Fly Like A Pro — Part 2: Attacking the Danger Zone

Last week we defined a Danger Zone: A pilot who has between 50 and 350 flight hours is more likely to be involved in an accident than any other pilot. This week, we’ll look at federal action taken to address the problem.

In 1986 the FAA made an attack on the zone by changing the time requirement for the instrument rating. But rather than increasing the time needed for the rating, the FAA reduced the time needed to qualify for IFR. Before 1986 the regulation required a pilot to have 200 hours of flight time before becoming eligible for the instrument rating checkride. In 1986 that total flight time requirement was dropped to 125, and today there is no minimum time. This may seem backward when you first hear it — if more experience is better, why would the FAA allow pilots to fly IFR with less experience? It would seem that this change would place even more low time pilots in harm’s way. But it was not the IFR pilots that the FAA was worried about. It was the VFR pilots who were “building time” in order to qualify for the instrument rating that were getting into trouble.

Most people earned their private pilot certificate with between 50 and 60 flight hours. When the instrument rating eligibility requirement was set at 200 hours, private pilots had approximately 140 hours to go prior to seeking the additional 40 hours of training required for the instrument rating. So in a best case scenario a person would get their private pilot certificate at 50 hours and later begin instrument training at 160 hours (or 40 hours to go before reaching 200). This meant that the pilot had to “bore holes in the sky” for 110 hours to make up the difference! These 110 hours are in the heart of the Danger Zone.

The regulation changes that have taken place, are the product of many years of work and study. Published by the NTSB way back in 1974 published a “special study” about weather related General Aviation accidents. covered (among other things) the years 1964 through 1972.

Pilots with fewer flight hours were more frequently involved in weather accidents, especially those pilots with more than 100, but less than 300, total flight hours. Perhaps the explanation for the peak is that by the time a pilot has accumulated 100 to 299 hours, he is confident of his flying ability even though his actual flying experience is low.There were 1,910 accidents during those nine years. Of those, 476 accidents (25%), involved pilots with between 100 and 299 flight hours. The NTSB final report included this conclusion and conjecture:

Translation: The NTSB report pointed to a pilot’s inexperience mixed with a dose of over-confidence as a fatal mix.

The study ended with a “statistical summary” that made a profile of the pilot who would most likely be involved in a fatal, weather-related, accident. The profile said that the accident pilot:

  1. had received an adequate preflight weather briefing,
  2. was on a pleasure flight,
  3. had less than 100 flight hours in the aircraft being flown,
  4. held a Private Pilot Certificate,
  5. had been practicing for instrument flight with between one and 19 hours of simulated instrument time,
  6. had not filed a flight plan,
  7. was accompanied by at least one passenger,
  8. and had between 100 and 299 flight hours of experience.

That profile sounds like almost every flight that I took when I had between 100 and 299 flight hours. I was the pilot in that fatal profile!

It was on the evidence presented through the NTSB’s special study (and others) that the FAA acted. The idea was this: If pilots are killing themselves because they are flying to build time, why not eliminate this time-building segment from the equation? Place the instrument rating time requirement right in the middle of the problem. The idea assumes that instrument training is safer than unsupervised VFR flying. The plan seems to have had an effect. There were approximately 14 accidents for every 100,000 GA flight hours in 1973. That compares with 7.05 per 100,000 in 1999 — an all time low (Air Safety Foundation’s Nall Report).

BOTTOM LINE: Improvements have been made — but the Danger Zone for inexperienced pilots still exists. The first defense for those pilots is to know and accept that the danger exists. The statistics tell us that new pilots must be extra vigilant, but there is more we can do to attack the Danger Zone. Next week we look at the safety record of the airlines. Can general aviation learn from the methods the airlines use to eliminate the Danger Zone?