Accident Prevention Facts from the Master, Part I


January 2016

In this two-part Avemco® PIREP, Master Flight Instructor and author, Thomas P. Turner, shares the most important facts he has learned in seventeen years of examining aircraft accident data.

I’m entering my eighth year of writing FLYING LESSONS Weekly, a discussion of flying and decision-making techniques to reduce risk in the most common air crash scenarios. FLYING LESSONS Weekly’s predecessor, the Beech Weekly Accident Update goes a full decade further back than that, with analyses dating back to 1998. I think we’ve learned a few things about flying’s risks, and its rewards, in the past 17 years of data-driven discussion. Let’s look at a list of suggestions for avoiding the vast majority of all general aviation accidents…putting into practice what we’ve learned from the unfortunate experiences of others.

Some of these suggestions may sound overly conservative. But I bet the pilots who crashed in the events thought they could get away with it too. You’ll find, also, that these suggestions are not onerous, or restrictive, or even expensive and can easily become part of your standard operating procedure. History shows that implementing these few personal rules will make it far less likely that you, your passengers, or people over whom you fly will ever get killed, hurt, or make the evening news.

First, some general tenets:

  1. Know what the airplane is…and isn’t. 
    The airplane you’re flying may have extraordinary avionics and equipment, but it is not an airliner. It is a recreational and perhaps a business tool. It has not been designed, tested, certificated or maintained to the same level as an air carrier aircraft. It doesn’t have the performance or redundancy of an airliner. It is very safe and very capable…if it’s flown within limitations.
  2. Know what you are…and aren’t. 
    You are probably not an air carrier pilot. Even if you are, or have been at one time or another, your air carrier experience does not fully prepare you for the workload of single-pilot operations in a less capable airplane. You almost certainly do not get the level of initial and recurrent training in light airplane single-pilot operations that an airline pilot routinely receives. You won’t be able to do everything that you could do as part of a jet airliner crew. This is doubly true if you are a retired airline pilot, because like it or not, age takes its toll on endurance, reaction time and cognitive ability.
  3. Know and evaluate the environment. 
    By far, the most common reason for airline delays is adverse weather. Your airplane is less capable to handle adverse weather than an air carrier airplane. Consequently, you will need to delay, divert or cancel flights more frequently than the airlines. I flew Beech Barons 250-300 hours a year for several years in the U.S. Southeast, and I routinely diverted around weather, landed at an alternate to sit out the weather, missed approaches “for real,” parked myself in holding patterns for showers to move on, or fog to finish clearing, and canceled a trip and drove a rental car home because of long-lasting weather hazards. It’s not “if”, it’s “when.” The more you fly, the more you’ll delay, re-route or cancel because of the weather.
    If you are the person who sets the schedule for events or meetings that create the need for your trip, or if there are adverse repercussions or lost revenue if you have to delay or cancel a flight, then plan to depart in time to delay, divert or cancel and make it to your commitment by other means if necessary. This is especially true for the trip back home, when you generally have more pressure to arrive on schedule. This sometimes means traveling to your destination a day earlier, or cutting your trip a day or two short if the forecasts show the weather may close in on the last day of your trip. The old adage is spot on: “Time to spare, go by air.”
  4. Fulfill your roles. 
    You are pilot-in-command-the Captain of your aircraft. You are also Dispatcher and the Director of Maintenance. You are the Aviation Medical Examiner, responsible for self-certification before and during flight. Plan each flight consciously thinking about the responsibility of all four of these roles. To paraphrase a self-help cliché, “if it’s to do, it’s up to you.” Flying a cross-country aircraft is a profession, whether it’s your chosen or compensated profession or not. It requires the time and study and practice of a second job.

