Avocational Pilots and the Paradox of Technology

May 07, 2015| Von Michael Clift | Life | English

Region: U.S.

The good news is that enhanced technologies of “glass cockpits” have vastly improved the efficiencies and safety record of professional pilots in commercial aviation over the last 10 years. Many of those technological advances have also crossed over to the private aviation sector for the avocational pilot. Aviation instrumentation technology (avionics) includes electronic controls for the display and management of communications and navigation of flight. 

In spite of the advancements, private aviation remains a distinct risk category.

According to FAA statistics, 27% of the 194,441 private pilots registered in 2011 held an instrument flight rating (IFR) certificate for navigating - as opposed to being limited to regulations for navigating by visual flight rules. Under the visual flight regulations, pilots navigate by using visual cues in the environment surrounding the aircraft, including topographical, astronomical and position cues. With IFR navigation, however, pilots rely on data from cockpit instruments to assist with controlling the aircraft in conditions of poor visibility. 

Most accidents (and fatalities) result from navigating by visual cues while progressing into conditions that require skills with instruments to proceed safely. Clouds, rain, wind, low temperatures, icing, overcast, dusk or flying at night are examples of conditions where an instrument rating would be an advantage. An instrument rating will add to the safety margin of any flight during challenging conditions, but it comes with several caveats to consider: It’s possible that a pilot may only use the IFR when unplanned challenging conditions occur during flight. If a pilot doesn't use the IFR consistently, his or her proficiency with it may degrade. In addition, the certification does not compensate for any lack of flying skill, or lack of common sense in the pilot.

Several accidents have been attributed to the pilot's lack of understanding of the sophisticated technology available for IFR. Pilots may have difficulty making the transition from analog to digital, to the extent of becoming overwhelmed during vital and stressful moments of decision making. Audible and visual alarms can be distracting during inflight emergencies. 

On the other hand, pilots using IFR may become overly reliant upon instrumentation and safety design, which can give a false sense of security (the auto-pilot syndrome). When advanced systems fail, flying skills may not be up to the immediate challenge. These challenges may be met by maintaining discipline and practicing procedures that would be required under a variety of emergency conditions so that proficiency remains sharp for handling dynamic conditions of flight. 

IFR pilots do have fewer fatalities, but this may be associated with fewer participants, and not because having an IFR is actually safer. 

Gen Re recently completed an extensive analysis and research project regarding avocational pilots. Our findings indicate that many of the long-held industry practices and ratings related to avocational aviation are no longer appropriate, and many of the past beliefs regarding licenses and ratings - for student pilots and those with instrument flight rating, for example - no longer hold true. 


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