Ten Steps to Safer General Aviation

GA has a mass of knowledge and information it could use to tackle minor issues at the beginning of the accident chain to produce a continuous improvement in performance.


Returning to General Aviation after many years away, I was disappointed at the level of complication, the quaint syllabus and how few lessons from commercial aviation had trickled down.

It was rather like driving the local potholed lanes, you learn where all the holes are the hard way and eventually get so used to avoiding them that they are hardly noticed, newcomers have to repeat your mistakes. The training process was much the same.

To qualify years ago I had to learn to navigate like a U boat commander, it generated plenty of awkward questions for the exam but nothing else. The current navigation manuals have nothing electronic in the syllabus and the 0.5 mill chart is so confusingly crowded it is difficult to be sure that something has not been missed. If safety critical information stood out like the proverbial canine
credentials there would be fewer infringements.

There seems to be a resigned contentment to put up with poor formats, scattered information conflicting advice and awful ergonomics.

Designers and regulators never get the full credit for the accidents they cause.

GA has a mass of knowledge and information it could use to tackle minor issues at the beginning of the accident chain to produce a continuous improvement in performance. There are major dividends in attention to the small details that start the chain.

Based on the CAA figures the raw average for a GA pilot is only 25hrs per annum and for many it must be much less. A low experience pilot may fly as little as one hour a month. This is the reality of GA and the various systems should support these pilots with information in a format they can access, assimilate, recall and put into practice.

 Author Colin Wright and his trusty Bulldog taking time out at Le Touquet.

Based on my recent experience, these are my ten personal suggestions to make General Aviation safer, easier and more enjoyable. 

1. Understand the concept of Safety
Safety is a well-used word in aviation, but few can define it in a manner that can add to performance. Try asking any GA pilot to define safety, usually there is a pause followed by something about avoiding accidents. If you can’t define it how can you achieve it? Because Safety is so much more than not having an accident.

Safety is the control of Danger and Risk

Dangers are known hazards with recognised consequences that can be avoided, i.e.

Runway too short   – you go off the end
No oil                    – the engine stops
Exceed Vne          – you don’t come back.

Dangers are controlled by the application of Laws, Rules, Regulation, Documentation, A/C limitations and Best Practice.

A pilot needs to know all these key limits and how to stay within them.

Risks are ever present threats that have to be evaluated and the level controlled to maintain a satisfactory margin. This safety margin is the difference between the capacity you have and the capacity you need. Also, do not underestimate the effect of shock on performance.

Initial risk management is often just doing the ‘simple things adequately’ until the margin  returns.  ‘Don’t make  it  worse’  is 
another maxim. Work out the main survival strategies beforehand to reduce the shock.

Risk reduction comes from a combination of training, skill, experience, pre-planning and decision making. Good decision making is a learned skill and may be needed earlier in a flying career than you think. So if you think are already a good decision maker, try this test.

Returning to base, the weather has deteriorated to limits.

Do you:

a    Use the very short runway with a headwind.
b   Use the long runway with a limiting cross-wind.
c    Divert on minimum fuel.
d   Call the tower and ask your instructor for help

There is a small alcoholic prize for the best answer which has an explanation of the decision making process used to determine it. In short:

Recognise Dangers and avoid them. Identify Risks and minimise them

 2.  Improve the GA Safety Culture
In Commercial Aviation, for over 25 years, the CAA have been operating an open, penalty free culture and this has yielded enormous benefits. Be clear it is not, however, responsibility free. You have to own up ASAP, fully report what happened and, more importantly, why. Then the pay-off – you never do it again and everybody else gets told so they don’t do it either. That’s the ideal world. In GA the level of trust is much lower and the culture is not there yet.

This is a serious problem that needs a cooperative approach. Lists of prosecutions, Retribution’ and ‘Jeopardy’ still appear in CAA literature, so, is it any surprise that some leave the transponder off, others cut and run and the reported causal factors will be evasive?

That’s where we were in commercial aviation 25 years ago and the CAA expectation is that the GA culture will take years to change.

An open approach would lead to a longer ‘Quick win’ list and access to the online infringement test would make us all wiser, not just the infringers.

A penalty free culture would produce a leap in progress.  Try it, the current system is not improving the level of occurrences fast enough.

3.  User friendly Regulation
By its very nature, Aviation is based in international and national law. This generates volumes of worthy literature that can be impossible to digest. Even the recent CAA Skyway Code is over 162 pages long with a ‘huge amount of additional material’ listed at the end for further reading. It is of excellent quality and a recommended read for every pilot but why does it look as though it has been written by a solicitor who is paid by the word?

But and this is a big but, after reading it all, will you have separated the ‘need to know’ from the ‘nice to know’ and retained it in a format that can be retrieved when needed? If the Key INFO and Guidance sections were combined in a printable format it would become a user friendly handy GA reference guide.

Large documents should have the key issues in only one section and summarised training material condensed into a Quick Reference Checklist that can be carried by a GA pilot to ensure the critical issues are known or at hand. 

4.   Exams and Tests
Repeating the ground school exams felt like returning to the past and the latest developments are not covered. This is a chance missed to focus the learning process into a refined package of knowledge. In the airline we applied a test to setting each of the regular technical exam questions. ‘What positive use will the answer be to a pilot?’ The wrong options of the multi choice question were then used to highlight recent mistakes or misconceptions. Add the reference for the correct answer for further reading.

The syllabus should cover all the current GA safety issues including infringement.

Modify the revalidation flying test as a pure training session to add skills and provide new experiences, for example choose one or more from the following.

 Infringement briefing

 Full or partial engine failure in the circuit, not just on T/O

Guaranteed Stall prevention technique

Side slipping

Glide approaches

Short field landings

Instrument flying to cover inadvertent IMC

Training Fix call to break the 121.5 duck before infringement

How to evaluate turn back options after EFATO

This would drive the process of ‘measured improvement’ not just achieving the minimum acceptable. 

