What is the cause of most general aviation accidents?

UPDATED: Jul 18, 2023Fact Checked

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Jeffrey Johnson

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 18, 2023

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UPDATED: Jul 18, 2023Fact Checked

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) – the lead federal agency in investigating aviation accidents – reports “pilot error” as the cause of the vast majority of general aviation incidents. However, “pilot error” is a more complicated concept than it may seem at first:

  • “Cause” means something that leads to an accident…actions, omissions, conditions, events or some combination of these four things, without which the accident would not have occurred.
  • “Accidents” mean acts that come from the actual entry into, and the operation of, an aircraft, which lead to one or more instances of: a person being injured or killed; the aircraft being destroyed, in need of major repairs, inaccessible, missing, or lost.
  • “Incidents” are things that fall short of being an accident, but that could have affected the safe operation of the aircraft.

The end result of an investigation into what “causes” an accident almost always reveals a series of incidents, rather than one specific cause. Explaining these factors are among the most important reasons for having of an aviation accident investigation.

Types of Pilot Error

Pilot errors are also broken down into other categories. One general category of pilot error is called “loss of situational awareness.” This was the reason John F. Kennedy, Jr., is supposed to have lost control of his plane; but, the weather (heavy fog in this instance) also impacted Kennedy’s pilot error. There are also “loss of control” accidents, which may include engine problems, ice, or stalls…any of which may test the ability of a pilot and lead to “pilot error.”

Why Investigate Causes

Experts who study aviation safety look for “chains” of events to understand what happened. One study found that ten separate factors were involved in the JFK, Jr. accident. Removing any one of these factors might have prevented an accident. There is also the possibility that adding a safety feature might have prevented it. With all aviation accidents, there must be a thorough investigation into the precise causes of the accident. This will help prevent such accidents in the future. This complexity also explains why it can take particular legal skills to understand exactly where responsibility for an accident should rest.

Case Studies: Understanding the Complexities of General Aviation Accidents

Case Study 1: The Foggy Flight

A small private aircraft, piloted by an experienced aviator, takes off from a regional airport during inclement weather. The destination is a nearby town, just a short flight away. However, as the aircraft ascends, it encounters heavy fog, reducing visibility significantly.

The pilot faces a challenging situation with limited visibility due to the dense fog. Despite their experience, the pilot struggles to maintain situational awareness, unsure of the aircraft’s exact position and altitude. The lack of visibility contributes to disorientation, leading to an unintended turn off-course. The aircraft eventually collides with a hillside, tragically resulting in the loss of life of the pilot and passengers.

Case Study 2: The Icing Incident

A skilled pilot plans a cross-country flight in a small commercial aircraft. The weather conditions are generally favorable, but as the plane ascends to higher altitudes, it encounters colder temperatures, leading to the formation of ice on the wings. As the aircraft climbs, ice accumulates on the wings, affecting the aerodynamics and reducing lift.

The pilot fails to recognize the severity of the icing situation initially, and without timely action, the aircraft becomes increasingly difficult to control. Despite the pilot’s best efforts to correct the situation, the aircraft stalls at a critical moment, causing it to enter an uncontrollable descent. The aircraft crashes in a remote area, resulting in the tragic loss of all onboard.

Case Study 3: The Engine Trouble

An experienced pilot takes off in a single-engine airplane for a short recreational flight. Everything seems fine during takeoff and the initial climb. However, shortly after reaching cruising altitude, the pilot detects unusual vibrations and a sudden loss of engine power. The pilot faces a challenging emergency situation with engine trouble.

While attempting to troubleshoot and resolve the issue, panic sets in, and the pilot makes hasty decisions without following standard emergency procedures. Despite the pilot’s efforts, they struggle to maintain control of the aircraft during the emergency. The airplane eventually crashes into a field, resulting in serious injuries to the pilot and substantial damage to the aircraft.

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Jeffrey Johnson

Insurance Lawyer

Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

Insurance Lawyer

Mary Martin

Published Legal Expert

Mary Martin has been a legal writer and editor for over 20 years, responsible for ensuring that content is straightforward, correct, and helpful for the consumer. In addition, she worked on writing monthly newsletter columns for media, lawyers, and consumers. Ms. Martin also has experience with internal staff and HR operations. Mary was employed for almost 30 years by the nationwide legal publi...

Published Legal Expert

Editorial Guidelines: We are a free online resource for anyone interested in learning more about legal topics and insurance. Our goal is to be an objective, third-party resource for everything legal and insurance related. We update our site regularly, and all content is reviewed by experts.

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