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Light Aircraft (Safety)

Volume 130: debated on Thursday 31 March 1988

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Ryder.]

11.2 am

I am grateful for this opportunity to speak about the safety of light aircraft. I do so as deputy chairman of the Air Safety Group, an organisation on which are representatives of all the main political parties. If 1988 is anything like previous years for light aircraft accidents—by "light aircraft" I mean aircraft below 5,700 kg in weight — there will probably be at least 200 accidents, some of which will be fatal.

In 1987, 56 people were killed in crashes of that sort. On the face of it, that sounds like a large number of accidents until one realises that there are about 4,000 aircraft in that category. Nevertheless, the chances of being killed in a light aircraft are 46 times greater than in a commercial jet. A total of 200 accidents, even if they represent only 5 per cent. of light aircraft in operation, is a high number and in recent months I have tried to discover whether there are any similar features in light aircraft accidents that call for remedial action. To some extent, I think that my research has paralleled that of the Civil Aviation Authority, the inquiries of which proceed.

In a press release in October 1987, Mr. Christopher Tugendhat, chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority, said about last year's figures:
"Whereas fatal accidents involving UK public transport aircraft are very rare, the fatal accident record for light aircraft operated by private individuals and flying clubs has shown a disturbing increase."
He went on to say:
"I am asking a CAA task force to analyse these accidents to see whether there are any common threads and if anything can be done."
This morning I want to suggest some steps that should be taken. I do so after talking to private flyers, those who run flying clubs and the accidents investigation branch of the Department of Transport at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough.

The first and most surprising discovery I made during my investigations was that there is no legal requirement for light aircraft owners to have third party insurance. Obviously, some pilots have that as well as personal accident insurance. However, despite the number of accidents to which I have referred, insurance remains an optional extra. I find that disturbing. After all, light aircraft crashes often cause fatalities not just to the pilot and his passengers but to members of the public.

To give one example, in September 1985, at Fordingbridge, a microlight aircraft that had been flown to a school fete crashed when taking off from the fete. It killed a woman and injured her child as well as five other people in the crowd and the pilot. The pilot was not insured. As it happens, it was the first microlight crash in which a member of the public has been killed in this country. I refer to it solely because it illustrates the hazards inherent in private flying and the reason why third party insurance should be a legal requirement. In fact, had that pilot taken out third party insurance, it would have cost him £120 per annum, and, if he had personal accident insurance, that would have cost a further £500 per annum.

Of course, insurance will not prevent crashes or save lives, but it means that victims of such accidents can receive compensation. I commend to my hon. Friend the Minister the suggestion for compulsory third party insurance for private pilots.

When I visited the accidents investigation branch at RAE Farnborough, it told me that on average there are about 150 reportable accidents a year involving private light aircraft, including club aeroplanes. A reportable accident is one in which there has been a death or serious injury or in which the aircraft was missing or has been badly damaged. If someone has been killed, the accidents investigation branch sends out a team to the site of the crash for a field examination a report is submitted to the CAA. Roughly four months later the accidents investigation branch will publish an account of the crash in its bulletin. That bulletin is widely circulated among aircraft operators, flying clubs and manfucturers. However, private pilots will probably not see it unless they are a member of a club.

To obtain a private pilot's licence, the would-be pilot has to undergo a medical examination before he or she obtains a student pilot's licence. He will probably go solo after 10 to 15 hours training and will receive his licence after 40 hours in the air. Once he or she has received their PPL, they will be required to fly for at least five hours a year, in fact during a 13-month period. Depending on when they fly the five hours, it would be possible for them to fly those hours within a two-year time frame. However, those five hours are meant to be a refresher course, proving that the pilot is keeping up to date with the requirements of his aircraft, modern air space and aircraft regulations.

It must be anybody's guess as to whether five hours in 13 months or over a period of two years is enough to ensure that a pilot maintains his skills and remains fully conversant with the flying scene. Most flying clubs will not allow their members to use their aircraft if they have not flown during the previous three months. However, as long as a private pilot notches up his five hours in those months, he will continue to possess his licence and be entitled to fly.

That position does not exist in America, although there is much more private flying there. In America, private pilots must have a check-up with a qualified instructor every two years before they can continue to fly. That seems to be a sensible procedure that I suggest we should follow.

