Fly Like A Pro (Part 1 — The Danger Zone)

Accident statistics indicate that pilots with the least experience have the most accidents — but are there ways to turn that around … are there ways to help you fly like you have 1000 hours? This week we start a new series on how to find out.

The Inexperience Factor
Most people learn to fly inside General Aviation and then build their experience as GA pilots. During this experience-building time, the new pilot seems to be caught between two worlds. On the one hand they are fully licensed and legal pilots, but on the other hand they have not had the opportunity yet to learn from experience.

How Big A Factor Is Inexperience?
Are accidents spread out among pilots with varying amounts of experience, or are the accidents centered on the inexperienced group? I obtained the accident reports from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) that cover the years from 1983 until 2000. I was particularly interested in those years, because I first became a flight instructor in 1983. I used this data and cross-referenced accidents that occurred among pilots during their first 1,000 hours of flight experience. The results proved our greatest fears: inexperience kills.

Breakdown The chart plots all fatal accidents during that 17-year time period from 1983 to 2000 among Private and Student Pilots of single engine airplanes. The problem jumps out at you when you first see the chart without even looking at any of the numbers — it is not a “bell” curve. Statisticians would call what this looks like a “skewed distribution.

The chart depicts a total of 2,501 fatal accidents. Of that number, the majority of accidents are on the left side — there are 1,874 accidents at 500 hours and less. The left side represents inexperience. In fact 57% of all the accidents shown on the chart took place when the pilot had between 50 and 350 flight hours. Past 350 hours of flight experience, the accident numbers drop off and then gradually reduce. The “hump” in the chart is significant.

Important: These are not just cold numbers but aircraft accidents where people died. The chart clearly illustrates a Danger Zone where accidents are mostly likely to happen.

License To Learn
When my Private Pilot checkride was done, my examiner said, “I’m going to give you your license to learn.” I did not know what he meant. I did not know that was his way of telling me that I had passed. But the examiner knew that with my Private Pilot Certificate in hand I would learn much more about being a pilot than I did when I was in training to be a pilot. In my head, I’m thinking that the training is over — after all I did pass! I was so naive. I thought all the learning took place while preparing for the test and that the learning stopped after the test. I was not only inexperienced as a pilot, but I also had an “inexperienced attitude.

Learning Solo
As I flew I did learn, and I sacred myself a few times along the way, but I survived my own ignorance. I look back on myself during those years and think how dumb — even dangerous — I was then. Of course at the time I did not think I was dumb or dangerous; I always thought I was a good pilot. This is proof that we should always be learning and we can never become stationary or arrogant in flying. I think I’m a pretty smart and safe pilot right now, but then, I always thought that. I hope I learn more in the next five years so that I can look back on myself today and say, “what a dummy I was back then. I survived my own ignorance, but others were not so fortunate. Some pilots along the way did not learn from their mistakes, but unfortunately were killed by their mistakes.

In a way, the definition of an experienced pilot is a pilot who has simply survived himself.

BOTTOM LINE: Experience may be the best teacher, but is it the only teacher? Can a pilot with 150 flight hours fly with the know-how, seasoning, and savvy that a pilot with 1,000 flight hours has? Or are pilots on their own to stumble (and occasionally die) while crossing the Danger Zone. I brought together a group of volunteer pilots to help answer the question: Can low time pilots fly like they have 1,000 hours? In the coming weeks, I’ll tell you what happened…