Airlines -vs- GA: Safety Solutions!

Comparing the safety record of “big iron operations” with general aviation is a very common but also inherently unfair contest. The airline “safety sales pitch” goes something like: “airlines have a near-zero accident rate due to some superior skill or secret sauce (buy it here…)” But in fact, the General Aviation piloting job requires more diverse skills and responsibilities in a more demanding safety environment. Airlines have “engineered out” the risk by limiting the flexibility and opportunities that are the beating heart of GA flying.

Airline operations are not flown by solo pilots, but actively utilize a much larger “safety team.” Part 25 aircraft are piloted by a crew (required by certification) which all by itself conveys an amazing 8X benefit in safety! Additionally, automatic systems carry most of the pilot workload with operations to only 1% of available airports and almost always IFR.

Not only does the GA pilot usually carry all the piloting responsibilities solo, but GA pilots also cover the maintenance, planning, and dispatch, accessing thousands of non-standard airports in often challenging terrain. Airlines, by contrast, employ huge teams for maintenance and an army of licensed dispatchers doing all the planning from start to finish. And the regularly scheduled environment enables a high degree of standardization and predictability. Though the safety comparison is dubious, there are lots of techniques that can increase GA pilot professionalism and add safety.

GA flying is lots more versatile (and fun), but as a result more accidents do occur. It is not practical – or desirable – to give up the freedom and flexibility of GA flying – hire a copilot and file IFR? But there are many professional techniques and resources GA pilots can adapt to GA to increase the personal flying safety margins.- and many airline pilots flying GA are examples of this strategy. Every pilot should leverage these tools for greater safety. And CFIs reading this can build up clientele and professionalism by raising their game and developing these programs for their clients. Build your own “safety team” and become a personal professional pilot!

1) Objectively rate your flying after every flight and develop personal SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures). Whatever your piloting level, define it precisely with personal limitations and minimums. In professional flying, every new captain has restrictions until the specified experience is acquired and every operation conforms to SOPs. Matching capabilities to conditions is the key to safety. The “reflective review” after every flight ensures you are not “normalizing”  lucky – rather than skill-based outcomes in your flying.

2) Create a personal proficiency plan and upgrade plan for skill and knowledge. One huge safety advantage professional pilots have is the required 6-month recurrent training. To leverage this in personal flying, create a personalized program for maintaining and upgrading skills and knowledge. This probably requires a CFI at certain points for upgrading and objective analysis. (and if you are a CFI, setting up a program for your clients assures regular training opportunities and growth for your skills). For new VFR pilots challenging the busier airspaces like NYC or SoCal enhances skills and confidence. The required additional planning and radio savvy often motivate private pilots toward an instrument rating.

3) Carefully plan and brief every take-off as a potential emergency.  Professional pilots are required to calculate and brief all possible take-off (and landing) contingencies for every operation. This preparation ensures that emergencies are “expected” not “surprising.” A rejected take-off or power failure on the initial climb will lead to an accident unless it is trained then briefed before power application. This training is quite rare at the GA level. Consequently, the  “pilot killers” in aviation (when adjusted for exposure time). 24% of pilot fatalities occur during this phase of flight! For the CFI, it is critical to include a rejected take-off (pull the throttle, pop a window open or release the pilot seat to create surprise). Emphasizing a “prepared mindset” for every runway operation (take-off and landing) will exponentially enhance safety; pro pilot!

4) Utilize ATC services for longer or challenging flights. Every 121 or 135 operation requires continuous “flight monitoring” from the engine start to shut-down (usually IFR). In GA, there is a cultural drive toward “lone eagle bravery” (the “Lindbergh Effect?”) that spurns the use of resources. But the advantage of another set of eyes for traffic, and assistance in the case of an emergency or weather challenge is a huge safety boost for every flight. This also improves radio skills for future ratings (e.g. instrument).

5) Thoroughly brief the weather and specifically plan alternate routes and airports.  Though 91.103 specifies planned alternates for every flight, GA pilots seldom consider and prepare other routing or landing options. (As a CFI on a flight review, NOTAM your client’s primary airport OTS enroute?)As a solo pilot facing challenging weather, call a trusted pilot friend for a second opinion (the “crew advantage”) and set objective standards for each continuation point – “a pilot in motion tends to stay in motion!”

6) Build a system for maintaining vigilance enroute,  continually watching for potential landing areas and monitoring trends. “Immediate memory items” – boldface in POH (again, professional pilots go to training every 6 months and beat this up). When the engine has problems or quits, the “pilot pull reaction” seems into the human DNA. Recent training must take over and quickly reduce the flight attitude to the glide picture (your wing cord line level with the horizon). For CFIs, this needs to be repeatedly emphasized in every flight review; “surprise!”

7) Practice take-off and landings in windy conditions: “Where the rubber meets the road” is the major cause of aviation accidents. And surprisingly, there is no requirement to test crosswind landings on any flight test! Windy landings are “voluntary professionalism”  that few pilots attempt or master. Every flight review needs to sharpen this skill set. “Tough love” from the CFI keeps pilots alive. Fly safely out there (and often)!

8) Identify and separate emotions from facts. We are all subject to cognitive bias and many “landmark accidents” clearly illustrate “magical thinking” at work. Another huge advantage of a larger “safety team” with crew-based flying and SOPs is the objective analysis of the risks. As the only planner and pilot in GA, it is easy to fall into the trap of seeing what we want to see. Conversely, many pilots miss out on manageable trips because of initial fear. If a trip meets your standards and adds up to objective safety, the flight will be safe. It takes some courage to overcome initial jitters. It is also possible to dial down the challenge with a smaller mission or take a pilot friend for help. The key is to keep flying and growing skills, knowledge, and experience. Fly safely out there (and often)!

There are many more great “tune-up” skill builders in our “SAFE Extended Envelope Syllabus.” What are your favorite “tune-Up” maneuvers?


Your SAFE membership also saves you money and helps support our safety mission of generating aviation excellence in teaching and flying. Our amazing member benefits pay back your contribution (1/3 off your ForeFlight subscription)! Lastly, use our FREE SAFE Toolkit App to access pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smartphone and facilitate CFI+DPE teamwork. Working together to raise professionalism makes all of us safer pilots!

Our new “Checkride Ready!™”is now on the SAFE toolkit app (prepared by senior DPEs). This guidance helps prevent “Pink Slips” during flight tests by fully preparing every applicant for their checkride. Both Private and Instrument are now complete.

About the author

David St. George

David St. George is an FAA DPE (Sport to Multi ATP) and a Part 135 charter pilot flying the Pilatus PC-12 in the NYC area. He recently renewed his Master Instructor for the tenth time and is a Charter member of SAFE. Formerly a 141 Chief Instructor for over 25 years, with a Gold Seal CFI. David started flying at 16 and has logged over 15,000 hours. He owns a 1946 7AC Aeronca Champ and wrote the SAFE Toolkit app.


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