How out-of-practice pilots could be contributing to fatal small plane crashes
'We're engaging in a ridiculously risky activity, but we're moderating the risks'
Operating costs leading to a lack of flying time could be contributing to crashes involving small planes in Canada.
It has been a deadly year in Canadian skies with 45 people dying in aviation accidents.
Many of the aircraft involved in crashes are privately owned and operated by recreational pilots.
"The smaller planes in many cases are being flown by less qualified pilots," said aviation expert John (Jock) Williams.
"That is pilots who have less training, less experience, less practice, so it's likely to be more accident producing than the big planes where the guys are flying … four or five times a week and they're in practice," said Williams.
Many recreational pilots are only able to fly once or twice a year, according to Williams.
He said the cost to fuel planes and get them checked by mechanics has become so expensive some people rarely take their planes out.
"People just can't afford to do it, so they're not practising enough and as a consequence they're having problems," said Williams.
Only 38 fatalities in 2018
The deaths haven't happened on large commercial airliners, but on small aircraft involving small numbers of people.
But there were only 38 aviation fatalities in all of 2018, according to the Transportation Safety Board of Canada.
Most of the people who died this year were on board single-engine aircraft that collided with land or water, the safety board said.
Everything from tiny two seater ultra-lights, float planes, helicopters and training gliders have been involved in 20 fatal crashes.
But Williams said those crashes don't attract the same kind of attention as bigger ones.
"If you lose a big airplane, let's say you lose an Airbus A380, you could lose 500 people … and that's really going to hit the newspapers," said Williams, a pilot and former flight safety officer with Transport Canada.
"That's going to take you 250 crashes in a typical light plane, because most light planes are either flown by one pilot or with two pilots onboard and so it's going to take you a long time to come up with the same eye-catching results."
Large commercial planes that carry the majority of Canadians have a very good safety record, according to Kathy Fox, the chair of the safety board. There have been no fatalities on board those aircraft this year.
It's a much different story with small aircraft.
In July alone, 24 people were killed in small aircraft crashes, and there was only one week in the month when someone didn't die, according to safety board statistics.
On July 1, a two-seat ultralight aircraft was flying near Mont St-Grégoire, Que., southeast of Montreal when it ran into trouble. It slammed into some trees and its two occupants were killed.
Two weeks later, a float plane took off from Crossroads Lake in Labrador for a fishing trip with seven people onboard. Search and rescue crews found the plane submerged in Mistastin Lake the following morning with no sign of survivors.
On July 26 in Black Diamond, Alta., a Cessna and a two-seater glider collided in mid-air. The student and instructor in the glider died while the pilot of the Cessna managed to land without injury.
That's just a small sampling of some of the fatal crashes the board is investigating.
The crashes leave some people with a bad impression of civil light plane aviation, said Williams, but he doesn't believe that should be the case.
"In reality, it's a pretty safe way to spend your time as long as you watch very carefully the few very basic rules that exist in aviation."
It's when people break those rules they run into trouble, a sentiment shared by Fox and the safety board.
Fox said most accidents are caused when pilots make mistakes and not the result of mechanical failure.
"If we look overall, the more serious accidents, the accidents that more frequently lead to fatalities, involve operation in weather — poor weather beyond the pilot's capability," she said.
That can result in a pilot losing their bearings.
"People may overestimate their abilities to handle any particular situation, but we've also seen a lot of accidents with a lot of well-intentioned, well-meaning pilots who got themselves into situations they weren't able to handle," said Fox.
The Canadian Owners and Pilots Association represents people who fly recreationally and travel in their own aircraft.
Despite the deaths this year, Bernard Gervais, the president and CEO of the association, said the overall number of aircraft accidents is decreasing, a statement supported by safety board research.
In 2008, there were 294 accidents reported to the safety board. That number has dropped consistently over the last 10 years, and in 2018, there were 201 accidents.
The number of fatalities has started dropping, too. From 2008 to 2017 there was an average of 48 fatalities a year.
But, in 2017, there were just 34 deaths.
This year, with 45 fatalities by August, is shaping up to be the deadliest year since 2013.
Gervais said the number of accidents a year isn't high given the number of people flying. His group alone has 16,000 members.
"With the number of aircraft out there in the country with the number of pilots we've got, there's a lot of flying going on and … these accidents, it's just a few a year and it's actually going down," he said.
He said recreational flying is safe.
Fox agrees with him, as long as people obey the rules and are cautious. She's been flying for more than 40 years.
"I teach flying and I feel very comfortable going up in them, especially when I'm at the controls," she said.
There is a general aviation safety campaign underway in Canada to help make pilots fly safer and better follow the rules. Gervais said the vast majority of his members already do that, but he admits there are still some who don't.
One such pilot died in an accident in Quebec in March. The safety board discovered the pilot's licence had not been valid since 1994.
Williams, among others, understands that all recreational pilots need to make sure they are physically fit to fly, practise flying with an instructor and avoid flying into bad weather.
"We're engaging in a ridiculously risky activity, but we're moderating the risks by studying and by practising and by refresher training," he said.
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