Unusual Attitude

Safety is a culture.


At this point in my life, I can look back across more than 40 years spent deeply involved in amateur-built aircraft and the kit-aircraft business. There’s been a lot of satisfaction and pleasure, but there’s also been too much misery. Too many people I’ve known have been injured or killed in this part of aviation—far more than the small proportion of the aviation spectrum we occupy would suggest. The Federal Aviation Administration has not missed this fact, and people there have been tasked with improving the situation—one way or another.

VanGrunsven poses with his personal RV-12. His approach to flying and safety reflects a philosophy developed over many years.

I’ve thought a lot about the subject, and would like to share some of those ruminations. I’m not here to preach. We are already constantly bombarded with safety warnings and education opportunities by the FAA, EAA and AOPA. Is it really enough? Given the safety record, I’d say that it isn’t.

I don’t think safety can be imposed. Harsher rules, constant harping and even threats might improve the safety picture for a little while, but eventually they fade into the background. They address the symptom. I think we need to address the root.

A Safety Culture

Recently, I ran across a quote by KITPLANES writer and vastly experienced pilot Doug Rozendaal. “Culture must change,” he said, referring to ways of improving amateur-built safety. My first reaction was “Why?” Overall, we have a great culture. We have common interests in flying and building, we help each other in many aspects of building, and we enjoy socializing with each other. We mingle with our flying friends at the airport, at our EAA chapters and at Saturday morning brunches. These social contacts are probably our most powerful peer pressure influence. This less formal social side of aviation is the most enjoyable, and probably the most influential. This is our aviation “culture.”

But as I thought about it a bit longer, I realized there are aspects of our flying culture, perhaps holdovers from bygone years, maybe the result of paranoia over our minority status in GA, that are counterproductive to safety. Whether we want to admit it or not, we as social beings are affected by our surroundings and our peers. While we may be self-proclaimed “rugged individualists,” chances are that we are also creatures of our culture to a high degree. Awareness of this can help us understand our own flying behavior and that of our fellow pilots, and the positive or negative role that flying culture can play.

We need to develop a safety culture—a culture where the social interaction and peer pressure don’t result in reinforcing paranoia and bad habits, but rather result in safer and more courteous flying.

We Don’t Need More Regulations

This sounds like the typical comment that you might hear during any pilot’s bull session. However, I heard it from Mel Cintron, head of the FAA GA Division during a phone conversation several months ago.

He called me regarding one of the safety columns that I regularly post on the Van’s Aircraft Facebook page. We had a pleasant conversation about amateur-built aircraft safety and shared some thoughts on how safety might be improved and accidents avoided. The heavy hand of the FAA was completely absent from his tone—Cintron feels that much more can be accomplished through a collaborative effort than through more burdensome regulations.

This is refreshing, and helps explain the reason for establishing the Amateur Built Aircraft Safety Coalition consisting of FAA, EAA, AOPA and industry members. While involving players from alphabet groups across the GA spectrum is important, in the end it is much more important to involve the real players on this field: all of you.

Accident Reduction

I believe that we, EAA and the amateur-built community, should set a goal of cutting our accident rate in half. (The goal stated by the FAA was much less, something on the order of a 1% per year improvement.) I feel that this is achievable because a review of individual accidents shows that almost all of them are preventable. If accidents are not an act of God, such as physical incapacitation in flight, being hit from behind or being struck by lightning, I feel that they are preventable with these steps.

  • To prevent loss-of-control accidents, we need to hone our flying skills.
  • To prevent cowboy accidents, we simply must quit doing show-off stunts.
  • To minimize mechanical problems, we need to become better builders and mechanics.
  • As pilots, we must know our airplanes’ systems better.

OK, this is easier said than done. What should be our time frame for this goal? One year or five years? One year is probably unrealistically soon and not achievable, so why try? Five years seems so distant that there’s no need to rush. It allows us to put off action until later. My suggestion is to act now. When an opportunity presents itself, act. By thinking “safety,” you’ll be surprised how often a need, hopefully an opportunity, to act will arise.

How Do We Accomplish This?

First, we should constantly assess and upgrade ourselves. Regularly practice air work maneuvers. Practice landings of different types rather than just “arriving.” Make it a point to do something educational on every flight. Make Biennial Flight Reviews (BFR) meaningful. Seek out instructors who will challenge and instruct us, not just sign our logbooks.

We need to bring safety into conversations with fellow pilots. Promote an atmosphere of professionalism within our flying peer group, be it EAA chapter meetings or just the klatch at the airport café.

We must encourage builders who are about to make first flights to get transition training, or at least to upgrade their proficiency.

If it is evident that some pilots you know are deficient in flying skills or judgment, network with fellow pilots to find diplomatic means to make them aware of their limitations and the need for more training and practice.

If you see flying behavior that is unsafe, inconsiderate or just plain dumb—act. Recently, I learned that a member of our glider club had been banned from using the club’s private airfield because of his flying behavior. He owned a fast homebuilt and would fly in to use the club gliders. He often demonstrated his own stylized arrival procedure. I witnessed one of these industrial-strength buzz jobs, and agreed that corrective attention was in order. I mention this as an instance where peer pressure was applied effectively. The club’s culture simply wouldn’t accept reckless flying.

If you know of someone about to buy a “previously owned” homebuilt, do what you can to make that person aware of the availability and benefits of transition training. Van’s has a transition training program available, and other kit manufacturers probably have similar programs.

The EAA web site includes a section under the heading of PROGRAMS, GOVERNMENT ADVOCACY that I encourage you to visit from time to time. The FAA/Industry Aviation Safety Coalition is still in its organizational stage and held a meeting in Oshkosh during this summer’s AirVenture event. I plan to report on it, probably on the Van’s Facebook page.

The list should be endless. Give it some thought and see what is appropriate for your aviation environment, your EAA chapter or your peer group. Different circumstances will present different opportunities and needs. I’d like to hear from anyone who has specific experience and ideas of what he or she feels is needed or what has worked.

The FAA’s job is that of safety, period. If its employees do their job well and safety improves, they will have the satisfaction of a job well done and maybe a good job performance review. But for those of us who actually fly amateur-built aircraft, enhanced safety means that more of us will live longer.

So who has the most to gain?

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Richard VanGrunsven
Richard "Van" VanGrunsven learned to fly in 1956 at the age of 16. An engineer and aircraft designer, he founded and developed Van's Aircraft, Inc. into the acknowledged leader in kit aircraft. He often speaks and writes about flying skills and safety. A life in aviation, including thousands of hours piloting both powered aircraft and sailplanes, has given him plenty of time to consider what makes pilots unsafe…or safe. He prefers the latter.


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