Is flying safe?

I most often hear this question from prospective pilots and their families. It’s also the question that comes up most often at a party if someone finds out I’m a flight instructor. The question starts from a perception (driven mostly by media reports) that these “little planes” fall out of the sky with regularity. What is true is that every small plane crash is news. That should be an indicator that the event is unusual. Most car fatalities hardly merit a line in the newspaper noting who died, because we kill 30-40,000 people annually in the US in motor vehicle accidents.

To answer the question, we first need to understand what it means to be “safe”. Let’s examine a few examples of how you might refine the question…

Is flying without risks?

Most definitely not. Flying has inherent risks that must be managed. We’ll talk more about these in a bit. The same is true of almost any mode of transportation.

Is flying a small plane as safe as flying on the airlines?

No. Over almost any measure and recent time period you can come up with, flying with a US air carrier is the safest way to get from point A to point B. It is safer than taking a boat, train, bus, bicycle, or walking. What you should understand from that is that flying, in and of itself, is not where the risk exists.

Is flying safer than driving?

Probably not, but how much so depends on what you want to measure and what assumptions you make about the data.

You might ask about deaths per participant. In the US, you can estimate that every person in the US is a motor vehicle participant (roughly 300,000,000); of those, 30,000 die. That means you have a 1 in 10,000 chance each year of dying as a result of a motor vehicle accident. For flying, there were about 400 fatalities in “general aviation” in 2009 out of an estimated population of about 600,000 pilots in the US. That would give you a 1 in 1,500 chance, but the 600,000 number only includes pilots, not their passengers. You can argue that the average pilot takes several non-pilot passengers during the year, but at the same time, it is not clear that every “current pilot” is really flying, so it again depends on assumptions.

Another number of interest would be fatalities per some measure of the amount of exposure. For non-commercial airplanes, that number was estimated as 1.3 fatalities per 100,000 hours of flying and 1.3 fatalities per 100,000,000 vehicle miles. So, how do you reconcile those? It would be hard to argue that those numbers are equivalent. The average airplane is not flying 1000 miles per hour, but is certainly flying more than 100 mph, so I’d say airplanes are worse on this account, but maybe by a factor of five.

For comparison, riding a motorcycle is estimated to be 34 times more dangerous than being an occupant of an automobile.

Quality Matters

So why shouldn’t a fatality rate that might be five times higher than in a car worry me? One simple word… “control”. In a car, many accidents are caused by someone else. While defensive driving can help mitigate the risk, there’s only so much you can do. It’s unfortunate that “pilot error” rates so highly as a cause, but it means you can affect the outcome. Avoid some of the common pitfalls and you should have every expectation of having a long, safe flying career. Basically

  1. Get good training
  2. Stay proficient (keep on practicing and learning)
  3. Avoid risky behavior
  4. Know your limits (and those of your aircraft)
  5. Fly aircraft that are properly maintained and fueled

References and notes

1.3 deaths per 100M vehicle miles traveled: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_motor_vehicle_deaths_in_U.S._by_year

Nall report for 2009 general aviation accident data: http://www.aopa.org/asf/publications/10nall.pdf

Amateur-built (aka home-built or kit-built) aircraft are estimated to have a fatal accident rate nearly 5 times higher than factory-built (aka certificated) aircraft.

Motorcycle accident estimates: http://www.iii.org/media/hottopics/insurance/motorcycle/?table_sort_739024=7

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