The Flight Isn't Over Until The Plane is in The Hangar
By Kim Skipper, CPCU, Aviation Underwriting Manager, Avemco Insurance Company
I continue to be surprised by the number of claims that Avemco®receives for accidents/incidents that occur when the airplane isn’t even off the ground. More surprising too, is that the experience level of the pilots involved is remarkably high. You’ve probably seen statistics which show that the most dangerous time for pilots isn’t when they’re students, but far after. The longer they fly, the longer nothing goes wrong and the more confident they get until, eventually, they may become just a little too confident. This is never truer than during taxiing and other ground operations. If we’re being honest with ourselves, most of us will admit that doing something we’ve done hundreds of times before, like starting an engine or crawling along as we make our way to the runway, seems like something close to a no-brainer. And that may be why so many high-time pilots get into trouble.
Here’s a look at some of the most common themes we see at Avemco that result in aircraft damage. Fortunately, bodily injury is rare in ground accidents but the continued escalation in the cost of property and equipment damage is harmful to the health of general aviation. The big areas where we see aircraft damage occur are:
- Taxiing at an unimproved airport or off-airport site that results in a prop strike due to movement over an unsuitable surface. (Avemco defines a taxi loss as one that occurs any time an airplane incurs damage or loss while moving under its power other than in the process of taking off or landing.)
- Collision with a submerged or partially submerged object (float operation).
- Collision with hangar or another object/airplane/vehicle due to misjudgment of wingtip clearance.
- Improper hand propping procedures that end up with the airplane getting away after the engine start.
- And, of course, far and away our biggest cause of claims during ground operations: excursion from the taxiway and resulting collision with taxiway sign/lights due to distraction/inattention. I’ll tackle that one last.
The first item is a tough one. In some parts of the country, unimproved surface operations are the norm. The Idaho backcountry, Alaska, the Wyoming plains, and the desert Southwest are just a few examples of areas where our customers are conducting takeoffs and landings on grass or gravel strips, or off-airport all together.
It stands to reason that, if you don’t know what you’re taxiing over, you probably shouldn’t be taxiing over it. A prop-strike usually involves an engine teardown and that gets expensive in a hurry.
Flying floats is a “first time every time” operation since the takeoff and landing area simply consists of open water. Some areas are more prone than others to floating or submerged hazards. One thing we take for granted when landing at an unfamiliar airport for the first time is that we can look down as we fly overhead and see airplanes similar to ours parked on the ground. We say to ourselves, “If they did it, I can do it.” Most pilots landing on water in an unfamiliar place don't have that luxury. The value of talking to a local pilot who is familiar with operations on a particular body of water can’t be overstated.
A year never goes by during which there aren’t a handful of Avemco claims related to hand propping. My advice is simple. If you’re hand propping because of a dead battery or electrical system deficiency, get it fixed. If you’re hand propping because the airplane doesn’t have an electrical system, get competent instruction in hand propping. And always have someone qualified at the controls. Human limbs and spinning propellers mix with very bad results. And a pilotless airplane careening across a ramp full of other airplanes can quickly cause damage totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars. Or more.
Now, to address the most common and most predictable cause of ground-ops claims we see at Avemco: taxiway departures. By default, almost all taxi losses are taxiway departures (running off the pavement, usually resulting in a propeller strike) or colliding with something on a ramp or along a taxiway (fence posts, taxiway lights, airport signs, other airplanes). Please note that the following comments and numbers are compiled from the Avemco claims files and not from NTSB or FAA statistics.
- Taxi losses seldom happen to pilots with less than 50 total hours. Student pilots usually don’t have taxi losses. Not only are their senses heightened because everything is new to them, but they’re frequently over-cautious because they’re unsure of themselves. And what they don’t want to do is bend up an airplane. Plus, they’re often in the airplane with an instructor. Two sets of eyes are better than one. If the student gets distracted, the instructor is there to stop the airplane before there is a problem.
- Once pilots pass the 50-hour point, and until they have about 2500 total flight hours, taxi mishaps account for about 11% of all claims for this pilot experience group. Around 50 hours, many pilots pass the Private or Sport Pilot checkride. Then they’re on their own, complacency starts to set in and there’s usually no longer a CFI in the right seat.
- Contrary to what you would expect, the taxi mishap rate increases to 13% for pilots with more than 2500 hours total time. Why? Most likely complacency. Experienced pilots may try to run checklists while they are taxiing, causing a division of attention that leads to a collision or taxiway excursion. Someone who has flown that much is probably in an airplane equipped with a GPS or even a full glass cockpit. The distractions of advanced panel equipment may cause the pilot to focus inside the airplane. If the aircraft is in motion at the time, and no one is looking outside it’s far more likely to run off the pavement or collide with an object.
The taxi loss record by a pilot’s time in type also follows the trends noted above. Pilots who have less than 50 hours in make and model have the lowest rate of taxi mishaps, according to our claims statistics. They are probably not comfortable enough yet with the airplane to let their eyes and minds wander during taxi. The rate of taxi-claims goes up when the pilot has 50 to 100 hours in make and model, probably an indication that complacency is setting in. The pilot who logs more than 100 but less than 500 hours in type has a moderate but still fairly low rate of taxi claims. Log more than 500 hours in type, however, and you may fall into the trap of complacency and avionics distraction that causes the taxi loss rate to soar.
How can you avoid taxi mishaps? Simply make it your top priority to pay attention to what you’re doing, keep your head out of the cockpit, and continuously remind yourself to focus on taxiing, nothing else. Avemco statistics show that pilots who program the GPS or run Before-Takeoff or After-Landing checklists while the airplane is in motion have a far higher rate of taxi collisions than their level of experience would suggest.
Some folks say, “Fly safe.” as a friendly farewell to a fellow aviator, I’d like to take it a step further and suggest we remind ourselves that a safe flight starts long before and ends long after we’re in the air.
Avemco-cited claims’ statistics are from the period 1999-2011 for Direct Approach Aircraft Insurance Policy submitted claims.
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Kim Skipper has been with Avemco Insurance Company since 1987. Kim earned her Chartered Property Casualty Underwriter (CPCU) designation—the industry’s highest achievement—in 2002.She has been diligent in educating customers and callers about General Aviation insurance, as well as helping to manage a team of underwriters - the aviation insurance specialist team at Avemco. Kim also holds a property/casualty insurance license in all 50 states.
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