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20, 2012 - Forum: General Aviation Safety - Climbing to the Next Level, Washington, DC - Chairman's Opening Remarks
Deborah A. P. Hersman
20, 2012 - Forum: General Aviation Safety - Climbing to the Next Level, Washington, DC - Chairman's Opening Remarks

Good morning. Welcome to the Boardroom of the National Transportation Safety Board. I am Debbie Hersman, and it is my privilege to serve as Chairman of the NTSB. Joining me are my fellow Board members: Vice Chairman Christopher Hart, Member Robert Sumwalt, Member Mark Rosekind, and Member Earl Weener.

You will hear shortly from Member Weener about our agenda for the next two days. But let me first explain why we convened this forum on general aviation — or GA — safety.

In spite of the improvements to the commercial and corporate aviation safety records, the GA accident rate has been stubbornly resistant to safety initiatives.

GA pilots are not learning from the deadly mistakes made by their brethren - not learning from lessons learned in the hardest of ways. Recreational fliers are the chief pilot of an airline of one. And their most frequent fliers: often their own loved ones. Yet, more than 400 GA pilots and their passengers die each year, including a crash this weekend in Texas that killed three, including a 4-year-old.

General aviation safety is not just an exercise of our responsibility as the Safety Board. This is personal. Many on our staff are pilots and aviation enthusiasts. And, we know all too well that when accidents happen, the consequences can be deadly. Just a few weeks ago, we lost one of our own, Dr. Mike Duncan, the NTSB's chief medical officer, in a general aviation accident.

The status quo is not acceptable. We need to break through the plateau and bring the accident rate down significantly.

For many Americans, getting into a cockpit of a general aviation aircraft is simply a way to satisfy the human urge to break our bonds with the earth and embrace the freedom of the sky. It is what motivated the Wright Brothers, Chuck Yeager and led to Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon.

For others, general aviation or personal flying is a necessity. In Alaska, for example, a state with vast distances and few roads, aviation is an economic lifeline. For the airlines, it's where many of their pilots first learn to fly.

During the last decade, the number of general aviation accidents has averaged more than 1,500 a year -- that's more than four accidents every day. And, while general aviation accounted for 51 percent of the estimated total flight time of all U.S. civil aviation in 2010, it accounted for 97 percent of fatal accidents.

The reality is that many of these accidents are preventable. We know this because the NTSB is charged with investigating each and every one of them. And, our investigators see crashes resulting from the same causes over and over again. They include loss of control, engine failure, flying in dangerous weather and collision with terrain.

In 2005, the Board issued a special study that identified the role of weather as a leading cause of general aviation accidents, particularly fatal accidents. Despite this warning, the role of weather as a cause of fatal GA accidents has remained largely unchanged.

On Sept. 4, 2006, a Virginia pilot departed on a cross-country flight under visual flight rules. If the pilot would have obtained a full weather briefing, he would have been alerted to a weather advisory. Not long into the flight, he radioed air traffic control, saying, "We're kinda lost in some fog here." Soon thereafter the pilot was on the radio again. "We can't see, we can't see, we can't see." The airplane broke up in mid-flight.

Fast-forward five years later, to May, 20, 2011, when a New Mexico pilot did get a briefing prior to a flight over the mountains. He then chose a different, more northerly route -- but did not get an updated weather briefing. If he had, he would have learned of a weather advisory warning that mountains might be obscured. The wreckage was found on mountainous terrain at 10,700 feet.

These - and many other GA accidents -- are preventable. The aviation community can do better. I know, because it has. Look at air carrier operations, as well as the great safety record in corporate aviation, where crashes and fatalities have plummeted dramatically in the last few decades.

It's peak summer flying season. Now is the right time for a renewed effort to bring down the number of general aviation accidents - and general aviation deaths.

The GA Joint Steering Committee, a government and industry-led initiative, recently announced a renewed effort to combat general aviation fatal accidents. Using a data-driven, consensus-based approach to analyze safety data, the GA JSC is developing specific interventions that will address the root causes of accidents.

But true progress will only come with a true change in culture. New safety technology and a stack of NTSB investigative reports are useless if they go unused or unread. With so many resources available it's even easier for GA pilots to be up to speed on the latest safety information.

Over the course of the next two days, we will hear from a number of experts who are armed with information that has the potential to make GA flying safer. However, in order to make a difference, their research, along with our lessons learned, have to reach all pilots - not just the safety-conscious ones watching the forum in the audience or online.

If the general aviation community is to learn from past experiences - everyone should be at the table. Because the reality is, we see the same bad things happening over and over.

We know the general aviation community can -- and must -- do better if we are going to drive down the fatal accidents in this country.