Ethnographic Research of GA Safety Culture

by jeff edwards

In conjunction with General Aviation Joint Steering Committee (GAJSC) research on measuring, analyzing, and influencing safety culture, a subgroup of experts (“the research team”) conducted ethnographic research using social media for insights into pilots’ opinions and actions with respect to federal aviation regulations, government and industry guidance, and safety.

Past general aviation safety research largely has focused on fatal accidents and attempted to gain insight into pilot behavior and decision-making through inference from post-accident analyses. In contrast, this research involved direct observation of pilots posting about their opinions, actions, and behaviors on websites including,,, Facebook, and YouTube; GA print media; and commercial web-based pilot training sites. The researcher team effectively “stood on the street corner” of GA media and observed pilots’ every day thoughts, opinions, and discussions to provide insights into general aviation culture. 

Summary Notes and Recommendations

  • The research team found several distinct kinds of behaviors indicative of positive and negative safety cultures. Evidence of poor safety cultures was demonstrated by pilots of all backgrounds and certificates, from students to professional pilots. Research suggests that type clubs generally, although not always, have better safety cultures—supporting and encouraging aspects of safe flying. Many social media aviation groups, however, included pilots expressing disdain for regulatory compliance, operating limitations, and operating best practices. Also noteworthy was the overall poor levels of aeronautical knowledge displayed by many, including CFIs. 
  • The research was conducted solely using online sources. The researcher team acknowledges that some of their observations may have related how online mediums (e.g., anonymity) impact conduct and culture, rather than general aviation culture itself.
  • Multiple researchers noted a lack of awareness about authoritative resources for aeronautical information, such as FAA documents and aircraft manufacturer publications. Some comments appeared to suggest an aversion to seeking authoritative information, or an aversion to seeking deeper understanding and knowledge beyond rote answers, and or an aversion to continued training and education.
  • The research team cited a disturbing lack of knowledge and professionalism exhibited by many—in particular CFIs—and suggested that current mechanisms to instill or promote professionalism, such as the mandatory CFI professionalism module in recurrent training, may be ineffective.
  • Multiple researchers observed conversations and conduct suggesting some pilots believe regulations and safety recommendations conflict with “fun flying.” This seemed to suggest a potential misperception by some about the level of risk accepted in certain illegal and or unsafe conduct.
  • Some researchers noted an egregious and disturbing disregard for regulations and safety in videos posted online documenting dangerous flying behaviors. The trend to video exhibitions of dangerous flying behavior likely encourages more unsafe and illegal behavior, in particular in light of a lack of consequences (e.g., FAA intervention).
  • Multiple researchers observed conversations attempting to justify illegal and or unsafe conduct as legal and or safe. Some seemed to assume that conduct that may be permissible under the regulations must also be safe. 
  • Comments taken from individuals and groups in public forums indicate that GA has much room for improving safety culture. More research is necessary to identify the negative sub-culture(s), the reasons for it and to find ways to positively influence those groups. Future research needs to include lessons learned from this research.

Click the attachment below to read the entire paper, including analysis from individual researchers.