Is Flying Safe?

I receive a wide variety of aviation-related questions from non-pilots such as passengers, students, friends, family, others. Over the years I’ve realized that a fair percentage of them are really asking the same thing: whether or not flying is “safe”, especially as it concerns general aviation.

Oh, not many people come right out and ask it directly. I imagine that’s because few folks wish to posit a question which might be perceived as impudent, especially on a sensitive topic at which they are at a disadvantage. It’s a respect thing. But the question is there, hanging in the midair like a model aircraft suspended from the ceiling.

For example, rather than come right out and ask if flying is safe, I’ve seen the inquiry phrased as:

  • How long have you been flying?
  • Do you fly much?
  • Have you ever had the engine quit?
  • Have you ever had an emergency?
  • Know anyone who’s been in a crash?
  • How much training did you have to undergo?
  • How many hours do you have?

These interrogations don’t always belie a deeper question, but oftentimes they do, even if the individual doesn’t realize it. They want to know whether flying is a safe activity. And who wouldn’t?

Step back and look at it from the neophyte’s perspective. It’s a completely unnatural thing for a human being to go hurtling through the air at high speeds in a loud metal contraption. They’re transported to altitudes where the air is thin, the temperature is cold, and there’s enough altitude beneath their feet that the fall would kill them.

Everything about it says “don’t do this”. They know little of the aircraft’s design, the regulations involved, or the training, experience, and judgement of the pilot. Add in the fact that they don’t understand how something weighing thousands of pounds can magically defy gravity in the first place and it’s a wonder they’d ever consider boarding the aircraft at all. It’s just the sheer fact that so many people do fly and somehow survive the experience that gives them enough confidence to trust their lives to us.

So, dear reader, the question remains: is flying safe? As a pilot you’d expect me to say yes, of course it is. Look at the time and money I’ve invested in my flying. See all the ratings? Look at how thick my logbook is, how many different airplanes I’ve flown, or how much recurrent training I undergo. See how many magazines and web sites about flying I read every month? Check out this medical certificate which shows I’m in good physical condition for flying.

Those things are all well and good. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t change the fact that aviating is not a safe activity. Hell, any fool can see that you can get yourself killed by flying!

The problem is the word “safe”. Webster defines safe as “the absence of risk”. By that definition, flying is not safe and never will be.

But then again, by that definition it’s not safe to drive either. It’s also unsafe to walk down the street, exercise, go to work, stay in bed, cook, dine out, or breathe. Nothing in life comes without risk. Risk of inhaling a germ which will lead to your demise. Risk of a terrorist attack, car accident, building collapse, natural disaster, cancer from sun exposure, drug interaction, allergic reaction. The list is literally endless.

Risk is a part of life, and that’s not something modern-day Americans are inclined to accept (much to our detriment, in my opinion). We are accustomed to a world where risk can be averted through helmets, air bags, crumple zones, seat belts, inspections, and regulations. If that doesn’t take care of it, there’s always insurance, re-insurance, government backstop/bailout, legal maneuvering, or other methodology.

Nobody wants to hear that you can’t keep your kids or other loved ones safe, but it’s true. No matter how much you bubble wrap them, life is a long stream of risk which always ends in death. Perhaps the real question is whether you want to spend your time on Earth wrapped in the aforementioned bubble or get out there and live. If it’s the former, you can stop reading now. You’re done.

If it’s the latter, what you’re really interested in is risk management, and that’s where a good pilot shines. A monkey can learn to fly an aircraft, but it takes a true aviator to manage risk intelligently. After years of teaching people to fly and doing so myself both privately and professionally, I’m convinced that this is what separates the good from the not-so-good. It’s not physical flying skill (although that’s important), it’s not vocation vs. avocation, and it certainly isn’t hours logged. It’s judgement.

No pilot wants to admit that the pilot is the weak link in the system, but statistically it’s true. “Pilot error” outnumbers mechanical failure as a cause of accidents by a ratio of about 9 to 1, and many mechanical failures can be linked back to human error, whether on the part of the pilot or a mechanic.

John King said it best in his interview “Battling the Big Lie”:

We used to teach ground school classes, and through the years, we’ve taught 15,000 people face to face. And you can’t be involved knowing that many pilots without some of them, people you respect and admire, people whom you think are competent, bright people and achievers, going out and hurting themselves, which is a euphemism for killing themselves and their passengers in an airplane. We used to read articles about pilots who had accidents, and we thought, well, you know, what they did was stupid, and I’m a smart person, so I’m probably exempt from that. But what you find is, when you know the people, that they’re not stupid people. They’re bright, achieving people, because that’s who general aviation tends to select.

