Aviation is not without risk. That’s probably obvious to you at this point. But having risk doesn’t mean aviation is unsafe. Far from it. And the best part of the equation is that the pilot has a disproportionate ability to control the risk.
Unlike driving a car, where our fellow citizens can easily ruin our day with one wrong move, the safety of flying is often directly related to the pilot. There are times when we experience mechanical problems, but these make up approximately 17 percent of total noncommercial fixed-wing accidents and only 10 percent of noncommercial fatal fixed-wing accidents. That leaves more than 80 percent of accidents that were either unknown or directly related to pilot error. And many of those can be avoided.
Obviously a large portion of our pilot training is directed toward learning how to avoid accidents. Practice emergency procedures, stall practice, go-arounds, and even takeoffs and landings are all drilled into us over and over again in the hopes that we will avoid problems with these phases of flight after we get a certificate. Clearly we’re not terribly successful.
These are statistics, and you are an individual. Just because most accidents are directly attributed to the pilot doesn’t mean you’ll have an accident or hurt yourself. Our accident rate is somewhere between 4 and 5 per 100,000 flight hours. Those are pretty good odds. But you’re trying not to become one of the four or five. There are just a few things that even low-time pilots can do to avoid their accident exposure.
1. Learn how to take off and land. This sounds so basic, but the majority of accidents come during takeoff or landing, especially when a crosswind is involved. Don’t make the mistake of taking the checkride and thinking you are safe with a 5-knot crosswind limitation. Get so good at landing and taking off in a crosswind that you can handle it up to 10 knots or more. The technique to handle crosswinds is the same regardless of the wind strength. Learn it once, and practice applying it in various conditions with a CFI. If you are a takeoff and landing pro, you’ll wipe out more than 40 percent of all your accident risk.
2. Put fuel in the airplane. Again, this isn’t rocket science. If you carry enough fuel, stop short when things aren’t working according to plan, and burn from the correct tank, you’ll erase another 6 percent.
3. Don’t buzz your house. This remedy is a little more obscure. It refers to an accident category called maneuvering flight, which includes things such as necessary but poorly executed turns in the pattern, low-altitude flight, and aerobatics by untrained pilots. Half of the 67 maneuvering accidents in 2009 were loss of controlled flight at too low an altitude to recover. No stall practice in the world will help if you stall at 100 feet above your house in a steep turn. Taking out the poor judgment associated with these accidents will further reduce your accident probability by almost 6 percent, but more importantly, almost 50 percent of the fatal accidents.
There are many other things to consider, such as weather, the descent phase, and those pesky mechanical failures. But the bottom line is that if you are smart about your flying, you acquire some basic stick and rudder skills for takeoff and landing, and you put gas in the airplane, you cut your chances of having an accident by more than half. All of this data is available in the Air Safety Institute’s annual Nall Report.
How does that compare to other activities that involve risk, such as riding a motorcycle, driving–or for some people–cooking? Unfortunately very few industries track the sort of data that aviation does. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says there were 16 fatalities per 100,000 licensed drivers in 2009. That’s an apples-to-oranges comparison, but it gives an idea of scale. The same agency claims motorcyclists are 37 times as likely to be in an accident, which is sobering.
Regardless of how you compare it, I think flying can be considered a relatively safe activity, with the caveat that safety is almost completely in the hands of the pilot. Be smart, get some basic skills, and the chance of having an accident during your flying career is very slim. But be a cowboy and ignore the risk, and the picture is quite different.–Ian J. Twombly