I have already referred to the medical examination that every would-be pilot must have before being given a student pilot's licence. When he obtains his PPL, assuming he is under 40 years of age, he will not be required to have another medical examination for five years. When he is between 40 and 50 years of age, he will have to have an examination every two years, and only when he is between 50 and 70 will he be required to have an annual health check-up.

Perhaps such wide intervals up to the age of 50 are acceptable and based on medical advice, but an annual medical when a licence is renewed would not seem to be unreasonable, particularly as 60 per cent. of light aircraft accidents are put down to pilot error, while only 30 per cent. are put down to mechanical failure, and the remaining 10 per cent. are put down to other reasons, of which attempted aerobatics make up a sizeable chunk.

Pilot error brings me back to the airmanship of the pilot, his knowledge of his machine and of the elements through which he will fly. Over and again, I was told that weather plays a crucial part in accidents and that, although pilots will have been through a meteorology and navigation test, too often they ignore weather conditions unless they are flying club aircraft. In that case, they can fly only if the chief flying instructor agrees; otherwise the decision to fly is the pilot's. He may or may not have an instrument rating. He may or may not possess effective information about the weather conditions into which he will fly, but if he decides to go, he may do so.

I have not seen a breakdown of accidents showing the extent to which weather is a contributory factor, but I know that icing on wings has caused several crashes. That leads me to ask whether the present meteorology exams are still enough and whether something more should be put in their place.

My hon. Friend the Minister knows that private aircraft are not required to be equipped with radio transmitters, although most modern aircraft, other than microlights, have them. It is a safety measure. Those to whom I have spoken seem to want to leave the situation as it is.

Club aeroplanes are maintained on a transport category certificate of airworthiness, which is to a higher standard than that required of a private pilot, who is allowed to do a certain amount of maintenance for himself. There are 50-hour checks and 100-hour checks. I said that club maintenance is to a higher standard than that which is required of a private pilot, but it depends on enforcement of the regulations.

Last summer, I flew to France in a club aeroplane. I was surprised to find that several instruments were malfunctioning. Our pilot, who happened to be my nephew, got us to Abbeville and back safely. When we arrived home at the club, another pilot and his family were waiting to fly the aircraft somewhere else. Nobody checked the instruments. Presumably that pilot, too, handled an aircraft with malfunctioning instruments. It illustrated the point that perhaps the CAA does not police private flying as scrupulously as is required.

It is inevitable that, in a short debate such as this, I shall have overlooked certain points that also contribute to aircraft safety. I have not referred to drunken flying, yet there is no doubt that it is a contributory factor to accidents. It is reasonable to ask whether we use our air space to ensure maximum safety for commercial aircraft and privately owned small aircraft, and whether club airfields are properly equipped with radar. Perhaps, as our air space becomes more widely used, the time has come to consider a measure of re-regulation, and to take a searching look at the general safety of light aircraft and those who fly in them.

11.13 am

The House will be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) for introducing this subject. I pay tribute to his work as deputy chairman of the air safety group. He rightly said that commercial aircraft safety is at a welcome, high level. The general problems of those using light aircraft, often referred to as general aviation, deserve as much attention as those of us who fly as commercial passengers. Obviously, the regulatory regimes are different. I am glad that my hon. Friend acknowledged the role of the Civil Aviation Authority. Again, its competence and responsibility deserve praise. It does a good job on behalf of the people of this country.

My hon. Friend drew attention to the increase in the number of fatal accidents. In 1987, the number rose to 25. From 1981 to 1986, the number fluctuated between 13 and 20. The significance of the increase has been considered by the civil aviation study group.

I shall tell the House about the CAA's present views on light aircraft safety. Parliament has entrusted to the CAA all aspects of aviation safety regulation. It is for the authority to determine what steps are required to ensure safety in this important sector of aviation. The Government wholeheartedly support the CAA. Regulatory experience and expertise rests with the authority. I am grateful to it for providing me with factual material for today's debate. I shall arrange for the authority to respond to any points that I may not be able fully to answer in the available time.

May I press my hon. Friend the Minister a shade further on third party insurance? If there were to be such a requirement, would it entail legislation, or could the CAA make such a request to him?

