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Can Technology Really Make Us Safer?

Article appeared in Flying Magazine June, 2014 by Martha King – Martha_04

The “good ol’ days” of aviation often weren’t all that good. When I learned to fly instruments in 1970 in our Cherokee 140, we had a single navcom and no DME. Trying to determine my position by using cross-radials from nearby VORs often left my head, as well as the OBS, spinning.

And in the mid-‘70s, when John and I were flying a circuit conducting two-day ground schools, the mere act of trying to call a Flight Service Station (FSS) for a weather briefing was a significant frustration. There was no national 800 number, only a myriad of local numbers, and every phone directory seemed to list the FSS number differently. When I did finally get the FSS briefer on the phone, I had to write fast while simultaneously trying to visualize the geography of the adverse weather they were describing.

Today, the G1000 Cessnas I often fly show the position of my aircraft in relation to every airport and navaid within the range I have selected. (I’m not lost near as much as I used to be!) And I have better weather information on my iPad than those Flight Service Station weather briefers could get back then on their consoles.

Most of the concerns that truly worried me (and many other pilots, I’m sure) just a few decades ago have been removed. I no longer fear getting lost, or running into weather, terrain or other aircraft I don’t know are there.

So now flying is much safer, right? Well, until very recently I would have said not. The fatal accident rate for general aviation has been flat for over a decade despite the installation of GPS navigation for a large portion of the fleet, and far better weather information available for everybody. Moreover, an NTSB study released in March of 2010 looked at the accident rates of over 8,000 small piston-powered airplanes manufactured between 2002 and 2006 and found that those equipped with glass cockpits had a higher fatal accident rate than similar aircraft with conventional instruments.

Why would that be?

Maybe it’s because technology is a double-edged sword. It makes life easier and gives us tools to better manage some of the risks of flight, but at the same time presents us with new risks to manage. Use of technology imposes new responsibilities and requirements on us.

For instance, when I used to get a weather briefing the old-fashioned way, by contacting an FSS weather briefing specialist on the telephone, I was, unless I declined it, ensured a standard weather briefing.

But getting a telephone weather briefing seems time-consuming when I can get much more information—and very visual information—over the Internet on my laptop or mobile device, much more quickly. So these days I, like many other pilots, prefer to get my weather over the Internet instead.

But now that I “roll my own” Internet briefing, I have the responsibility of organizing, interpreting, and ensuring the completeness and accuracy of my briefing. And while it’s usually automatic to get the METARs, TAFs, and NOTAMs from providers such as FltPlan.com, WingX, and ForeFlight, I find I have to make a special effort to get some of the information that is contained in a standard briefing, such as area forecasts, AIRMETS, and SIGMETS.

Back in the day, when we all used paper charts, it was easy to tell if I had all the charts I needed for a flight. I just thumbed through the stack and checked visually. Today, all my charts—sectionals, IFR charts, and terminal procedures—are on my iPad. And those charts can be either downloaded, or accessed through an Internet connection.

I have occasionally found myself, when preparing for a flight to an area I don’t normally fly in, accessing the charts on the Internet while thinking I had already downloaded them onto my iPad. Fortunately, I caught this error each time before I climbed into the airplane. It made me wonder, though, how often this happens with other pilots.

But why did I qualify my comment about whether flying is safer now, by saying “until very recently”? Because we may, just may, finally have experienced a significant drop in the general aviation fatal accident rate. Preliminary information for calendar year 2013—which may be final by the time you read this—indicates that in 2013 the number of fatal GA accidents declined by as much as 17 percent.

Were we safer in 2013, or did we just fly less? What is still unknown is the general aviation fleet activity for 2013. Preliminary estimates based on information from several sources suggest that GA flying is only down by single digits—meaning our fatal accident rate did indeed improve.

Why? I believe it is a combination of increased equipage of the new technology in the GA fleet and better training.

For instance, a real success story regarding equipment is the amazing reduction in Controlled Flight Into Terrain (CFIT) accidents. According to FAA statistics, the rate of CFIT accidents has dropped dramatically—from 0.25 per 100,000 flight hours in 2004 to 0.08 per 100,000 flight hours in 2010.

The General Aviation Manufacturer’s Association (GAMA) believes that this significant decline in CFIT accidents is because in that time period more and more general aviation aircraft have been equipped with Multi-Function Displays (MFDs), enabling much better situational awareness about terrain.

Plus, many pilots are now using hand-held portable electronic devices that display the terrain. I am thrilled to be able to say that this new technology, amazingly affordable technology, has made a remarkable safety improvement.

Has better training made a difference in the general aviation accident rate? The Cirrus community definitely believes it has. According to the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association (COPA), the fatal accident rate in 2013 was 1.07 per 100,000 flight hours, down from a 3-year average of 1.57 per 100,000 flight hours. The Cirrus community attributes this drop in the fatal accident rate to the increased focus on safety instruction from Cirrus Aircraft, and the risk management focus of several COPA training initiatives.

While the preliminary GA fatality rate numbers are exciting, they represent the first significant improvement in over a decade and can’t yet be considered a trend. Plus, COPA advises caution in evaluating their rate figures, because the fleet size is relatively small compared to the size of the total general aviation fleet and one or two accidents can distort the numbers. Nevertheless, they are very pleased with what they are seeing.

Clearly, the more technology there is in the cockpit, the more we need to make a commitment to learn how to use it. Glass cockpits create a huge need for us to learn and be proficient with the specific equipment we will be flying. The days of moving from one aircraft to another without preparation are over. Even intimate familiarity with one system may not qualify us for another system. For example, Avidyne and Garmin systems have similar capabilities but they are significantly different in how they operate. And even if we are very familiar with a particular system we can lose proficiency very quickly.

Within the last several years I have gotten single-pilot type ratings in both the Cessna Mustang and the Eclipse 500—both of them glass-cockpit airplanes. I can say without hesitation that even though both of these are jets, learning the avionics was by far the most challenging component of the training. And I wouldn’t consider flying either one single-pilot now without some significant refresher training on those avionics.

But there may be an additional component affecting the general aviation accident rate. Maybe when we discover we have the increased capability that this new technology provides, we use that capability and the comfort it gives us to fly in circumstances we wouldn’t risk previously.

This is called risk homeostasis. Instead of increasing our margins, we return to the higher level of risk we were previously comfortable with.

Several months ago I departed from Las Vegas Henderson Airport southbound to San Diego, in the black of night and into steeply rising terrain. I set my MFD to the terrain display for the departure. The sight of amber and red blotches on the screen turning to a comforting green reassured me that my climb was working out as I intended. But I wondered: Was I appropriately using the new technology in my airplane to mitigate risk? Or was I engaged in risk homeostasis?

I’m still wondering.

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