The South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) is concerned about the recent spate of aircraft accidents which have claimed the lives of 11 people since the beginning of the year.
All these accidents, reported between January 1 and February 18, occurred in the general aviation and not the scheduled commercial airlines sector. The general aviation sector consists mainly of privately-owned small aircraft as well as recreational aircraft.
Six of the accidents, with an equal number of fatalities, happened in January. The three fatal accidents reported since the beginning of February, have claimed five lives. An additional 22 non-fatal serious aircraft incidents and accidents were reported with 12 in January and 10 in February.
“The SACAA is seriously concerned about the high number of accidents and fatalities that have taken place since the start of the year. The numbers are significantly higher compared to, for instance, the same period in the last two years. While we await the outcome of investigations into the causes of the accidents, we would like to remind each and every member of the aviation community that safety is paramount and is an obligation that cannot be delegated. Every aviator, in his or her respective role, is in one way or another responsible for flight safety,” said Poppy Khoza, SACAA Director of Civil Aviation.
In January 2012, there was one fatal accident that claimed the lives of two people. In February of the same year, three fatal accidents were reported, resulting in the loss of three lives. In 2013, the numbers were slightly higher, but nowhere near what has been witnessed so far this year. Six people lost their lives in the four fatal accidents reported last February.
“On average there are about 20 fatal aircraft accidents a year, resulting in an average of 40 fatalities. A further scrutiny of the statistics illustrates that despite a spike totalling 92 in 2008, there has been a steady decrease from 176 in 2006 to 22 in 2013, culminating in a seven percent average annual decline in accidents. While the number of accidents has been declining over the years, we as the SACAA and the aviation community cannot take solace in statistics, as one life lost is just one too many,” Khoza said.
Data indicates almost all fatal accidents in South Africa occur in the general aviation sector.
“Therefore it would be inaccurate to conclude South African skies are generally unsafe, as the reality is our country’s commercial activities large scheduled commercial operations, are among the safest in the world,” she said.
According to Khoza, accidents are caused by various systematic weaknesses and/or deficiencies. “This means that embarking on a single panacea in an attempt to reduce aircraft accidents would be futile. It is for this reason that the SACAA developed the Cross-Functional Accident Reduction Plan (CFARP) that aims to reduce accidents in the general aviation sector, in a coordinated manner.”
The solutions mapped out in CFARP are based on quantitative and qualitative inputs from within and outside the SACAA. The plan, which will be implemented within two years and is subject to on-going review, deals with systematic inherent weaknesses in addressing the causes of aircraft accidents.
“This multi-disciplinary approach is crucial in addressing safety, as the ‘Swiss Cheese Model’ illustrates how various weaknesses, when aligned, will eventually cause an accident. Further, when compiling this plan, we had to ask a simple but pertinent question: are accidents are caused by man or machine. In this instance, statistics illustrate that factors related to piloting present the single most common cause of accidents. It is thus logical to ensure a significant part of our efforts to reduce accidents are directed at ‘human error’ challenges faced by pilots,” Khoza said.
Having determined that human factors pose a major aviation safety hazard, the CFARP also looked into which categories of pilots are responsible in terms of experience.
“Data from serious incident and accident investigation reports between 2006 and 2012 indicate pilots with fewer than 500 flying hours are responsible for most accidents. Although data within the first 500 hours could not be broken down further at this stage; for example, according to licence holders, it stands to reason that the lower the hours, the more likely an accident would be; although that is not always the case,” Khoza said.
According to her the CFARP will, among other things, endeavour to maximise the development of pilot airmanship.
Regarding knowledge, more could be done in terms of co-ordination and continued education for pilots, particularly for those with low flying hours and/or operating under hazardous conditions. In relation to skills, the Plan seeks to improve pilot competency development within the training environment.
“The SACAA will intensify its oversight role over pilot training schools, as the schools are ultimately directly responsible for pilot training and development. It has become apparent that entry requirements for the approval of training schools are wide open and this appears to have contributed to the establishment of training schools approximately ten times the number of those in other developed countries. Further interrogation is required, as it is not the intention of the SACAA to discourage growth, but to ensure that in as much as we have a large number of training schools; all systems must be effective in order to facilitate healthy aviation safety practices,” Khoza said.
Another concern that the recently finalised Cross-Functional Accident Reduction Plan has revealed is the complete reliance on instructors with low flying experience to develop aspiring pilots.
“Historically, commercial pilot licence holders with low hours often opt to teach prospective pilots in order to obtain enough flying hours as required for their airline transport licence. Our view is it is crucial to ensure adequate pilot feed into the system; however, this need must be balanced with expert training by adequately experienced pilot instructors. We believe this will enhance the requisite airmanship factors among student pilots. The criterion in this regard is still to be determined. However there are valuable lessons to be learnt from military pilot training methods,” Khoza said.
In relation to factors affecting the underdevelopment of pilot attitudes, the SACAA is contemplating, among others, introduction of a standardised induction programme for all student pilots.
“The aim is to ensure appropriate induction of prospective pilots, leading to the adoption of positive attitudes and discipline. At the moment it is up to aviation training organisations to instil appropriate and adequate airmanship. It can be deduced that airmanship attitudes of prospective students are moulded by instructors,” said Khoza.
She further said the Regulator has also noted the over-reliance on aviation training organisations during pilot development, particularly at the private pilot’s licence entry point. “Whilst this is not uncommon, further process enhancement is necessary. At this point, the SACAA does not directly verify the claimed proficiency of any of the pilot candidates, as these are examined through designated flight examiners that do not form part of the regulatory authority. Direct testing of pilots, at least on a sample basis, is being contemplated in order to determine trends concerning aviation training organisations.
“In the meantime, the SACAA will continue to be vigilant to ensure proper conduct by all training organisations and aviators. The Authority will continue to collaborate with the industry in order to consistently provide solutions that would ensure that South Africa’s general aviation sector ultimately ranks among the safest in the world. This would require pragmatic pursuing of the SACAA’s vision and execution of our mandate without fear or favour, however being receptive to industry inputs is critical in order to achieve a common goal. Continuous and honest introspection will also form the hallmark of our pursuit for a safer airspace.
“With all that having been said, our standing with organisations such as the International Civil Aviation Organisation as well as the current facts and figures indicates that South African incident and accident trends are far better than those of other developing and developed countries. It is our commitment that the Regulator, in partnership with the industry, will work tirelessly to ensure that the situation does not become worse but that it improves for the better,” Khoza said.