is not safe." It's the kind of statement one might expect from a non-flying
spouse or friend. But the person speaking is one of the most well known
aviation ground school instructors in the country. John King and his wife
Martha have taught over 15,000 pilots in ground school classes and have
reached even more with their King Schools instructional videos and interactive
CD-ROM/DVD products. They are also active pilots who fly their Cessna Citation
500 all around the country.
So what is possessing someone with that
kind of experience to go around preaching the hazards of flight? According
to King, it's a belief that we are doing ourselves a grave disservice
by looking at flight as a potentially safe activity.
By denying the fact that general aviation
flying is a risky activity-even if performed by intelligent, capable,
achieving people-King believes we hamper our ability to manage or reduce
the risks we face every time we take an airplane into the sky.
"We don't have a liability problem in general
aviation," King says. "We have an accident problem." And what's needed
in order to reduce that accident rate, according to King, is nothing short
of a cultural attitude change that recognizes and acknowledges the risks
inherent in all small airplane flying and encourages a more careful, conservative
approach to managing that risk as best we can.
Flying recently spoke with King about
his views of risk, flight and the cultural change he thinks the general
aviation community needs.
did your attitude about the risks of flying come from?
It's evolved. We used to teach ground school
classes, and through the years, we've taught 15,000 people face to face.
And you can't be involved knowing that many pilots without some of them,
people you respect and admire, people whom you think are competent, bright
people and achievers, going out and hurting themselves, which is a euphemism
for killing themselves and their passengers in an airplane. We used to
read articles about pilots who had accidents, and we thought, well, you
know, what they did was stupid, and I'm a smart person, so I'm probably
exempt from that. But what you find is, when you know the people, that
they're not stupid people. They're bright, achieving people, because that's
who general aviation tends to select.
conclusion did you draw from that?
Through the years, we've gradually come
to the conclusion that the problem is pilots don't do a good job of assessing
the risks that they're taking. And our feeling is that one of the reasons
for that is that we in aviation have had a long-standing culture of telling
people that aviation is safe. We have used the old line, 'the most dangerous
part of this trip was the drive to the airport.' But statistically, it's
not true. You're seven times more likely to have a fatality in a general
aviation (GA) airplane than you are in a car, per mile. People say, well,
per hour is what counts, so, okay, say 3 1/2 times as likely, because
an airplane is twice as fast. The point is, you're more likely to have
a fatality in a GA airplane than in a car, traveling the same distance.
Airlines, on the other hand, are 49 times
safer than GA per mile. So cars are seven times more dangerous than airlines.
So where that old song came from are the airlines. The airlines have a
phenomenal safety record. They have turbine equipment they're flying standardized
routes, with more than one pilot, dispatchers to help them out, etc. That's
why they're safe. General aviation planes don't meet that record. A Bonanza
does not have the same kind of guarantees that come with a transport category
did this culture come from?
I think it came from the barnstormers, who
wanted people to go fly with them in an airplane held together with baling
wire. They'd tell their customers, like all hucksters would, that it was
perfectly safe. And at every stage in the game, we, as an industry, have
tried to convince people that aviation's safe.
really think pilots believe that flying is perfectly safe?
If you go tell any general aviation
pilot, by and large, that aviation is risky, they will argue with you.
They'll tell you, oh, that's not true; it's safer than driving. It's not
that they're macho. If s just that we've told this big he so long that
we ourselves believe it. So we've gotten to the point where the whole
industry has told this big he, and we all believe it. And it's not true.
danger you see in that is what?
I do not believe that we should use the
word "safe" in general aviation. If you look up what the word "safe" means,
it says "without harm or risk." And I don't believe it's possible to fly
a general aviation airplane without risk. What I would say is there's
either more or less of a degree of risk. I think we should not even have
an Aviation Safety Program. I think we should have an aviation risk management
program. The reason I don't like to use the word "safe" is that it focuses
on the wrong thing. It focuses on the absence of risk. And there is no
such thing as the absence of risk.
is it you think we ought to do?
I think we need to make it part of the culture
that we first, identify those risks and second, create an environment
where you aren't considered a wimp for recognizing that risk exists and
that you want to manage that risk. We need to get a little more cerebral
about what we're doing and say that this is a risk management activity.
Other industries do this. You go to rent
a horse, and you have to sign a three-page form that says this is a risky
activity, there's a good chance you could get killed, or at least maimed,
and if you do, we told you so in advance. This is not a turnoff to people.
It's intuitive. You know that riding a horse is risky. Likewise, it's
intuitive to students who come in to learn to fly that taking this aircraft
thousands of feet in the air and flying it around and bringing it back
down to earth again has some risks involved. And yet we're in the mode
of telling them, 'Oh, no, ifs perfectly safe.' That isn't honest and not
even credible to a new person. I think we'd do a lot better by telling
them, 'Yeah, you're right there ARE risks involved. But what you're going
to learn to do is manage those risks. We're going to give you the tools
to do that.' To me, that's more comforting to a student than to deny the
specifically, do you think makes flying a risky activity?
