It’s not hard to convince anyone that flying is an incredible way to travel. It’s faster and often more convenient than other modes of transportation. It’s the times when things go wrong that people fear the most. As a pilot, I’m not immune to that fear. Even as a general aviation private pilot, I endeavor to fly with as much safety and professionalism as I possibly can. The airlines have developed an astonishingly high safety rate, thanks in part to learning from accidents and developing processes to prevent them from happening again. Since I fly a Cessna 172, I began to wonder what sorts of difficulties other pilots flying the same airplane have been experiencing. Basically, what should I be the most concerned about happening from a statistical perspective? I decided to dig in to the NTSB Aviation Database to see what was actually on the books for Cessna 172 pilots for the past year. What I found might surprise you.
The Database Query
The NTSB database gives you a whole bunch of different fields to filter your search results. For this query, I selected the date range of 2016, searching for both accidents and incidents that involved a Cessna 172. The result was a five page list of cases that could be viewed either in its entirety or as a summary.
As I looked at the summary for each case listed, there is a final line on each that reads “The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident as follows:” While the stories were interesting to read, I’m very much a root cause kind of guy. Tell me what actually caused things to go wrong. In over half of the the 37 different cases, the wording was a variation of this sentence:
“The student pilot’s improper landing flare, which resulted in a hard landing and porpoise.”
All but a few of the reports involved student pilots, and many of those who didn’t have similar wording to the statement above were in the landing phase of flight.
Obviously, we don’t get the full story with a snapshot like this. But much like socks get a reinforced heel and toe because that’s where they tend to rip, so we can add some reinforcement to our flying in the areas that seem to be failing around us. The first thing that comes to mind reading these stories is “go around.” An approach and landing that is not stable should end in a go-around to come back and try again with a stabilized approach. This means that if your descent rate, airspeed or position in relation to the runway get funky, power up and try again. It’s easy to think that once we are over the runway, the only option is to land, but a go around can be executed even after a bounce. Of course, going around when on any phase of a final approach means losing one landing in the logbook, but think of the greater good that developing good go-around skills can bring when you need it. There’s no shame in a go around. Look at it like a practice swing.
It’s said that the most important hour you will fly is your next hour. It doesn’t matter what experience, skill or luck you have had in the past if you don’t apply it to the next flight hour to get up in the air and back safely. I’m not a fan on dwelling on aircraft accidents, or on making any judgments on the pilots involved. But with all the data we have, we owe it to ourselves to learn from the mistakes of others and develop any systems we can to add redundancy to our flying and prevent the same thing from happening again. You might check out the AOPA podcast “Never Again” for some great close call analysis and the takeaways from pilots who lived to tell the tale. I’ve always disliked the advice of “don’t become a statistic,” because when you think about it, were all statistics – just on the safe side of that percentage. So instead, I would tell you to “stay a good statistic.”
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