What is the cause of most general aviation accidents?

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) - the lead federal agency in investigating aviation accidents - reports “pilot error” as the cause of the vast majority of general aviation incidents. However, "pilot error" is a more complicated concept than it may seem at first:

  • “Cause” means something that leads to an accident...actions, omissions, conditions, events or some combination of these four things, without which the accident would not have occurred.

  • “Accidents” mean acts that come from the actual entry into, and the operation of, an aircraft, which lead to one or more instances of: a person being injured or killed; the aircraft being destroyed, in need of major repairs, inaccessible, missing, or lost.

  • “Incidents” are things that fall short of being an accident, but that could have affected the safe operation of the aircraft.

The end result of an investigation into what “causes” an accident almost always reveals a series of incidents, rather than one specific cause. Explaining these factors are among the most important reasons for having of an aviation accident investigation.

Types of Pilot Error

Pilot errors are also broken down into other categories. One general category of pilot error is called “loss of situational awareness.” This was the reason John F. Kennedy, Jr., is supposed to have lost control of his plane; but, the weather (heavy fog in this instance) also impacted Kennedy's pilot error. There are also “loss of control” accidents, which may include engine problems, ice, or stalls...any of which may test the ability of a pilot and lead to "pilot error."

Why Investigate Causes

Experts who study aviation safety look for “chains” of events to understand what happened. One study found that ten separate factors were involved in the JFK, Jr. accident. Removing any one of these factors might have prevented an accident. There is also the possibility that adding a safety feature might have prevented it. With all aviation accidents, there must be a thorough investigation into the precise causes of the accident. This will help prevent such accidents in the future. This complexity also explains why it can take particular legal skills to understand exactly where responsibility for an accident should rest.