Is it the risk of mechanical failure, or
the fact that all pilots are human or something else? I think you can
break the risk down into four categories: the pilot, the aircraft, and
the environment, which includes weather and conditions, and external pressures,
which are some of the most insidious factors of them all.
you mean by "external pressures"?
Well, for example, one of the external pressures
is GA pilots' desire to prove that they can do this, to prove that they're
skilled, that the airplane has utility and to show everyone, finally,
that they're not such a damn fool for learning to fly. And that all the
money they spent on it, buying and maintaining an airplane, is worth it.
I mean, if I can't get utility out of this airplane, why am I flying it?
Everyone wants to talk about get-home-itis. I don't think that explains
why people continue, for example, to fly an airplane VFR into worsening
weather conditions. I think what explains it more adequately is that we're
goal-oriented people. In order to become a pilot, you had to be goal-oriented.
You went through extensive training over an extended period of time, which
required a great deal of commitment. Flying self-selects goal-oriented
people. We set a goal, for whatever reason. It can be completely arbitrary...
even, 'l think we can make Wichita a fuel stop,' and from that point on
Wichita becomes the goal, and come bell or high water, we're ' going to
Wichita, just because we don't like to give up on goals.
That attitude is one of the big risk factors
involved. So what's the antidote to that? That there are days when the
airlines don't fly. There are a lot of days that people don't do what
they planned to do because ifs just not the day to do it. And it's not
a shame to say, 'No, tonight we're going to go to a hotel.'
are promoting more conservative go/no-go choices?
Yes. And also going with an understanding
of your options and being more cautious when you go and the circumstances
in which you go. For instance, you may choose a different route if the
weather's bad, or some days you may not go at all, and that's all part
of risk management.
end of the year, then, you will have made more no-go decisions.
Correct. Or will not have tried to do things
that intrinsically are just not safe. On any particular night, you might
say it's not a safe operation to do "x" type of flight, so if I'm going
to make this trip, I'm going to go the next morning. Did I fly less? No.
I probably moved the flight to a different time.
percent of all accidents occur with a perfectly good airplane ... as a
result of pilot error. With a perfectly good airplane that's trying its
heart out for the pilot being dashed into the ground by a judgment error.
Even crosswind landing accidents are a result of the fact that some pilot
accepted this crosswind when he could have gone to another airport with
another runway. Why do people accept this risk? I think part of the answer
is because it's part of our culture to minimize the amount of risk involved.
And we need to reverse that. We should change the culture to accept the
risk, talk about the risk and take pride in managing it as opposed to
pride in beating the odds.
think that's possible?
It's going to be a slow thing. But if you
look at all the other things where we've changed our culture in the United
States in the past 30 years, it's just absolutely remarkable. We've changed
our attitude toward integration and civil rights. We've changed our attitude
in the American culture toward safety. Cars, in the 1960s, did not have
seat belts. We've changed our attitudes about smoking. We've changed our
attitudes about drinking and driving. All of these things are dramatic
cultural changes. And we can change our culture and attitude in aviation,
I think that if we want to continue as
an industry, we have to admit to ourselves that we don't have a liability
problem. We have an accident problem. The insurance companies and the
rest of society will no longer accept the accident rates that we've historically
had in general aviation. In order for this industry to thrive, we absolutely
have to cut down our accidents. And the way to do it is to change the
culture of general aviation.
if you "changed the culture," as you say...a pilot could do an excellent
job of risk management and do everything right and still get killed.
Yes. And someday you can get struck by lightning.
But you can also minimize your chance of being struck by lightning. We
used to say when we took off in the Cessna 340, in which if, at the moment
of takeoff, you had an engine quit, the chances of doing that successfully
were small. We'd say, 'Lord, give me 60 seconds.' If I can keep this thing
going for 60 seconds, I can probably extricate myself. Well, there's going
to be times when the engine quits within that 60 seconds and you're just
going to have a bad day. Just like there are times, driving a car, when
a drunk driver comes out and hits you head on. So there are some risks
that you just can't control. But there are a lot of risks that you can
control. I'm willing to accept those risks that I cannot control in general
aviation, but I'll also say that there are a lot of things that we can
control, and what we should not do is tell ourselves that general aviation
is safe, because then we're ignoring the risks that we can control.
a culture, or even changing how we talk about the safety or risks of flying,
is a tough challenge. What's motivating you to put so much energy into
The thing that drives me to be passionate
about this subject is that I think people who fly are magnificent. They
are willing to take on risk and stress, they're willing to do something
that requires an extended commitment, over a long time. And then, after
months and months of effort you finally take someone to see your airplane,
and they say, 'What, only one propeller? You expect me to get in that?'
So you don't do it to impress other people. You do it because it makes
a profound impression on yourself. It changes the way that you look at
yourself forever. It changes how you identify who you are, forever. These
are wonderful people. These are special people. It wouldn't bother me
so much if people I thought were complete idiots went out and hurt themselves.
But these are capable, achieving, responsible people. And that's why I
want to change the culture of general aviation.