That is exactly the sort of point to which my hon. Friend may get a detailed response later. The owner or operator of an aircraft is strictly liable for injury or damage to people or property on the ground. That is covered by section 76 of the Civil Aviation Act 1982. As my hon. Friend said, there is no legal requirement for an owner or operator to have insurance. It is for an owner or operator to decide the level of insurance for third party purposes.

It is worth noting that most owners and operators are fully insured. All United Kingdom airlines take out insurance to cover all risks. The vast majority of general aviation is also covered. It is believed that most sporting aviators and private pilots have cover. We shall be grateful to see any evidence that people can provide to the CAA or to the Government. It is the type of issue that Parliament should consider.

Towards the end of 1987, the mounting total of United Kingdom light aircraft accidents began to cause concern in the aviation community. The CAA set up a study group to investigate the scale of the problem and to decide whether there were common causes. The group was required also to identify regulatory and other measures that could be expected to halt and reverse the undesirable trend. I may have to double-check the number of fatal accidents in 1987. I am not absolutely certain whether the total is 25 or 29, but I shall clear up that point. The difference may be the four microlight and helicopter accidents.

My hon. Friend referred to one microlight accident. The CAA investigation concentrated on the major group of powered fixed-wing light aircraft. It was considered that the operating environment and handling characteristics of helicopters and microlight aircraft differ from the main group in so many fundamental ways that their inclusion would hinder analysis. The analysis set out to determine the precise scale of the problem and to relate the significance of the relevant 25 accidents to past records. I shall pass over some of the details of that, but it will be in the CAA report that will come out shortly.

A statistical analysis was applied to the observed variations in accident counts in specific areas, such as technical and weather factors. No individual factors were found to be significant. In summary, the CAA's statistical work at the end of 1987 suggested that the rise in accident figures for the year may have been significant. The CAA's interpretation was that, based on previous data, the figures were somewhat higher than what one might expect. Satisfactory analysis to verify or to refute the interim interpretation would require accurate figures on hours flown.

The study group found no grounds for complacency. Other major aviation countries, such as the United States of America and Canada, have significantly reduced their general aviation accident rates during the past 10 years. In the same period, the United Kingdom's rate has remained at a fairly constant but higher level. It might be expected that figures for the United Kingdom would, at worst, mirror international levels. There is a clear implication that positive measures to reduce the future United Kingdom accident rate must be implemented.

The group agreed that, irrespective of the final, accurate trend determination, there was a need at present to continue the search for significant accident causes and to develop proposals for remedy. I am sure that the group will be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury for raising the issue in the House.

Four major activity problem sectors have been identified and examined in detail—multi-engined aircraft accidents, weather-related accidents, accidents attributable to technical causes and private — non-club —accidents. Those problem sectors matched the concerns that my hon. Friend mentioned and I am sure that the House will appreciate the research that went into his speech and the way in which he raised the issue.

The selection filter for those areas was simply the fact of their relatively high frequency of occurrence in the 1987 statistics. Specific remedial action might logically be expected to be the most cost-effective.

In all those investigations, the most common recurring theme was "error of judgment." The group felt that general and particular issues should be addressed in the search for improvement. That implies an examination of the pilot error aspects of accidents, with particular emphasis on the need to improve the general level of decision-making made by light aircraft pilots. It also takes account of the four main problem sectors and calls for more specific examination of the factors affecting them.

The CAA concluded that additional general aviation regulation was not likely to be effective in the pursuit of improved decision-making because strict adherence to existing regulations would have eliminated a high proportion of the accidents. The basic problem is determination of the causes of lack of adherence to regulations and the development of remedial proposals. Without them, the imposition of additional regulations would be irrational and probably nugatory.

When pilots fail to adhere to existing regulations they do so either because they have personality problems prompting them to disregard constraints or because they are unaware of the existence or significance of the regulations. In either case, the remedy lies primarily in better training and education and only partly in a more vigorous application or policing of existing regulations.

Despite some concern that has been expressed by the general aviation community, no correlation was established between the weather-related accident count and recent changes in the aviation meteorological services in the United Kingdom. It was accepted that the service can provide all necessary information for safety operations. There is a recognised need to ensure that all general aviation pilots are made aware of the details of the modified service. Action already taken by National Air Traffic Services should largely cover that need. Many pilots operating outside club environments are not easily accessible for information distribution services, but a solution to this problem is needed.

