As part of a nationwide campaign to reduce the accident rate in general aviation, federal regulators will hold their first safety workshops in Southern California on Saturday to educate private pilots, flight instructors and mechanics.
Of special concern for the Federal Aviation Administration is a category of general aviation involving experimental aircraft, which includes homebuilt planes, vintage aircraft, aerobatic planes and former military aircraft that are now in civilian use.
According to the FAA, these aircraft in the last five years have represented about 5% of the total hours flown by private pilots nationally, but are involved in 22% of all fatal accidents.
Agency officials also say that after decades of improvement, the fatal accident rate for general aviation has stubbornly remained about the same since 2000.
"We need to get back to basics," said FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt, a former airline pilot. "The system is generally safe, but we can make it safer."
The local workshops, which involve public outreach and safety courses, are part of the most comprehensive safety programs the FAA has launched in its history for general aviation.
In addition to experimental aircraft, the category applies to law enforcement planes, private jets and propeller planes as well as non-scheduled passenger and cargo operations.
The local events will be held at 8 a.m. Saturday at the Neighborhood Community Center, 1845 Park Ave., Costa Mesa, and at 10:30 a.m. at the Experimental Aircraft Assn.'s hangar, 501 Aviation Drive, at the Camarillo Airport. The FAA has scheduled another workshop for April 30 in Hawthorne. Information is available online at http://www.faasafety.gov.
During the programs, FAA officials stress the need for professionalism, thorough preflight inspections of aircraft, maintaining proper control while maneuvering and staying on course at planned altitudes and airspeeds.
The national initiative will hold about 100 programs across the country this month, the first of which was held April 2 in Lakeland, Fla. The goal is to reduce the accident rate in the general aviation community by 10% during the next decade.
"We want to get every pilot to approach their flights as if their lives depend on it because it does," Babbitt said.
Statistics from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Assn. show that the overall accident rate per 100,000 hours of flight has been reduced about 75% since 1960 and the fatal accident rate about 60%.
During the last 10 years, however, the overall rate has increased slightly from 6.6 accidents per 100,000 hours of flight to 7.2, while the rate of fatal accidents has held steady from 2.1 to 2.5.
"The accident rate for general aviation has improved significantly since the 1950s," said Chris Dancy, a spokesman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Assn. "Today, the total number of accidents are down and so are the number of flight hours. But the accident rate has not improved."
At 22%, the highest percentage of fatalities in general aviation nationally is found among experimental aircraft. In the FAA's Western Pacific Region, which includes Arizona, California, Hawaii and Nevada, 20.6% of all fatal accidents involve experimental planes, but their pilots account for almost 18% of all hours flown in the region, a fatal-accident rate lower than the national average.
"You need constant education and constant learning to make sure you are as ready to fly the airplane as the airplane is ready to fly," said Dick Knapinski, a spokesman for the Experimental Aircraft Assn., a national organization.
The association disputes the FAA's accident rates for the experimental category, contending the flights of large general aviation aircraft, like corporate jets, are often different and should not be compared to those of recreational planes that maneuver regularly and might make several takeoffs and landings during a trip.