Wednesday 16 January 2013

Planes and automobiles

Today’s tragedy in Vauxhall, where a helicopter apparently collided with a tower crane while diverting to the Battersea Heliport due to bad weather, highlights the extreme rarity of light aircraft accidents impacting people on the ground.  

Small aircraft, whether fixed wing or rotary, are extremely unforgiving of inattention, carelessness or neglect, hence no doubt the extremely high standards to which their pilots are held in terms of training, medical fitness, and observance of safety protocols.   It is of course far too early to say what lies behind today’s accident, but it is probably fair to say that most light aircraft accidents are in some manner a result of pilot error – sometimes that error can be something as basic as not checking that the fuel tanks actually contain the fuel you expect them to contain, or not just keeping your feet firmly on the ground when weather is looking threatening.

However, light aircraft crashes which cause loss of life or serious injury beyond the persons actually flying in them are vanishingly rare.

For about 20 years, I held a Private Pilot’s Licence for fixed-wing aircraft, and had my own plane, a four-seater Cessna.  To acquire my licence I had to undergo at least 40 hours of training from a licensed Qualified Flying Instructor, this despite the fact that I was already an experienced glider pilot.  From then on I had to take a one-hour re-test every 2 years, in which I had to demonstrate my ability not only to fly straight and level and perform simple maneouvres, but to recover from potentially dangerous situations, including engine failure, forced landings etc.  Had I advanced beyond the basic clear-weather flying to obtaining an “Instrument Rating” permitting me to fly in cloud or bad weather, I would have been retested every six months.  I had to record all my flying in a personal flying logbook, showing take-off and landing times, origin and destination, and other notes.  My logbook was open to inspection at any time by the Civil Aviation Authority and I had to prove that I had completed the (relatively modest) minimum of 12 flying hours every two years.

I had to submit to a full medical examination at regular intervals.  Every five years to age 40, then every 2 years to 50, every year after that, and if I continued beyond 60, it would be every six months.  Eyesight, hearing, heart condition, blood pressure – all the things you expect in a full-monty medical.  If I needed glasses to pass the eye test (as I did) I was required by law to wear my current prescription whenever I flew, and to have a spare pare of that prescription within reach at all times.

My plane was subjected to an airworthiness test every year, and this typically takes about 40 man-hours to complete and costs well into four figures.  Further, the plane had a minor test, about the same amount of work as car MOT, every 50 flying hours or every 60 days whichever came first.  I also had to maintain a logbook for the plane, showing much the same information as shown in my personal log, plus estimated fuel  & oil consumption, estimate of fuel remaining (which you still check, with a dipstick, before every flight).  This also was available for CAA inspection at any time.

Whenever I flew, I would run through a series of printed checklists, before starting the engine, before taxiing out to the runway, before take-off, occasionally during flight, during the approach and landing to an airfield, and after shut-down.  I would check and verify the correct working condition of every component of the plane – wheels and tyres, brakes, flying control surfaces, propeller, radio and navigation aids etc – at least once on every separate day of use.

Failure to comply with any of the above controls could lead to extremely severe penalties.  A fine for a flying infringement would rarely be for less than about £2,000.

Light aircraft crashes are generally rare, and those which have any impact on people on the ground are almost unheard of.

Incidents involving cars and other persons who are not drivers or passengers of those cars are literally an everyday occurrence.  I doubt many are caused by engine failure due to fuel starvation (depressingly common in light aircraft, despite all the regulation) but many – perhaps even most -  are due to other “pilot error” which could mean carelessness while driving, or failing to check the condition of tyres, brakes etc before driving away.

And yet, once you have passed you test, there is literally nothing more for any non-professional driver to do.  Even incompetence to drive caused by age and infirmity, failing eyesight, or other conditions like fits, is not caught by routine medicals, rather by voluntary self-reporting.

Perhaps raising driving control standards to those of flying would be excessive, but can you honestly say that at present they are sufficient?


  1. One more thing you missed; when a plane accident happens, the investigating authorities are rarely content with just "pilot error" as the explanation. They want to know how the pilot error could have been prevented, so that (if reasonably possible), they can change the checklists you use or insist on modifications to the plane that would catch the problem.

    In contrast, no-one investigates the majority of car accidents - so even if a modification to your driving would help, you won't be told what it is.

    1. Simon - good point. In fact, it doesn't even have to be an accident to get investigated thoroughly, a near-accident might too. I once had an "airmiss" when I came round one side of a cloud and a RAF Hercules transport plane came round the other. After a fair imitation of one of those wing-over dives you see the spitfires doing in the war movies, and once my pulse rate had subsided, I reported it, as did the Herc pilot. The AAIB Airprox group reported a few months later, witha couple of pages in their regular bulletin,pointing the finger at Southampton air traffic control.