Is Flying Dangerous?

Is Flying Dangerous?

There I was at my local airport café being pummeled by anti-aviation propaganda. "Flying is dangerous," said an experienced (and easily overheard) instructor on the other side of the room speaking to a table full of relatively new pilots. I heard this once, then again and finally three more times before lunch ended. "It won't be long," I thought, "before he convinces his charges that a trip by airplane guarantees them a trip in a hearse." His words made me feel uneasy, as if I had just sat down to eat at the Sum Ting Wong Chinese restaurant.

What motivates some of us to say such things? Is it true? Is flying really dangerous? If it's not, then how much influence does a pilot have over his or her safety when piloting an airplane? Let's look more closely at these questions.

The instructor was well intentioned. He, like others, believes that we can reduce accidents by telling pilots that aviation is a dangerous activity. Recognizing that it is, so the theory goes, compels aviators to behave sensibly. This, of course, explains why the Surgeon General's warning on a pack of cigarettes sends all first-time smokers running from stores, screaming, while disarming themselves of lighters, matches and cigarette holders, right?

I don’t think so.

If safety were simply a matter of informing pilots that aviation is dangerous, we'd have very few accidents. After all, the media are very good at keeping us aware of just how dangerous they think aviation is. As a pilot, however, I don't ever recall the satisfying and refreshing feeling of enhanced safety after reading my morning newspaper. As it is, I fight a constant battle to keep these (mostly) sensationalized stories from infecting the brains of my fellow aviators, thus robbing them of the pleasures flying offers.

Besides, pilots know that they can get hurt in airplanes. Anything involving height  and speed offers the potential for injury. Our everyday terrestrial experience confirms this. By the time we're adults, most of us have either fallen off a roof or ricocheted off a sliding glass door (events that often occur without a loan shark being involved). Few, if any of us, are uninformed about the perils of impact.

Homo sapien du jour. 

On the other hand, we dishonor (if not completely dismiss) our ability to fend for ourselves as pilots when we speak of aviation as being dangerous. It's far more accurate and responsible to say that aviation has risks, which Webster defines as a chance of harm. While aviation has risks⎯and lots of them⎯I can do something to manage these. If flying was dangerous (and I don't think it is), then the only logical response would be to avoid airplanes with the same passion that most of us avoid Hungarian-Gaelic folk tunes. Fortunately, aviation safety doesn't mean we should avoid airplanes.

According to the NTSB, approximately 75% of all accidents result from pilot error. If we include all those events over which a pilot had direct or indirect control but failed to properly exercise it, the number is much higher. Speaking only of general aviation accidents, I can't help but feel that 95% (or more) result from something that pilots either did or didn't do. In other words, they failed to manage the risks properly. 


As a society of aviators, it takes great courage to admit that 95% (or more) of the time we're not only our own predators, but our own executioner, as well. I doubt that any of us feel good when the pilot is found responsible for an accident. But isn't this better than wishing the accident resulted from something beyond a pilot's ability to prevent? 

Even events that pilots can't prevent don't always spell curtains for everyone on board. For instance, proper training can minimize the chance of harm if a piston decided to leave the airplane (an extremely rare event). If this happens when you're over a tree or boulder strewn environment, all is not lost if you know how to let the airplane and environment absorb the energy of impact. Don't know how? Then read Mick Wilson's book, How to Crash an Airplane and Survive.

Indeed, there are events harmful to a pilot over which he or she has no control. There just aren't as many as we think. The ones we're most likely to consider are so rare as to make them almost irrelevant for discussion, much less contemplation. 

For instance, a fellow pilot once asked me how I would prevent being hit in the clouds by a non-ATC controlled airplane while I'm on an IFR flight plan. I said that I would do what I've always done to handle that problem: I wouldn't think about it. In 31 years of flying I've never heard of a general aviation accident like this. I'm certainly not going to start worrying about it now.

Please understand that I am not attempting to minimize the harm or injury that might happen to pilots who behave carelessly or refuse to be properly trained. Pilots can get and do get hurt. Their fate, however, isn't a matter of luck⎯one of the most misleading words in aviation's lexicon. In a single compression, these four letters reduce all that makes us good⎯knowledge, training, experience and wisdom⎯and dismisses them as irrelevant to our well being. Too many pilots have flown safely for too many years to suggest that luck is responsible.

Aviation safety is a matter of choice, not luck. That's why there are no luck management courses for pilots. That also explains why the head of NASA-Dryden once said that his test pilots are probably safer in the air than the pedestrians roaming that facility's tarmac. The folks at NASA leave very little to chance. Neither should you.

Yet it's our chance of injury that is most often cited by those who want to impress pilots that aviation is dangerous. On several occasions I've heard it said that a trip by an airplane is many times riskier than a similar trip by car. While I can't deny that the numbers support such a claim, I can cast doubt on their relevance to proactive pilots. 

If you're unable to exert any influence over a statistic, then its numerical value offers a means of estimating the dangers you might expect. On the other hand, if you can influence the statistic, then its numerical value tells you where you should exercise this influence.

Let's suppose you book a flight on Chuck's Discount Airlines. Chuck happens to do his own maintenance, which explains why an engine always quits when someone flushes the loo. It also explains why every flight is numbered 50-50⎯these are the odds. The chance of your flight experiencing a problem is one out of two, and there's nothing you can do about it once you're airborne (other than blockading the restroom, of course). If these odds are unacceptable to you, the wise thing to do is avoid this airline. In other words, don't try your luck with Chuck.

Comparing the statistical safety of airplanes to automobiles is more meaningful to those who cannot (or will not) attempt to influence the safety of their flight. Most pilots, thank goodness, don’t fall into this category. While the airplane-automobile statistic might be meaningful for helpless passengers, a proactive pilot should find it of little value. If you'd like a statistical measure of your ability to fly safely, compare yourself to those who've flown safely for many years, not to automobile drivers.

Aviation isn't dangerous to those who choose to actively manage the risks of flying. Unfortunately, those who crash airplanes most often do so because they fail to select this option on a given day, not because of events that were inevitably beyond their control. Telling pilots that aviation is dangerous in hopes of modifying their behavior is a cure that's worse than the disease. As the sole means of behavior modification, it has little if any positive effect, yet it is likely to frighten off those who might otherwise experience a lifetime of safe flying.

If we desire to use a pithy phrase to modify a pilot's behavior, it's probably better to say something other than flying is dangerous. Perhaps Mark Twain can help. He once said that's it's better to be cautious a thousand times than to die once.

We have that choice. Let's make it.

© Rod Machado 2015




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