Thank you, Ed [Stimpson, President of GAMA] for your perseverance in trying to arrange a meeting for me with your Board of Directors. I'm glad we finally were able to get together.
I don't have to tell you about your importance to our nation's aviation industry and to our nation's economy, but I will tell you about your importance to us. Two years ago I was pleased to meet with your Accident Investigation Subcommittee, and I can assure you that they provide a vital and, I might say, indispensable role to our general aviation accident investigations.
As you know, our investigators are generalists, and with an agency as small as ours, there is no way we can have specialists familiar with every aircraft model. We need your expertise to provide in-depth knowledge of your aircraft, just like we appreciate the assistance given us by Boeing, Douglas, General Electric, Pratt and Whitney, and other manufacturers during our investigations of transport category aircraft accidents.
I know you are sensitive to the fact that we need your best expertise, and your objectivity. We need to know that you are sharing all pertinent information with us, including information on previous difficulties to your aircraft that might be relevant to our inquiry.
Your companies have been generous in supplying technical manuals, in opening the doors of your facilities to us for operational checks and engine teardowns, and in reading out data recovered from maintenance trend analysis recorders.
And you provide a direct service to the American people through the hands-on training our investigators get at your facilities.
We appreciate the fact that your investigators want to provide the best face to your products; we have no interest in challenging public confidence in your aircraft. But we have a responsibility to our bosses, the American taxpayers, to reach an independent and impartial determination of accident causes.
I know that you agree with this philosophy because we have been working with your investigators for years and they have presented themselves as a completely professional corps. In fact, we know you have some of the best investigators in the world; we know that, because some of them used to work for us.
Our cooperation over the years was a major reason that we had seen a steady improvement in general aviation accident rates for about two decades. Where once there were about 15 accidents for every 100,000 flight hours, that rate was cut in half by 1990. Since then, though, the trend has begun moving the other way.
The accident rate for the last 5 years has been, respectively, 7.98, 8.71, 9.05, 9.09, and an estimated 10.33 in 1995. That is almost a 25 percent increase since 1990.
This is a disturbing trend, and one that I have directed my staff to investigate. General aviation is the only segment of the civil aviation industry that has shown a rising accident rate.
So far our analysis indicates that, while we need to determine what has caused this rise in the accident rate, we can identify some factors that mitigate the severity of the trend.
First of all, the actual rates are published as I've given them to you, but recent experience tells us that the latest figure -- 10.33 accidents per 100,000 flight hours -- might not be accurate. It is, after all, preliminary, but more importantly, if its final adjustment is similar to what occurred to the 1994 rate, it could be significantly lower.
In 1994, the preliminary accident rate was 9.47. This was based on 21 million flight hours estimated by the FAA. The final exposure data released by the FAA later in the year showed almost 900,000 additional flight hours, thus lowering the accident rate to 9.09. This means that the original rise in the accident rate was exaggerated by a factor of 10. In other words, what originally looked like a 4.6 percent increase in the accident rate was actually a 0.4 percent increase.
We will learn in a few weeks when the FAA releases its final number of flight hours whether a similar statistical adjustment occurs for 1995. Through the end of June this year, the raw number of accidents is running about even with last year, although fatalities are down 10 percent.
There are two other factors that you, as general aviation manufacturers, might take comfort in when trying to determine the cause of the rise in the accident rate.
In 1995 the Safety Board assumed its new authority to investigate all public use aircraft accidents. This meant that, instead of investigating 10 to 20 public use accidents, as in previous years, in 1995 we investigated 39. The FAA does not include estimated flight hours for public use aircraft in its statistics, therefore the added investigative work is not offset by a commensurate increase in exposure data.
Also, in 1995 we had an approximate 10 percent increase in experimental aircraft accidents, a segment of the aviation industry that only peripherally involves GAMA members.
Nevertheless, we had 76 more general aviation accidents in 1995 than in 1994. None of the factors I've discussed would account completely for that rise, so there is no cause for any of us to be complacent about the numbers.
To the general aviation industry's credit, it has not taken the accident trend lightly. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association has been very open about discussing the trend and alerting its members to it. And your organization has not been avoiding the subject either. I commend you for your refusal to ignore a negative trend; this speaks well for our being able to put an end to it.
The Safety Board's Office of Aviation Safety looked at accident causes in recent years to try to find an area that is contributing to the trend. The bottom line is that none could be discerned.
Since flying activity has been decreasing in recent years, lower pilot proficiency might be expected, which would lead to more takeoff and landing crashes. This was not the case.
Since we have an ageing general aviation aircraft fleet, perhaps airframe or engine failures might be increasing. This also was not the case.
It appears more study is needed. I've asked my staff to come up with the best way to look into the accident trends, whether by safety study, public forum or industry survey.
I want to briefly discuss two other subjects that were on your agenda at the March GAMA meeting: the effects of federal budget cuts on the scope of our general aviation investigations and the use of the party system when the FAA does the on-scene investigation for us.
I know you have concerns that a leaner federal government will have to reduce its investigative coverage, and that our general aviation program will suffer for this. Let me assure you that the effects of the federal budget cut has, for the short term, not impacted the Safety Board. We will continue to investigate general aviation aircraft accidents with the same in-depth investigations as we are currently doing.
This is not to say that the Board has unlimited funds. In fact, as we approach the end of the fiscal year, our aviation budget is stretched to its limit with the on-going Pittsburgh USAir Boeing 737 investigation, the ValuJet investigation, and now the tragic crash of TWA flight 800 near Long Island 3 weeks ago. We might have to use some of the emergency fund that Congress has authorized to conduct our activities.
Congress is currently working on our budget for next year, but it looks hopeful that we will have an increase in the number of FTEs -- that's Washington jargon for employees -- and the Office of Aviation Safety will receive some of those FTEs to increase its investigative strength.
As far as the party system, we have no plans to alter this effective method of conducting aircraft accident investigations. During the 1980s, the FAA was investigating more than 200 delegated accidents a year. Since 1990, that number has been dropping; we have not delegated any accidents this year.
Our current arrangement is for the FAA to perform the on-scene part of many accident investigations, hand the factual findings over to our investigator for completion of the investigation, and have the Safety Board determine the probable cause. This process provides for parties to the investigation and we will continue to assign them as needed. When one of your members determines that the system is not working as efficiently as it should, contact our investigator-in-charge at the regional office and/or the supervisor.
In closing, let me say that the commitment to safety you have shown through your support of our accident investigations will help bolster public confidence in the general aviation industry. While this might be good business on your part, it is also good public policy and I want to thank you on behalf of the National Transportation Safety Board.
Jim Hall's Speeches