Dual instruction is always safer, right?
Now that the accident numbers from 2010 are on hand, we have the chance to check back on some of the more surprising details that emerged from our first close look at instructional accidents nearly two years ago. Sure enough, those same patterns came up again in the next year’s data—and the things that have changed also brought those patterns into sharper focus.
The last issue of Flight School Business noted a sharp drop (more than 40 percent) in the number of landing accidents on student solos, from 57 to 33. This was nearly double the overall decrease in fixed-wing instructional accidents, which declined from 151 in 2009 to 138 in 2010. In addition, there were just three accidents involving certificated pilots doing solo work toward advanced ratings (down from nine the year before), which means that the number of accidents during dual instruction actually increased.
No need to panic yet! As we mentioned last week, more fixed-wing instruction was given in 2010; by FAA estimates, it was up a healthy 12 percent. If everything else were equal, multiplying 81 accidents during dual instruction in 2009 by that same rate of increase would lead you to expect 91 in 2010. The actual figure of 93 is pretty much in line with that. So one point to take away is that while dual instruction seems to be going on about the way it has been, the risks of solo training flights—whether doing airwork, going cross-country, or practicing in the pattern—seem to have decreased. Or maybe 2010 was just an unusually good year; time will tell.
The real surprise comes when you look a little more closely at those 93 accidents during dual. Fifty-four of them—that’s 58 percent—came on flights where the pilot receiving instruction already held at least a sport pilot certificate (and there was only one of those; in 53, the student was at least a private pilot). These included two-thirds of the 12 fatal accidents that occurred during dual instruction, and 2010 was not a fluke. In 2009, 51 of the 81 accidents during dual (63 percent) took place during advanced training, including eight of 13 fatal accidents.
If you think that seems high, you’re probably on to something. A quick unscientific survey of some of the CFIs loitering around AOPA headquarters produced a consensus that as line instructors, at least 80 percent of their time had gone toward preparing students for private pilot checkrides. That was true even for those who also held instrument and/or multiengine instructor ratings. So the whole grab bag that we’ve labeled “advanced instruction”—instrument, commercial, and multiengine training, plus flight reviews, instrument proficiency checks, and make-and-model transitions—probably involves less than 20 percent of teaching time but results in about 60 percent of the accidents. And when they do occur, those accidents are about 50 percent more likely to be fatal. What’s going on?
Several things, it would appear. Among them, faster, more complicated airplanes; more demanding maneuvers; and perhaps more overconfidence on the part of students and instructors alike. In 2010 there were 10 accidents during multiengine training, and not all involved single-engine work: The three in Piper Seminoles were all traced to errors setting fuel selector valves. We think of landing accidents as a characteristic hazard of primary training, and even with the recent reduction about half of all landing accidents during flight training took place on student solos. However, two-thirds of those on dual flights happened during advanced instruction, and more than half involved losses of control on the runway. (Two-thirds of those were in either tailwheel models or floatplanes.)
Mechanical failures also caused twice as many accidents during advanced training (13 vs. six in 2010). Recall that this was during about one-quarter as much flight time! Unlike the overall accident record, more were due to gear and brake problems (six) than powerplant failures (four). Five more were blamed on losses of engine power for reasons that couldn’t be explained, which only caused two accidents during primary instruction. Surprisingly, all five were in normally aspirated, four-cylinder piston singles. Fuel mismanagement didn’t cause any accidents during primary training but resulted in five (including the three in Seminoles) during advanced.
To be sure, the record isn’t all one-way. There were more accidents involving inadvertent stalls—whether during takeoff, landing, or maneuvering—during primary instruction, plus one accident during taxi, one due to icing, and one non-fatal VFR-into-IMC. Dual lessons toward advanced ratings avoided those last three misfortunes in 2010. On balance, though, the evidence is clear that your instructors run a greater risk flying with certificated pilots than they do teaching new students from scratch. That fact should be food for thought—and might just inspire a little soul-searching about how to best approach their non-primary students.