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Monday, September 1, 2008

Training: Safety Watch

Keith Cianfrani

Pilot Responsibility — Where Has it Gone?

Where is the FAA? That’s the question we all ask following an aircraft mishap. But the question that really should be asked is, where is pilot responsibility in general aviation these days?

We all rely on the FAA to answer all of our safety and policy questions and to solve the problems that plague the general aviation industry. What do we want FAA responsibilities to be and what should pilot responsibilities be? We all get annoyed when an air safety inspector stops on our ramp and asks us for our pilot or medical certificates.

I know this issue was addressed in the past, but have we really made any progress? Can general aviation ever police itself effectively? I believe it can and should, but it will take the cooperation of all of us.

Of course, once again, we are talking about risk management and accident prevention. They both revolve around pilot responsibility. In other words, what can we do to keep the FAA out of our daily flight operations and still be safe?

In the Philadelphia area alone, in one month, there recently were four mishaps with four fatalities. Like most mishaps, it appears all could have been prevented. Talking with other pilots in the area, there is a great concern regarding the lack of pilot responsibility.

There is evidence that pilots are not following procedures such as a proper preflight and flight planning and overflying inspections. In one case, accident investigators found active bird nests discovered in the aircraft. This scenario plays itself out every day in our country when we talk about general aviation. Most accident investigations reveal human error and a lack of pilot responsibility.

With fuel prices escalating and no end in sight, many pilots are using non-approved alternate fuels to save some money. With the economy as slow it has been in years, pilots are "cutting corners" with maintenance by overflying inspections and not replacing worn parts when needed.

Another area of concern is pilot currency. Private pilots are flying less than before. Fuel prices make it very difficult for pilots to stay as proficient as maybe they once were. Some pilots who have not flown in many months do a quick preflight then jump in the aircraft with passengers to depart on a flight.

Many of these issues occur in the private sector of aviation, but some commercial operators do the same thing. Several years ago, I flew for a part-time Part 135 operator who kept training to a minimum to save money. There were times when I would not fly for more than 3-6 months and they would never hesitate to schedule a flight for me with passengers prior to any currency training. Of course, I always would make it an issue to fly with a CFI prior to a flight under these scenarios. But not everyone does this. Again, it is pilot responsibility.

Another area where pilot responsibility is not often present is the medical certificate. FAR 67.401 states "that a medical certificate will be revoked if a medical condition exists where public safety would be endangered by the holder’s exercise of airman privileges." We take flight physicals once or twice a year and feel "good" when there are no issues. But what about the period between physicals. When do we really ground ourselves when something may not be right? How about the medications we take and still continue to fly?

Another area that is often abused is crew rest. How many times have pilots either originated a flight or continued a flight when completely exhausted. The cause of many general aviation mishaps is the failure of attention to detail because of long hours or lack of rest. Many of these mishaps occur when pilots are pushing their limitations.

How many times have we read accident reports in which fuel management was an issue? How many pilots really do not manage their fuel as they should, only to realize they were extremely lucky when they landed with very little fuel. They don’t plan for any variations in the flight and they leave themselves little margin for error.

Other areas that indicate a lack of responsibilities include complacency, lack of discipline, overconfidence, "buzzing" homes, deliberately flying in bad weather, non-compliance with aircraft operator’s manual and flying aircraft with known mechanical discrepancies.

Nowadays, aircraft are engineered much better and perform more effectively with fewer material failures. This lowers the incidents for mechanical issues and raises the areas where human failure is dominant in aircraft mishaps. Why can’t we lower this area also? It’s getting better, but we need to do more.

Pilots are responsible for their own actions. It’s the pilot’s responsibility to ensure the aircraft is airworthy and that he or she is medically qualified and medically prepared to perform flight duties. It’s the pilot’s responsibility to ensure he or she is current and qualified to performed flight duties.

We cannot expect a government agency to constantly ensure we act properly. Mistakes in our business are not forgiving. We must reduce or eliminate these mistakes. Plan ahead so you will not become a victim of your own mistakes. Before you depart on your next flight, take time to assess your entire flight profile, apply risk management and be responsible — it is paramount for aviation safety.

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