First look at pandemic flight safety

2020 saw the lowest accident rate among small planes since this record keeping began, but that’s only part of the story.

It takes time for the FAA to compile the data, so the long-retrospective year 2020 is the last year for which complete data exists. And the data provides a fascinating insight into how we flew in this first year of the coronavirus pandemic, based on the Joseph T. Nall report released by Aircraft’s Air Safety Institute (AOPA). Pilots and Owners Association.

As expected, the level of flying activity was lower than the previous year, but higher than all other years in history except a few years, so for the most part GA pilots continued to fly during the global health crisis. Based on FAA survey data, in 2019 GA pilots flew 25.5 million hours, a figure that dropped from 3.1 million hours in the first year of the pandemic, a decrease of approximately 12%. This drop in aviation activity, if you believe FAA activity data, represents a much smaller drop in aviation activity than many, including us, expected to see.

The best news was that safety was better, with lower accident and fatality rates than ever before. There were still far too many accidents, 1,051 of them, and fatalities, 187, although these figures represent incremental improvements from the previous year, in fact any previous year, at least in terms of accident/fatal accident rates. Why this is the case is a matter of speculation. Our hypothesis is that aircraft that continued to fly were operated at least to some extent by more experienced pilots flying more reliable aircraft. Again, this is a better estimate.

The types of record-breaking accidents and the extent to which they show up in accident reports are familiar, with loss of control accidents being the most common, but flights in instrument meteorological conditions and airborne accidents landing being big contributors to the accident tally. .

Another point to remember that is not new but is also rarely reported: having a lot of experience and advanced ratings is no guarantee of safety. While private pilots are involved in a higher percentage of accidents of all kinds than instrument-rated pilots or those with an airline or commercial pilot certificate, those with more experience are likely involved. in a significant percentage of all accidents.

The AOPA’s Air Safety Foundation’s Joseph T. Nall Annual Report takes this data and breaks it down brilliantly, and this work is the best starting point to help analysts determine where safety is failing. This better understanding helps drive changes and improvements in messaging, training standards, and instructional guidance. The full report is available here.

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