Morbid Curiosity… or Survival Technique?

With a little guilt and the same morbid curiosity that prompts viewers to watch footage of the same tragedies over and over on television news channels, I check the FAA and other accident-reporting web sites daily. It’s hard not to look. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) web site routinely lists 50 or more aviation accidents in the U.S. … every week.

For a long time, I felt guilty poring over and writing about airplane accident reports. I sometimes feel like I’m emphasizing all the bad, to the exclusion of the good, about aviation’s safety record. In a short period of time, though, I came across two writings that reaffirm that — done correctly — accident reviews are beneficial in avoiding future accidents.

#1: What is Judgment? A popular figure in recreational aviation, retired airline captain Bob Siegfried reminded me of an adage that judgment is the result of experience and training.

  • Experience is learning from what happens directly to you — you ‘experience‘ a situation and change your future actions based on what worked (or almost didn’t work) for you before.
  • Training is learning from the experiences of others — exactly what we’re doing when we fly with an instructor, and when we evaluate aviation accident reports. Who could be safe in an airplane if all they knew was what had happened directly to them?

We must look at what has happened to others in past emergencies if we wish to be competent when we face similar circumstances in the future.

#2: Fear of the Unknown. A local newspaper columnist (Timothy Hooker, the Cleveland [Tennessee] Daily Banner) was writing about something completely unrelated to aviation when he penned:

The whole thing centers around fear… We live in a world where you simply have to have insurance to survive. But let’s be honest. The insurance business is based on fear — the fear that something bad is going to happen… You cannot have Fear without The Unknown. If you know something bad is going to happen… you will do something to prevent it from happening (italics mine).

We need insurance ‘just in case‘ — but by knowing what historically causes accidents we can take active steps to avoid repeating accident history.


  • Pilots rarely come up with new ways to crash airplanes. It’s the same things over and over again that put pilots and passengers at risk.
  • Don’t overestimate your piloting abilities. An old Flying magazine poll found that over 90% of all pilots feel they have ‘better than average‘ ability — unfortunately, we can’t all be better than ‘average!‘ Honestly appraise your skills and decide if they’re up to your flight plan.
  • Use your airplane for its intended purpose. Don’t fly minimally equipped airplanes at night or in poor weather conditions. Don’t overload airplanes. Don’t try aerobatics in non-aerobatic airplanes.
  • No airplane is an ‘all weather‘ airplane, regardless of how it’s equipped. Fly enough and you will have to delay or cancel a flight due to weather. Admit this beforehand and you’ll be better prepared to make the ‘no go‘ decision when conditions exceed your abilities or the capabilities of the airplane.
  • Fatigue is a big ‘unknown‘ factor in flying accidents. Evaluate your alertness not on the basis of how it is on takeoff, but how it’s likely to be after a few hours in turbulence, at night or in the clouds.
  • Airplanes don’t fix themselves. Intermittent mechanical problems will only get worse and equipment seems to fail at the worst possible time. Take command — you need to decide if the airplane is sound for flight.
  • Get familiar with systems and procedures. If your airplane has it, know how to use it. Insist on a good checkout in avionics, retractable landing gear systems, autopilots, and anything else you’re not completely familiar with.
  • Use your good sense. Follow established procedures — if it violates the rules, it’s likely to be hazardous. If you have a ‘gut feeling‘ that something’s not right, your instincts are trying to tell you something.
  • Pilot error‘ really does account for nearly 80% of all accidents. If poor decisions cause crashes, then learning to make better decisions should make you safer.

I edit a weekly report of type-specific accidents for a popular airplane owners group. I ‘sign off‘ each week with this: ‘All flying is an exercise in managing risks. Please use these reports to help you more accurately evaluate the potential risks when you make your own decisions about how and when to fly.’

BOTTOM LINE: Don’t feel guilty for reading accident reports. Learn their lessons and you will be safer pilot.