In the November issue of Pilot I made reference to the fact that I flew over Lake Michigan on my way to Oshkosh in the sweepstakes Archer. Recently I received an e-mail from a member who felt what I did was foolhardy, displayed poor judgment, and was a “stunt.” The message got me thinking about what the risk really was and whether I had put myself and my passenger at risk and not properly exercised my position as PIC.
During the flight, I figured I was beyond gliding distance from shore for 10 miles. The Archer had less than 100 hours on a newly overhauled engine, it was summer VMC, and I had plenty of fuel. David Kenny, the statistician for ASF, ran some numbers and found that there were roughly 500 accidents and incidents last year in which the airplane quit producing thrust for one reason or another. Only 250 of those were evenly remotely attributed to mechanical error beyond the pilot’s control, and that is probably a stretch.
According to Kenny, the latest FAA survey of GA flight activity found a total of 24.4 million hours flown last year. Factor in the engine failures with the time I was beyond gliding distance from shore, and the chances that the engine would have quit in those 10 miles works out to something like one in 400,000 to one in 750,000.
To put that number in perspective, the chances of being struck by lightning have been reported as one in 600,000. The odds of dying on your bicycle? One in 4,919. The odds of dating a supermodel? One in 88,000 (don’t ask how they came up with this one). The point is, it’s highly unlikely the engine would have failed during that 10 mile gap. But the idea of it happening is so scary, so unnerving, that it caused someone to write in and say I was crazy.
The broader question is obviously how much does real risk equal perceived risk? To me, flying over Lake Michigan felt more comfortable than flying through rural Pennsylvania in the winter. Others would never fly to the Bahamas, the Keys, Catalina Island, and other wonderful places if they couldn’t fly beyond gliding distance from shore in a single.
But this is only one judgment call. We make hundreds a year in airplanes that other pilots may find suspect. I’ve heard of airline pilots who won’t fly a single engine airplane at night. Other pilots maybe wouldn’t fly if it’s 3,000 overcast. It seems as though personal minimums are only the beginning of the story.
So was I crazy? What is smart in an airplane and why? Do the stats justify the perceived risk? In many cases, I don’t think so.
Tags: Ian Twombly