Unfit for flight? Or unfit for publication?

Three people died when this general aviation aircraft crashed in Rochester in 2010. It was on a flight from Minneapolis. The NTSB said the plane crashed because the pilot was unable to maintain control after one of two engines quit. Photo: NTSB.

If you read USA Today (or watch KARE 11), you’ve probably seen or read the story this week asserting that the National Transportation Safety Board is too quick to blame pilots for crashes involving general aviation airplanes.

Nearly 45,000 people have been killed over the past five decades in private planes and helicopters — almost nine times the number that have died in airline crashes — and federal investigators have cited pilots as causing or contributing to 86% of private crashes. But a USA TODAY investigation shows repeated instances in which crashes, deaths and injuries were caused by defective parts and dangerous designs, casting doubt on the government’s official rulings and revealing the inner workings of an industry hit so hard by legal claims that it sought and won liability protection from Congress.

For the last day or so, people have been asking me what I thought. I’m reluctant to accept reporting based on two dozen cases over the decade filed by personal injury attorneys. I’ve seen too many cases where pilot decision-making was clearly the cause of an accident, but a subsequent court fight shifted responsibility to a part manufacturer or third party.

An example? In 1999, a pilot, anxious to take off before an airport closed because of an airshow, failed to do a proper pre-flight check, and neglected to unhook a seat belt from some flight controls, which he had locked so wind gusts on the ground wouldn’t damage them. He took off and, without any ability to control the plane, crashed. His widow sued the county, which ran the airport, for not having enough fire trucks. A jury gave her $10 million, although the judgement was reversed on appeal.

That’s one of the reasons why aircraft manufacturers sought liability relief (which allowed companies like Minnesota’s Cirrus Design to exist at all). Companies had simply stopped making private aircraft under the weight of court cases. The 1994 legislation limited liability to the first 18 years of a plane’s life.

But there’s no liability protection in cases where a manufacturer deliberately concealed a design flaw.

That’s not so much an industry seeking to escape liability as it is an industry suggesting that 18 years should be enough time for a design flaw to present itself.

It’s difficult to simply wade through a few court cases and reach a conclusion one way or another on the question of cause. There isn’t enough data, and not enough data in context, a problem that’s exacerbated by the fact there aren’t many investigative reporters at TV stations who fly planes, know why they stop flying sometimes, and can accurately research and translate available data. Besides, planes usually crash because of a chain of events, not a single cause.

Dr. Jeff Schweitzer, a pilot and marine biologist, however, has pored through the data in the USA Today/KARE report and found it wanting. He posts on Huffington Post that the “investigation” was unfit for publication.

The USA Today author demonstrates a terrible ignorance of aviation. Here is a typical canard: “While the airline crash rate has plummeted to near zero, the general aviation rate is unchanged from 15 years ago, and roughly 40 times higher than for airlines.” But the comparison is absurd; the statistic measures a population of professional pilots who undergo mandatory recurrent training twice per year, who fly highly sophisticated machines with triple redundancies and multiple jet engines, with two pilots in the cockpit, supported by an army of mechanics and a massive ground crew feeding them information on weather, routing, and airport conditions. General aviation should be compared to driving, not commercial flying. GA pilots are by definition amateurs who do not make a living from flying; we often fly alone in simple machines with little or no redundancy, usually with one piston engine, and are responsible for gathering our own information on weather, flight conditions, and the health of the airplane. Yet even with that awesome disadvantage, with wild differences and pilot skill and experience in the GA community, with a fleet mix of old and new equipment, we still see relatively few deaths from flying. Hell, 50 people die each year snow skiing. SCUBA diving kills about 150 per year. Recreation boating claims about 750 people each year, significantly more than general aviation. Nothing about general aviation is out of line with any other sport that entails inherent risk. There is no grand conspiracy or systematic flaws in manufacturing. Instead, what we see is simply the unreliable element of human nature.

Formal accident investigations claim that pilot error is responsible for 86 percent of all accidents. We in the aviation community know that this number is low; pilot error is a bigger contributor than that. The accidents included in the 86 percent usually involve some obvious mistake like low altitude aerobatics (“hey, Mom, watch this”), flying into severe weather, flying when ill or tired, or taking off with more weight than the airplane is designed to handle. But pilot error is deeper than that. Aircraft are complex machines that require careful, constant and expensive maintenance. If time or money are constraints, and they often are, and anything about maintenance is neglected, that too is pilot error. So too we see pilot error when in the face of a mechanical failure a pilot fails to land safely as a consequence of poor training. Yes, some failures are catastrophic and unrecoverable; but many can be survived if a pilot is properly equipped to handle the emergency. Failure to do so in a recoverable situation is pilot error.

Various pilot advocacy groups fought back against the assertion that general aviation is unsafe.

“The fear-pandering article gives the impression of an unchecked world of flight operations,” said Jack Pelton, the head of the Wisconsin-based Experimental Aircraft Association and former CEO of Cessna. “In fact, general aviation’s airworthiness directive system administered by the FAA, which adds safety requirements to new and previously produced aircraft and powerplants, has the force of law and holds aviation to higher standards than any other mode of transportation in the country.”

There’s been a 40-percent reduction in general aviation deaths since the ’90s, Pelton said. But that statistic is worth questioning, too. In Minnesota alone, since 1999, the private pilot population has plunged by 35 percent.

On this issue, some skepticism is healthy when both sides speak. There’s always more to the story.

(Disclaimer: I am a member of the EAA)