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Is General Aviation Safe?

By Garth Calitz

A question often asked by prospective flight students and their families is “Is flying Safe?” sadly they are often fed the line that the most dangerous part of flying is the drive to the airfield. We do reside in South Africa where roads are not in any way safe but I will never use that line as I simply do not believe it except if the asker was referring to commercial airline flying.

Airlines receive significant oversight from the regulators in nearly every aspect of their operations. Their maintenance and training programs must meet certain minimum standards and have regulator approval. The airlines have regular inspections by the regulator to ensure that they are complying with the approved programs.

Airlines always fly with at least two fully trained pilots on the flight deck. Training for airline pilots is rigorous to begin and includes refresher training on a regular basis. The pilots only fly to approved airports and they strictly follow approved Operational Specifications and standard operating procedures. Beyond the required training, airline pilots tend to fly many hours each month which lends itself to their proficiency. They also prepare for flights and fly with the support of a trained Aircraft Dispatcher watching things from the ground. The airline likely has a team of meteorologists supporting flights as well negating to a large extent the dangers posed by inclement weather.

Airlines are required to have a Safety Management System, which is a formal, top-down program to ensure that safety is an uppermost priority throughout the organization. It is intended to identify and mitigate risks before they cause an accident or incident. Numerous other safety-related programs generally fall under the SMS and contribute to overall airline safety. Now that’s enough bout airline safety as that is not in question here.

Flying in general aviation is not safer than driving!!. Statistically, GA’s safety record is closer to the safety record of operating motorcycles (yet another one of my preferred pastimes). The rules and requirements for a GA pilot are not as strict but that does provide the GA pilot with a lot more freedom in his or her flying.

Like getting out of bed in the morning, general aviation flying has risks. The safety of GA pilots depends a lot on how they manage these risks. A big part of flight training should not only be the stick and rudder skills of flying the aircraft but the risk management skills needed to provide a safer flying environment. The flight training industry has the ability to train safer GA pilots, great flight training organizations and excellent individual flight instructors, of which there are many in South Africa, ensure that instilling safety and risk management practices is paramount in their training. They generally create a Positive Safety Culture at the institution and in the long run, it positively imprints on the student and helps to produce safer pilots within the broad spectrum of GA operations.

Unfortunately, there are flight training organizations and individual flight instructors that are only concerned about teaching enough to pass the test, sadly we also have an abundance of these. Pilots from this type of background tend to disregard basic safety practices and we often end up reading about them in the newspapers.

An individual pilot’s initial and subsequent training practices, ongoing flight experience, and attitudes about risk management will all contribute to the pilot’s likelihood of being involved in an accident or serious incident.

The CAA mandates that a pilot have a flight review with a flight instructor on a regular basis and that a certain number of hours be flown as PIC annually, it is widely accepted that these requirements are not sufficient to keep a pilot safely current, but that’s a story for another day.

Conscientious and safety-minded pilots will seek out more consistent and regular training than these minimum requirements. Safety-minded pilots will participate in programs like the Safety First Aviator program and find instructors to work with that will provide a great learning experience, not just signatures for their logbooks. Rigorous and regular recurrent training is within the grasp of every GA pilot, but the pilot must take the initiative.

Valid PPL holders are perfectly legal to fly off by themselves without another pilot or without consulting with any other knowledgeable pilots before departure. Safer pilots will do a thorough weather analysis and may consult with a mentor pilot before departing in questionable weather. These pilots may also seek the assistance of a knowledgeable flight instructor to review their decision-making process while still on the ground or to go along on a flight that is outside the pilot’s comfort zone. Good mentor pilots and flight instructors have the ability to develop good pilots into much safer pilots.

The majority of GA pilots will not be subject to a formal SMS unless flying professionally in a non-airline environment. This doesn’t mean that they can’t borrow some of the principles of these programs to use in everyday flight operations. Safety-conscious GA pilots will set a personal Safety Policy based on their own training and experience levels.

Safety Risk Management should be an ongoing part of every safe pilot’s plan and program. An individual’s SRM plan might include the development of his or her own personal standard operating procedures, personal minimums, and an ongoing training plan. While one SRM plan may not look like another, pilots' backgrounds are different. The pilot might decide to adjust their individual plans as training and recent experience allow changes to be safely made.

Safety Assurance for an individual would include reviewing how well the implementation of the individual’s Safety Policy and Safety Risk Management is working. This is a time to sit down after a flight or series of flights and reflect on what went right and what could have gone better. Questions answered during this reflection may suggest changes to personal policies and procedures as well as determine how well past changes have impacted the overall safety of the flights. All these may not necessarily take on a formal pen-to-paper format it could just be a list of mental notes that the pilot has adopted.

Like many worthwhile endeavours, flying has its inherent risks and it is at the end of the day up to the individual pilot to mitigate the risks. The old analogy of the two buckets comes to mind.... try to keep both buckets as full as possible by limiting the need to delve into the “luck” bucket while trying to replenish the “Experience” bucket as often as possible.

Flying should be fun if it's not it's time to review your attitude. Be safe out there



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