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Time to Change How We categorize Accidents

Perhaps the time has come to overhaul how we categorize aircraft accidents. Our understanding of accident causal factors has dramatically changed over the past ten years but there is a mismatch between causes and categories. Though we now recognize (and admit) that nearly all accidents result from human error at some level, I think it would be helpful to analyze and report on the probable human factor cause.

One of the most respected statistical analysis of aircraft accidents continues to be the annual Nall Report. A tremendous amount of thought and statistical work goes into the document. Understandably, the categories are in line FAA and NTSB accident categories. Accidents are carefully sorted by aircraft category, class, phase of flight, flight condition and other factors. I am not saying that this is not valuable information. But I think it would be helpful if the government agencies and civil organizations would take a step back and really look at the categories.

For example, if an accident is categorized as controlled flight into terrain (CFIT), do I really care very much if the airplane was engaged in a commercial or non-commercial operation? Do I really care if it was a single or multiengine airplane? I am much more interested in the circumstances that led the pilot to collide with terrain. Was the pilot fatigued, impaired by alcohol or drugs, suffering from chronic or acute stress, feeling pressure to accomplish a flight when scud-running was required?

Implementing this system would require a slightly different approach to accident investigation. In the case of the CFIT accident, the NTSB report will include great detail on the wreckage, right down to which control cables failed due to impact. I realize that for some accidents, we need to make sure that mechanical failure did not contribute the accident. But if a pilot flies into a mountain during cruise flight at cruise airspeed, I am much more interested in what was involved in the pilot's decision making than the detail of where the various aircraft parts ended up. If accident investigators were directed to delve deeper into the pilot's recent actions and were sufficiently trained to look for human factors causes, we could begin to categorize accidents in a more meaningful and useful way.