero medical flights and air-tour flights as well as air taxi – logged more than 3.6 million flight hours with a total of 56 accidents that killed 66- the highest number of fatalities for this group since 2000. In 2007- this segment posted 43 fatalities.

In a bright spot- the accident rate per 100-000 flight hours of 1.52 stayed virtually unchanged from 2007’s 1.54 per 100-000 flight hours.

Weather- Pilotage Remain Leading Factors
Among the 50 2007 accidents the Nall Report attributed to weather conditions- only three- or six percent- befell pilots flying on business- though all three produced fatalities- or 7.3 percent of the fatal accidents related to weather.

By comparison- among pilots flying for personal reasons- 84 percent- or 42- occurred due to weather conditions- and 34 of those- or 82.9 percent of the 41 total fatal accidents- suffered fatalities.

This starkly different set of results again reflects- to an extent- the higher degree of experience and equipment levels typical among aviators and aircraft flying for business.

Given the statistics for other- human decision-related accident causes- judgment reflected in erroneous decisions continues to contribute to the high total number of accidents related to weather- fuel exhaustion and loss-of-control issues.

A Community’s Focus
Talk and walk about safety- if you’ll allow me an unscientifically derived observation- dominates flying more than any other mode of travel. Pilots talking about safety- in formal and casual settings alike- seem second nature.

We talk flight safety almost anywhere- paying our way by the thousands to attend structured seminars with hundreds participating. We even break into spontaneous hangar-flying ‘clinics’ almost anytime three or more pilots come together.

Like a fight breaking out at a hockey game- these discussions after hours aren’t the point of the gathering- but you just know it’s going to happen. Someone mentions the latest stupid-pilot tricks we’ve heard about; or brings up the ‘nearly-happened’ stories of friends or our own- and we’ve got three sides – or more – to the friendly dissection.

We do it so much that the uninitiated within earshot may go away from hearing such discussions believing little posses more risk to their safety than sitting down in an airplane – maybe- in particular- a small airplane.

Thankfully- though- the best of those hangar-flying safety clinics usually balance the scales somewhat with references to actual statistics- the hard numbers of our flying. And thankfully- once again- recent reports on general aviation safety seem to agree that we do a pretty good job at staying safe – and that we are- in general- getting better.

Judgment- Skill- Experience Dominates
You can derive from the statistics of both the Nall Report and the NTSB that pilots with solid judgment skills – often learned the hard way – usually make a new decision that spares them an unhappy outcome.

Nonetheless- pilots still learning solid judgment skills may end up learning the hard way from experience rather than the easy way: from the other pilot’s experience. But even the savviest pilot can face that set of conflicted wishes and wish to be on the ground when something unforeseen occurs in-flight.

Anything that borders on an emergency if mishandled- or misjudged- holds the potential to make a good day go dramatically bad. No flyer ever wants to encounter any such situation; every flyer should recognize the potential exists for many events to occur.

After taking an important step forward by recognizing the potential- the smart aviator takes subsequent steps to prepare for those possibilities. And by recognition- preparation and practice- a pilot improves the chances of a crisis ending with an otherwise uneventful landing without that crisis devolving to the level of a true life-threatening emergency.

These factors seem to play out in the better numbers posted by pilots flying for business- in good weather and bad.

The Never-ending Struggle
The fact that so many business aircraft pilots so often go beyond basic FAA requirements to enhance skills and improve their margin of safety reflects a community of aviators dedicated to continuous safety improvements.

It’s not such self-fueled interest that keeps classrooms busy at professional training facilities so much as it keeps in high demand events such as Bombardier’s annual Safety Standdown ( for business aviation practitioners- as well as the roaming clinics on on-line courses made available by the Air Safety Foundation.

You can also detect this self-driven quest in the on-line discussion forums and pilot blogs available through aviation groups and in the demand for equipment upgrades for older aircraft.

And when you consider the relative challenges of flying private aircraft for business or personal needs- the community can see in the numbers where efforts produce improvements- as well as where further improvements are needed.

For example- air carriers continue to produce safety numbers that may at first appear greatly ahead of those for private flying. Factors here include full-time professional flight crews who log in the vicinity of 1-000 flight hours annually and aircraft with the highest level of equipment.

Another factor is the highly structured and restrictive environment of commercial operations. Scheduled carriers use barely 500 airports in the U.S.- while private operations like those flown for businesses use the majority of the 5-300 other airports available. Many of those airports provide challenges that no airline crew would normally face- and in weather that operational specifications would bar a commercial carrier from tackling.

Often those smaller airports lack systems that make life easier on pilots flying at larger- air-carrier airports. So while the commercial carriers enjoy better figures- they seldom have to face the variety of conditions and airfield capabilities faced daily by corporate air crews.

The Goal: Zero
As an advisor once said- “It pays to have goals in life.” Private aviation continues to work toward ever-safer flying because every pilot’s goal is zero accidents.

Employers can do their share by giving pilots every opportunity possible to improve their skills and their knowledge – knowledge important in helping pilots learn from the mistakes of others- as well as in exercising good judgment when the unforeseen arises.

While few expect aviation to actually achieve a goal of zero fatalities thanks to zero accidents- no pilot should ever knowingly eschew the opportunity to learn more. That is why so many experienced pilots consider the ticket to fly a lifelong ticket to learn – and in learning- learning to be safer.


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