Through the years, we’ve gradually come to the conclusion that the problem is pilots don’t do a good job of assessing the risks that they’re taking. And our feeling is that one of the reasons for that is that we in aviation have had a long-standing culture of telling people that aviation is safe. We have used the old line, ‘the most dangerous part of this trip was the drive to the airport.’ But statistically, it’s not true. You’re seven times more likely to have a fatality in a general aviation (GA) airplane than you are in a car, per mile. People say, well, per hour is what counts, so, okay, say 3 1/2 times as likely, because an airplane is twice as fast. The point is, you’re more likely to have a fatality in a GA airplane than in a car, traveling the same distance.

Airlines, on the other hand, are 49 times safer than GA per mile. So cars are seven times more dangerous than airlines. So where that old song came from are the airlines. The airlines have a phenomenal safety record. They have turbine equipment they’re flying standardized routes, with more than one pilot, dispatchers to help them out, etc. That’s why they’re safe. General aviation planes don’t meet that record. A Bonanza does not have the same kind of guarantees that come with a transport category aircraft.

If you’re the pilot, you have a high degree of control over your risk exposure. You get to decide what kind of weather you’ll take on, how much of the performance envelope you’re comfortable exploring, how much reserve fuel you’re comfortable with, what aircraft defects are acceptable for flight, and how illness, stress, fatigue, and emotion will affect your go/no-go decision. Yes, there are regulations for each of these items. But as anyone who’s logged more than a couple of hours behind the controls of an aircraft can attest, not everything which is legal is safe, and not everything which is safe is necessarily legal.

If you’re a passenger, you have far less control over your risk exposure when flying in general aviation aircraft, but that’s not to say you cannot control it at all. The biggest decision a passenger makes is whether to go flying in the first place. If you’re unsure about whether to accept that offer of a flight with your friend/spouse/family member, I would recommend considering many of the same items which pilots themselves are taught to look at when assessing risk:

  1. First and foremost, do you trust the judgement of the pilot? If you don’t, nothing else matters. There are hundreds of decisions to be made on every flight, and most of them won’t affect flight safety appreciably. But when a critical one comes along, you want to be flying with a person who shows good judgement. If they don’t display it in everyday life, don’t expect them to start now. You don’t want headstrong, impulsive, anti-authority, or macho.
  2. How much experience does the pilot have? They say good judgement comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgement. We all make mistakes, but the more time a person’s got “behind the wheel”, the greater the odds they’ve made some errors and learned from them. This is not to say you shouldn’t fly with a low-time pilot. They tend to be methodical and safety conscious, but experience is something worth considering.
  3. How recent is that experience? Does your knight in shining armor having thousands of hours of experience? That’s good. If they were all accumulated decades ago, that’s not so good. Flying is a skill, much like driving a car or riding a bicycle. Sure, you never forget how to ride that bike, but after a long layoff you might be awfully rusty. So how much have they flown recently?
  4. How’s the weather? Many accidents are weather related. Just like sailing a boat or driving a car, the odds are better when the weather’s likewise. Poor weather is not a harbinger of disaster, but it is a risk factor worth considering. If the weather’s cloudy, is your pilot instrument rated and current, and is the aircraft equipped for instrument flight?
  5. Is the pilot experienced with the aircraft? Unlike a car, aircraft models differ remarkably from one another. A Cherokee is nothing like an Aerostar or a Baron. So how much time does your pilot have in the aircraft you’ll be flying? And how recent is that experience?
  6. Is the pilot familiar with the route? If he’s flown the route many times, he’s also familiar with alternate landing fields, terrain considerations, airport quirks, and the like. If it’s a new route and/or a new airport, the risk may be higher.
  7. Is there any pressure to make the flight? Repeat after me: you never ever HAVE to be anywhere when you’re flying. No meeting, ballgame, graduation, or wedding is so important that you’d rather die than not make it. Every pilot knows this, but pressure can be a subtle, self-induced thing. Watch for it.
  8. Did the aircraft just come out of the maintenance shop? If so, the risk is higher. Aviation mechanics are good people, but they are also human and as such are prone to the occasional mistake. The first flight after a maintenance event is statistically a time of higher risk.

Look, I’m as big a proponent of aviation as you’ll find — anywhere. But it’s a mistake to whitewash the risks inherent in flying, because it just promotes the false expectation that nothing can ever go wrong. Flying needn’t be a high-risk activity, but hopefully we can all agree that it’s terribly intolerant of carelessness. So let’s acknowledge the risks, analyze and mitigate it where possible, then get out there and enjoy the miracle of flight!

The only purely “safe” alternative is to never leave the ground, and that’s no option for me.

6 comments

  1. Great article Ron. I’ll recommend this to non-pilots who enquire about the safety of GA flight. Or better yet, before they accept ride; with me our anyone else.
    Keep it up my friend.

  2. Nice job! It covers a lot of the same topics I discuss with passengers, and broaches the topic of the pilot being the one that passengers most need to evaluate. Giving them tools to wisely make the decision to fly is critical to making them feel (somewhat) more in control, and thus more comfortable.

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