Now, for some specific recommendations, based on actual mishap history in the order of most to least likely cause of a fatal crash:

  • Put time into training. 
    One hour of flight instruction every two years is probably sufficient for the pilot of a very simple, VFR-only airplane flown outside the realm of Air Traffic Control. But it’s not nearly enough for the cross-country pilot (even in visual conditions), the instrument pilot, and/or the pilot of a complex or high performance aircraft. My four years of experience teaching multiengine pilots at a simulator-based training facility convinced me biennial training alone is completely insufficient for a pilot to increase his or her capabilities in the practice of flying.
    The less you fly, the more you need to train and practice. A corollary is that more flying time does not by itself replace the need to train. Two hundred hours of point A to point B probably won’t protect you if an engine-driven fuel pump dies close to the ground, or if the weather moves in faster than forecast and low-level wind shear affects everywhere within the airplane’s fueled range. Two hours of solid practice and/or challenging instruction of some sort two or three times a year is probably a better measure of the prepared pilot.
  • Get very comfortable with angle of attack and stalls. 
    Loss of control (“LOC”) is a hot item because LOC is the cause of over 40% of all fatal general aviation events in the approach and landing phase of flight.1 Although aeromedical factors and partial panel flight are included, LOC is in most cases a euphemism for “stall.” Many pilots are not comfortable flying an airplane at the slow end of its flight envelope. These are precisely the people who need more training in stall recognition, recovery and avoidance-discomfort is a symptom of undeveloped or atrophied skill.
  • Hand-fly the airplane-a lot. 
    Fatal crashes often result from a pilot’s inability to hand-fly the airplane in the event of an autopilot disconnect or failure. Often pilots lose control almost immediately upon a trim runaway or autopilot disconnect, when the pilot must instantly transition from automated flight to hand-flying with an airplane that is radically out of trim as a result of the failure mode. Be as comfortable and capable hand-flying all phases of flight as you are using an autopilot.
  • Maintain mode awareness. 
    The corollary to hand-flying is to be adept at the operation of your avionics and autopilot, so there’s never any doubt about the mode in which it’s operating, or what the equipment is going to do next.
  • Practice partial panel. 
    A couple hours of partial panel flying every six months to a year may be worth more than a panel full of backup instruments. The hard part, however, is identification of a partial panel situation in the first place. Unless this has actually happened to you at night or in IMC (and you bucked the odds by surviving your first encounter), the only way to experience this realistically is in a flight training device or simulator.
  • Maintain situational awareness. 
    My informal review of the NTSB record suggests a noticeable decline in Controlled Flight into Terrain (CFIT) events that coincides with the widespread availability of cockpit moving map displays in general aviation aircraft. That said, CFIT continues to be a problem, especially at night and during visual approaches in marginal visibility. Whether VFR or IFR, always know the lowest safe altitude for your current and next segment of flight.
  • Know your EPs. 
    EPs, short for Emergency Procedures, at those airplane attitudes, configurations (flap and landing gear positions, etc.) airspeeds, angles of attack and checklist procedures for abnormal conditions or catastrophic failures. Why are airline operations so safe? In a large part it’s because the crews are required to perform normal and EPs in simulated scenarios every six months, so when an actual abnormality or emergency arises (which is almost never “textbook” as presented in the simulator) the pilots have a recent wealth of experience with which to correlate to the situation at hand. If you’ve not been practicing and reviewing EPs regularly, you won’t be ready on the unlikely but far from impossible day an actual emergency occurs.

In the next Avemco PIREP, Master CFI Thomas P. Turner tells us how small deviations from published limits and accepted procedures can lead to disastrous consequences for both airplane and people. Click Hereto read Part II

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Holder of an ATP certificate with instructor, CFII and MEI ratings and a Masters Degree in Aviation Safety, 2010 National FAA Safety Team Representative of the Year, 2015 Inductee into the NAFI Hall of Fame and 2008 FAA Central Region CFI of the Year, three-time Master CFI Thomas P. Turner has been Lead Instructor for Bonanza pilot training program at the Beechcraft factory; production test pilot for engine modifications; aviation insurance underwriter; corporate pilot and safety expert; Captain in the United States Air Force; and contract course developer for Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. He now directs the education and safety arm of a 9000-member pilots’ organization. With over 4000 hours logged, including more than 2500 as an instructor, Tom writes, lectures and instructs extensively from his home at THE AIR CAPITAL--Wichita, Kansas. Subscribe to Tom’s free FLYING LESSONS Weekly e-newsletter at

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