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Can more regulation prevent some general aviation accidents?

Colleen Mondor
A Cessna 172RG landed hard in the middle of Anchorage's Boniface Parkway with three people aboard on Tuesday, Jan 7, 2014. There were no injuries. Loren Holmes photo

In a recent thought-provoking column in AOPA Pilot, the magazine for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, columnist Bruce Landsberg asked readers if some accidents could be prevented by regulation. Citing several specific examples, Landsberg discussed general aviation accidents where the pilot ran out of fuel and crashed, flew into instrument meteorological conditions without filing an instrument flight plan and crashed, and where a pilot flying under visual flight rules at night in good weather slammed into the side of a mountain. There were no survivors in any of these accidents. As Landsberg writes:

Some think more regulation is the answer. In two cases a violation of [Federal Aviation Regulations] Part 91 seems highly likely. In the Phoenix accident, should we make it against the rules to challenge a mountain? Friends within the FAA and NTSB have privately acknowledged that “We can’t fix stupid,” but by the nature of their positions they must continue to try. Learning from past mistakes really is the best way not to become a statistic. Teaching decision-making to all pilots seems like an easy nonanswer because the absorption capacity and risk tolerance varies so greatly.

Pilot error is a primary cause of general aviation accidents in Alaska. Several scenarios, including continued flight into adverse weather conditions, VFR into IMC and loss of control at low altitude are common causes of accidents across the state. At the Alaska Aviation Safety Foundation meeting last November, it was noted that 15 accidents in the first 11 months of the year were attributed to loss of control, nine of them resulting in fatalities. While attendees had valuable advice on how to avoid such accidents, all of it was familiar and readily available to the accident pilots before their crashes. The problem is conveying to some pilots the seriousness of that advice and why it should always be adhered to.

Landsberg, who ran an open poll on his website on this issue, presents some rather stark conclusions:

Can we change human nature? Can we make the aircraft foolproof? Does everyone need the same level of oversight -- and at what cost to personal freedom? While political correctness may dictate one answer, does reality provide another? The poll on my blog at the time noted 14 percent thought teaching judgment to all pilots will solve this, 70 percent thought we should continue to push ongoing education and accept that there will be losses, and 10 percent thought we should stage interventions when someone is about to go over the edge.

There is a point where more regulation is not the answer, as many accidents predictably occur after existing regulations are ignored. The question is how to convey the importance of regulations for all pilots, as well as recurrent training, practice and conservative decision-making. If the rules are going to be broken anyway, then it’s not the rules that need to be worked on. More than anyone or anything, it’s pilots who will change Alaska’s safety record and hopefully that starts sooner rather than later.

Contact Colleen Mondor at colleen(at)alaskadispatch.com.