The development of an effective system for preparation and dissemination of appropriate further education material requires more attention. It is improbable that such a programme could he effected without additional cost, and that may be difficult to justify in the face of current debates about the CAA's regulatory responsibility for non-commercial aviation activity.

There is a body of opinion in the sporting and recreational aviation community that supports the concept of self-regulation for such activities. It is argued that such flying is a sport, with no more or less inherent risk than others such as motor cycling, mountaineering, skiing or sailing, and that light aviation should be subject to no more regulation than is applied to those sports.

The view of the CAA is less sanguine. Aircraft in flight over land are regarded by many on the ground as a noisy, physical threat. They share the United Kingdom air space with growing numbers of public transport aircraft, so uniformity of regulation is essential for the continuing safe conduct of flight operations. There is no possibility that this necessary uniformity could be achieved by the fragmented system implicit in the self-regulation concept. The CAA retains the responsibility for aviation affairs right across the spectrum. Included in that responsibility is the duty to establish and sponsor such aviation safety promotion activity as is deemed necessary for a reduction in the accident rate.

The authority cannot provide services for nothing; it is responsible for the health of the whole industry. If it is accepted that recreational flight is a foundation for the commercial structure, it must follow that the limitations of possible cost recovery from general aviation cannot justify a reduction in involvement. The cost will have to be recovered from the industry as a whole.

The further education need also became apparent in the study of accidents to pilots operating outside the flying club environment. Identified causes for 50 per cent. of accidents to the non-club set were miscalculation of aircraft capability and navigation-weather problems. These same problems accounted for only 25 per cent. of the accidents in the club-associated set. The conclusions to be drawn from that disparity must be tempered by the smallness of the sample. It is reasonable to infer that in some respects the non-club set is more at risk than the club-affiliated set. The distribution of safety promotion material must be adjusted accordingly.

The analysis of multi-engined aircraft accidents showed yet again that errors of judgment lay at the root of most of the accidents. Some seven of the 11 pilots involved were professionally licensed and, consequently, subject to regular periodic performance testing. The further examination of the causes of this apparent professional inadequacy will be dealt with by the CAA flight operations inspectorate. There is a suspicion that the current aviation boom has already caused a reduction in the mean experience level of pilots at the air taxi section of the industry, and that may be becoming apparent in accident levels. Consideration is being given to reappraisal of approval and checking requirements to allow for those reduced experience levels.

In the remaining non-professional sector, it was felt that lack of checking was unsatisfactory. As my hon. Friend said, a twin-engine aircraft rated pilot may remain continuously rated-licensed with only five hours flying per year, including one twin-engined aircraft flight. Under such undemanding circumstances, it might be expected that the impact of the original training lessons would be reduced by the passage of time and the shortage of continuous experience. Nor is it likely that such a regime could provide sufficient opportunity for refresher training in sectors such as asymmetric flight. Within the club environment, there may be reasonable continuous performance monitoring, but the private aircraft operation outside the club is under no constraint except self-discipline.

The group felt that the number of loss-of-control-after-engine-failure accidents was strong evidence in support of a requirement for a more positive and formal system for verification of continuing performance adequacy. Proposals will be made for the introduction of such a system, and this is the only sector in which new regulation rather than further education has been seen to be desirable. Those words will provide some reassurance to my hon. Friend and they show that he has put his finger on one of the more practical issues in which change is likely to be made.

Absolute safety is unachievable. There will always be an element of risk in flying. The aim of the safety regulations must be to attempt to reduce that risk to an acceptable level. Legislation by itself will not improve safety unless it reinforces what is generally agreed and accepted as being good practice. The most effective way to improve flight safety is through better education in its broadest sense. It is also the most expensive solution.

The CAA report on general aviation accidents is more comprehensive than can be outlined here. At present it is on CAA internal circulation for comment and should be made more widely available by the end of next month.

Anyone reporting this debate would be well advised to recognise the distinction between "General Aviation" and "general aviation", as most of us as fare-paying passengers would regard it. Many involved in the light aircraft world apply their skills in an acceptable way. The relatively small number of accidents is welcome. It was the increase in the level of accidents in 1987 that caused concern. It is right to pay attention to any trend that appears to be out of line and I am sure that the House will agree that our aim should be to make the United Kingdom one of the safest countries in the world in light aviation, in the same way that we are on the roads.