Aircraft Accidents and the Sine Wave

I’m an aircraft mechanic.  I can speak to the influence today’s safety environment has on, e.g. a mechanic’s safe practices.  Aircraft mechanics – or technicians – like all aviation folks, have entered an era where aviation accidents have declined; not only in the commercial air carrier industry, but in the general aviation community.

The reasons for this dip in the accident numbers can be credited to many things, e.g. better training and improved technologies.  I would like to recognize the learning from past accidents and applying proper fixes, but in the accidents I’ve investigated and the airlines I’ve inspected, Maintenance people don’t always have an opportunity to learn from the past, through no fault of their own.  The maintenance community isn’t as closely tied.

In contrast, pilots are a more tightly woven group; they have better means to learn from the past mistakes of others; it’s in large part because of the training opportunities Operations people have; they have more aggressive training schedules.  Often mistakes other pilots make during a flight are not limited to a specific aircraft manufacturer or model aircraft; for instance, wind shear affects pilots similarly, whether they are flying an Airbus A320 or a Boeing 737; each benefits from the same type of wind shear training.  Because operations training is more aggressive, pilot instructors can take a recent event – an incident or accident – program the flight simulator to reproduce the conditions and teach every pilot on the roster the proper safety procedures within a short period of time.

Mechanics don’t have that availability.  But one thing both pilots and mechanics have shared is an increase in Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) surveillance.  Whether the FAA has become more of a visible presence on the flight line or become more of a nuisance behind the scenes, it is only fair to give partial credit for the accident decline on the FAA’s increased diligence.

And there lies the danger.  When the going gets good, the budget cuts back.  The government planners are mono-directional; they associate success with obsolescence.  While they should be increasing/maintaining surveillance, they see no need and, therefore, reduce.  It’s like training on the trapeze with the security of a net; release one tie of the net and its integrity decreases.

This starts the vicious sine wave.  As we crest the ‘hill’, accidents are low and manpower is better used.  As the industry slides down towards the ‘valley’, government retracts funding, surveillance cuts back; as oversight drops off, the air operators’ diligence wanes; safety reaches its lowest.

For those of us who follow the Economy’s sine wave patterns know: sine waves, like one that would track Aviation Safety’s pattern, are unavoidable as they represent the irony of history: While we don’t have to learn from history, unfortunately, we will be doomed to repeat it.

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