5.   Enhanced Checklists and Kneepads
All the information for the flight needs to be on board. The checklist has the potential to deliver much more information and reduce errors. Mine has been enhanced to include:


1    Pre-flight requirements.

2    All checks formatted in sequence around the cockpit.

3  All limitations/selection options included not just ‘Check’.

4 Critical checks/limitations highlighted in Red.

5  Approach and Landing speeds with power settings for all configurations

6  Mayday, Pan, Training fix, Practice Pan text in full on the back page.

7  Specialised lists. Aerobatics / Cross channel etc.

8  Useful telephone numbers, codes and data sources.

Kneepad. The various pockets hold

1    Chart of local area. Critical altitudes highlighted.

2   Blank flight log

3  Airfield codes and frequencies.

4  Radio aids and frequencies

5  Telephone details for ATC units, Customs, Swanwick etc.

6  All UK listening codes

7  Aircraft limitations

8  Weight and Balance charts

9  Destination Plates

10  Spare pens and money/credit card for fuel.

These two add up to a neat survival package which is always at hand to cover electronic failures and lapses of memory.

 6.   Spreading Instructors Skills
Over the years I have found that instructors fall into two broad groups. Those who tell you only ‘what ‘to do and leave you to develop your own skills and those who tell you ‘how ‘to do it and share their knowledge, techniques and experience.

An example: This is a life saver. (Better Aerobatics P74)

Stalling does not occur at a single speed but at a critical angle of attack. This is controlled by the same elevator position irrespective of IAS or g load. If this stick/ yolk position is not exceeded it is possible to fly aerobatics, AIS failure, steep gliding turns and forced landings without stalling or the subsequent spin. Practice at altitude until fully confident to give low level security.

Use your instructor to share and explain the ‘how’ of every manoeuvre and the experience to go with it. Small details will add a great deal to the quality of the learning process. 

7. Quality of Information, Charts and Electronic Equipment
Having used several systems (four of them) to check the NOTAMS for a single flight it is unnerving to get different lists and find the narrow brief includes Afghanistan. Text quality can vary and the information may be obscure. For example, route/area expressed only in Lat and Long. Some texts would appeal to cryptic crossword buffs. The format should be:

a   Title line with Date and Time range, Location. Subject and Altitude restrictions

b   Text in plain English, with no jargon or abbreviations

c    What the GA pilot is expected to do with the information. This format will produce a consistent reaction to the NOTAM.

Is the CAA ½ mill chart still fit for purpose? Crowded and complex it has half a dozen formats for altitude and some are missing. Even the famous CAA approved Air Navigation training manual has a 900ft error in the demonstration plot. Air Million Zoom has it about right for size and clarity. Sadly both formats have errors and omissions, so take care.

At least put the route into an electronic system and check the vertical profile. 

Electronic systems
Quality varies, and there are no standard format or minimum content requirements. Disturbingly, some format combination can become chaotic with vital data missing. The NATS approved Easy VFR Basic has overlapping critical information and one of the CAA Skyway Code listed Hazards (p37) is totally missing. The danger is you never know what is missing from the display until ATC or the system gives you a sharp reminder when it is all too late.

There needs to be a common minimum standard covering the content and layout of the GA presentations. An agreed list of Hazards should be consistently visible in all formats and magnifications. Current Altitude restrictions should always be visible in the dashboard. 

8. Positive control of known Congestion and Pinch Points

Over the years free airspace has shrunk and GA has to use what is left over and that’s a high workload for everybody. At the moment there are the regulations and from those you plan your own routes. In particular, the SE near London needs a dedicated GA guide to give definitive advice for:

a    Route selection, standard speeds and flow options
b    Identify high risk areas to avoid commercial traffic conflicts
c    Altitude recommendations for minimum margins (ATZ margins)
d    Where to contact each ATC service
e    Which airfields to call, or not
f     Where to use each listening squawk     
g    Horizontal margins to use when avoiding restricted airspace.

The literature from the authorities repeatedly asks for greater margins ‘no line hugging’ without stating what they should be. It’s not a guessing game, state what you want and we will probably do it.

A consistent approach from everybody would reduce the workload. Add approved route selections to the electronic library. 

9.  Make every flight a positive learning experience

Experience is not just building hours. Use every flight as a chance to improve. After each flight, note all the things you did well and remember them. Analyse all the errors and put measures in place so that they will not be repeated. That’s measured improvement.

As you get older, you have to be smarter. If you don’t get smarter, you won’t get older.

 10.  Those things we know and never share 
At an airfield, all the locals know the foibles and things to avoid, the airfield plate should have a safety brief to put every visitor in the same position.

It is the same for the ergonomics of each aircraft type, they all have traps for the unwary.

List for the Bulldog 
a    Push/Pull the Radio frequency knob to get an instant radio failure

b   Don’t climb on the wing with the canopy half open – you will fall off

c    The oil dipstick over tightens and strips your knuckles when it releases

d   The canopy release and jettison handles are very close together

e    Fuel selections are not visible from the instructor’s seat

f    The fuel pump switch is next to the battery master and alternator

g   A tight lap harness will unsecure when the shoulder harness is inserted

h   Never undo the parachute in the aircraft, next time you jump out, you may need it

i    Using the cockpit GoPro creates 20deg Deviation on the compass!

j     Never prime a hot engine

These are typical issues that start the accident chain and are so easy to avoid.

Next is the real pay-off, please do this if nothing else

Now write a list covering your own abilities and performance. The accident chain starts with you and self – knowledge is the best way to stop it. 

Safe Flying 

Colin Wright FRAeS