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Is Fate the Hunter?

A Close Look at GA Accident Causal Factors

By Lynn McCloud
Reprinted with permission from FAA Safety Briefing

One of the all-time classic books for people who love flying and aviation is Ernest Gann’s Fate is the Hunter. Gann writes about flying in the early days when there was a greater degree of risk. Seeming to prove that the risk was much greater then—the book is dedicated by name to hundreds of pilots who perished in aviation’s early days.

Ernest Gann said fate was the hunter. Is it? Let’s take a look. Yes, accidents happen. Too many happen, in fact. In 2009, according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), 474 people perished in fatal general aviation accidents. That was 474 too many.

The goal of FAA Safety Briefing—along with the outreach and education efforts of the FAA Safety Team (—is to improve GA safety. We want to provide the GA community with tools and resources. Yet, an important step in providing the best tools and resources is to identify where the problems are.

FAA is taking a hard look at general aviation accident (and incident) data to identify the biggest problem areas—what are the causes or causal areas of the most accidents—so that the agency can more properly direct its resources to the areas that can make the biggest difference in improving GA safety.

What are the biggest reasons for accidents? As a first step, FAA Safety Briefing spoke with Bob Matthews, Senior Aviation Safety Analyst in FAA’s Accident Investigation and Prevention Office.

“As most pilots know, accidents are rarely caused by a single factor. Accidents typically occur due to a chain of errors that can be compounded by such variables as the purpose of flight, the type of equipment, and the environment in which a flight takes place,” says Matthews.

For example, factors like time of day and weather significantly increase the risk of a fatal accident. “Flying VFR at night doubles the risk of a fatal accident compared with VFR in daylight,” Matthews explains. “This does not mean VFR flight at night cannot be done safely; it can.” However, close review of the data suggests that pilots need to have the appropriate training and rest, perform serious preflight planning, and be ready for the demands associated with VFR at night. Similarly, the data reveals that flying IFR in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) also more than doubles risk versus flying IFR in VMC. Again, pilots can fly IFR safely in IMC, but it is essential to be properly trained and current in those conditions.

Because of the inherent dangers, IMC and night VFR prove to be significant players in several lethal accident scenarios, including loss of control in flight (disorientation) and controlled flight into terrain. “The point here is simple,” Matthews adds. “Unless we really are prepared, minimizing our VFR at night and our exposure to IMC can go a long way to reduce risk.”

Approach and landing is another common general aviation fatal-accident scenario, (accounting for 18 percent of fatal accidents). Failure to manage airspeed is the most common factor here, Matthews says, but other factors include the nature of the landing area, loss of control on touchdown, night flight and disorientation, weather, and wire strikes as pilots search for the landing strip. Accidents during takeoff and initial climb out include many of the same characteristics, but also include airworthiness and weight-and-balance issues.

When examining GA accident causal areas, Matthew says, “Maneuvering flight also deserves some mention” since fatal accidents in this area are increasing. This category includes aerobatics, agricultural application, and low-level sightseeing. Understanding types of flying is important, Matthews stresses, since “some of these activities, such as aerobatics, reflect conscious risk taking. Others simply reflect the risk of low-level flight or abnormal flight regimes, such as news gathering or firefighting.”

Another GA category experiencing an increase in fatal accidents is experimental aircraft. Accident characteristics among experimental aircraft differ from those found in other components of GA, Matthews adds. “Experimental accidents involve a greater share of pilots with low time in the accident aircraft, all of which, by definition, can be unique.” Airworthiness or maintenance issues of varying degrees also are more common among experimental aircraft than in other GA accidents (16 percent versus 11 percent), and experimental-aircraft accidents involve more aerobatic flights, “which reflects the nature and even the attraction of these aircraft,” Matthews says.

There’s one small, but meaningful, GA fatal-accident category, Matthews says, that “can only be described as ‘‘What were they thinking?’’ According to Matthews’s calculations, about 5 percent of all fatal GA accidents qualify for this not-so-flattering label, though they cross the other categories noted above. “These accidents include flights in aircraft that are obviously not airworthy (including some cases of flying aircraft that had placards clearly stating they were not to be flown), plus other airworthiness issues, including amateur builders who knowingly chose not to follow kit manufacturers’ advice.

“More commonly, these accidents involve egregiously poor judgment,” Matthews adds, “such as buzzing the family picnic, performing aerobatic maneuvers in non-aerobatic aircraft, choosing to fly twins with no experience or training, or other variations of the standard ‘Watch this!’”

In sum, different accident scenarios reflect different mixes of fleets, pilots, environments, and inherent safety risks, complete with different levels of experience and skills among the pilots involved. “Yet,” Matthews concludes, “a substantial number of fatal accidents could be eliminated—many lives saved—with fundamental risk assessment about flying at night or in weather, meticulous maintenance, and the maturity that prevents that obvious question of, “What were they thinking?”

Years ago, Ernest Gann said fate was the hunter. As this initial analysis reveals, and FAA Safety Briefing will have more in-depth analysis in upcoming issues, fate has nothing to do with aviation safety. Many of the causal areas have much to do with what pilots learn in their earliest lessons: The importance of aeronautical decision making.

Lynn McCloud is managing editor of FAA Safety Briefing.

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