Accident Causal Factors


  • Sadly, we as pilots keep killing ourselves for similar, avoidable reasons
  • The perceptions are numerous but most accidents occur in VFR conditions, below 8,000' AGL and within 30 miles of an airport
  • Additionally, a very large percentage of those accidents involve "General Aviation" activities
  • The top 10 accident cause factors remain relatively stable and point out the need for continued refresher training to establish a higher level of flight proficiency for all pilots
    • It is recommended to monitor approach or tower frequencies if not under flight following
  • Pilots must look at this list and learn from others
  • Instructors must reference this list to highlight these "common errors"

Accident Cause Factors:

Inadequate Pre-Flight Preparation and/or Planning:

  • Every flight is different, regardless of how many times it or flights like it are performed
  • As such, pilots must treat each flight as its own and continuously apply a solid pre-flight
  • Ensure you complete your NAVLOGs, file your flight plan, create a fuel plan, and check (and monitor) weather
  • The more time you spend on the ground thinking about what "what-ifs," the better prepared you will be to make a decision in the air

Failure to Obtain and/or Maintain Flying Speed:

  • As part of preflight, always check the expected performance of your aircraft for the day
    • For example, weather, DA
  • Once you've determined your aircraft can perform, ensure that it does and maintain a healthy scan to monitor performance
  • Scan your instruments
  • Know yours and the aircraft's limitations

Failure to Maintain Directional Control:

  • Any expected flight maneuver should be chair flown and briefed to your passengers prior to flight
  • Thinking through how your actions effect flight surface performance and aircraft controllability will keep you within the margin of safety
  • Additionally, maintain appropriate flying speeds to give your control surfaces the authority they need to perform as expected
  • Remember, equipment can fail so maintain a scan to cross-check
  • Maintain proper operation of flight controls

Improper Level Off:

  • Spatial disorientation can effect anyone, at any time, regardless of flight time
  • Rapid level offs with reduced visibility can contribute largely to these illusions
  • Build habits of always calling out your altitudes as you descend or climb so you're always monitoring the aircraft's position relative to what you need
  • Ensure you know your clearance! Always read back altitudes as per the FARs
  • Ensure if you're using equipment such as autopilot that you input the information correctly into the system
  • Remember there is a big difference between AGL and MSL when you operate in higher altitudes, know what altitude you're reading off your maps!

Failure to See and Avoid Objects or Obstructions:

  • Maintain your scan
  • In class G airspace, under visual flight rules, you have less than 15 seconds to see and avoid another aircraft once presented, assuming a head-on flight path
  • A thorough study of terrain features in the area as part of preflight is essential to flight with reduced visibility
  • Controlled Flight into Terrain, or CFIT ("see-fit") is a critical component of accident causal factors demanding detailed terrain and obstacle awareness
    • CFIT is avoidable, with at least half occuring in fair weather conditions, citing situational awareness breakdowns as a leading cause
    • As many as 17% of aviation accidents are the result of CFIT
  • Maintain your set minimum safe altitude (MSA)
  • Review the maximum elevation figures (MEF) on sectional charts
    • MEFs are determined by rounding the highest known elevation in the quadrangle, including terrain and obstructions (trees, towers, antennas, etc.) up to the next 100 foot level
    • These altitudes are then adjusted upward between 100 to 300 feet
  • Do not over-rely on automation
  • Review illusions in flight
  • Follow the NTSB's Controlled Flight Into Terrain in Visual Conditions Safety Alert recommendations
  • Pay attention for other traffic at all times, but especially when the risk for midair is statistically higher:
    • Within five nautical miles of an airport;
    • In daylight visual flight rules conditions, and;
    • At or below 3,000 feet above ground level
  • Additional tips include verifying ATC calls are accurate, turning on lights, and questioning any conflict or confusion

Mismanagement of Fuel:

  • Pilots must diligently calculate their fuel requirements before every flight, planning for reasonable contingencies while still on the ground
  • Pilots must understand their fuel system
  • Fuel calculations must be calculated as part of preflight prior to each flight
  • Factors such as winds and routes will always have some sort of effect different from all other flights
  • Always fly with a reserve and don't count on that fuel when deciding your total range
  • Monitor fuel burn (this can hint to a bigger problem)
  • Know your systems to ensure you are not isolating otherwise useful fuel
  • Consider planning a fuel stop mid-way if fuel planning is tight, to avoid the tempatation to push through
  • If budget-minded, look for where fuel is cheap and plan well inside when fuel is required - don't push beyond comfort or planning to save a buck
  • Call ahead of any fuel stop to be sure they'll be opened with enough margin for course changes or ATC delays to make it in time
  • The AOPA provides a chart which show the dramatic effect of fuel mismanagement

Improper In-Flight Decisions or Planning:

  • Aeronautical Decision-Making is a process of recognizing a situation, making a decision and acting upon it
  • Additionally, use crew resource management
  • Many have made the decisions you are faced with and so learn from them by talking with pilots, reading articles, and looking at NTSB crash statistics

Misjudgment of Distance and Speed:

  • Know your limits, don't show off

Selection of Unsuitable Terrain:

  • When faced with an emergency fall back on your training and preflight prepation
  • Avoid landing in dark spots at night, farmers fields, or rocky terrain
  • Remember your ditching procedures

Improper Operations of Flight Controls:

  • Proper flight instruction will give you the foundation you need to fly
  • Flight however, is a perishable skill and should be treated as such
  • While a biannual flight review is only required every two years, make it a point to fly with an instructor more often so as to sharpen your skills
  • If you have the time and money available, work on your next certificate or rating to keep yourself challenged

Causal Factors:

  • Be alert at all times, especially when the weather is good
    • Most pilots pay attention to business when they are operating in full IFR weather conditions, but strangely, air collisions almost invariably have occurred under ideal weather conditions
    • Unlimited visibility appears to encourage a sense of security which is not at all justified
    • Considerable information of value may be obtained by listening to advisories being issued in the terminal area, even though controller workload may prevent a pilot from obtaining individual service
  • If you think another aircraft is too close to you, give way instead of waiting for the other pilot to respect the right-of-way to which you may be entitled
    • It is a lot safer to pursue the right-of-way angle after you have completed your flight