Some people consider flying small planes very dangerous. Just how dangerous is it to fly in a light single-engine plane? For example, how does the fatality rate compare to driving a car, riding a motorcycle, etc.?
I get this question a lot from people who are apprehensive about flying with a private pilot. I'm afraid I won't be reducing these fears in any way. Let's review some general statistics during 2008. Note - these stats aren't specific to light or single engine aircraft:
NTSB reported there were 1.21 fatalities per 100,000 flight hours for private aircraft (Part 91 operators).
NHTSA reported there were 1.26 fatalities per 100 million miles travelled by automobile
We can equate that to about 2 million hours (estimating an average speed of 50mph). This gives us 0.063 fatalities per 100,000 driving hours.
Private aircraft have a fatality rate about 19 times greater than driving. It is also true that a majority of the accidents that occur are pilot error (71%) and could have been prevented.
There are risks involved when taking to the sky as a private pilot and understanding these risks is part of the continual learning process. The key to safety is performing careful planning, keeping current and proficient, knowing when to cancel flights or turn around and not to exceed your capabilities or the capabilities of your aircraft.
Since Geoff took the devil's advocate position, I'll play cheerleader.
If you look at the statistics another way, like AOPA does, you'll find that General Aviation has "about one-sixth as many accidents on a per-vehicle-mile basis" compared to driving.
Or to put it another way I'm 6 times more likely to get in a car accident driving to the airport as I am doing an equivalent number of miles puttering around in the pattern (my drive isn't that far - it's only worth a few laps around the pattern).
So now I've gone and left you with two essentially contradictory answers, both based on statistics from the same source, and both equally valid from a cold, unfeeling, numerical standpoint. But the answer isn't important.
Geoff and I are both really making the same point:
Each flight is as safe as the pilot wants to make it.
The pilot comes up with a plan for the flight, gathers as much information as they can about the weather, the aircraft, the route, etc., and then assess the situation.
They weigh the risks and determine whether or not the level of risk in making that flight is acceptable.
The statistics are useful. Most pilots I know spend a lot of time thinking about them (mainly why they're so lousy, and how we can make them better), but as a passenger remember they lump in the professionals with the students, and the conscientious pilot doing a thorough preflight with the one who haphazardly kicks the tire as he's climbing in for a 500 mile trip as his first flight in 6 months.
Which kind of pilot are you flying with?
Because I'm both a single engine pilot and motorcycle rider, the way I explain risk to new passengers is as follows:
Daytime flight over non-mountainous terrain: Like riding a motorcycle with full gear.
Daytime flight in instrument conditions or over mountainous terrain in clear air: Like riding a motorcycle with only a helmet.
Night flight over non-mountainous terrain: Like riding a motorcycle with a helmet but no headlight.
Night flight in instrument conditions over non-mountainous terrain: Like riding a motorcycle at night with a headlight but no helmet.
Night flight in instrument conditions over mountainous terrain: Like riding a motorcycle at night with no helmet, in the rain, over the speed limit.
Any flight in which the pilot says 'watch this sh*t' - Like riding a motorcycle at night with no helmet, over the speed limit, while drunk.
Flying a single engine airplane is more dangerous than 'driving to the airport'.
I would probably re-phrase this question as how much 'riskier' flying in a light single engine airplane is as opposed to how much more dangerous one is.
When comparing General Aviation flying in a small, single engine, normal category airplane to a larger, transport category airplane (e.g. A320), both aircraft are subject to essentially the same hazards, but Scheduled air carrier service does have far less risk (the adverse consequences if a hazard is not properly mitigated) than do GA aircraft.
By the numbers, it is undeniable that GA aircraft have far higher rates of both nonfatal and fatal accidents. Aircraft Owners and Pilot's Association (AOPA) estimates that in 2017, GA pilots flew approx. 25 million flight hours that year. The NTSB estimates that for the same year, there were 10.617 GA accidents and 1.977 fatal GA accidents per 100,000 flight hours. As a yardstick, the death rates per 100 million passenger miles applied to all passenger vehicles on the road is somewhere in the neighborhood of 0.6. The airlines, with only four deaths over the past 10 years of operations, don’t even chart. The NTSB also concludes that the death rates of airline passengers per 100,000 flight hours are statistically nearly zero.
The tremendous accident rate of general aviation can be attributed to a number of factors:
- Part 25 Transport Category Aircraft used by air carriers are certified to a much more stringent set of standards by governmental regulatory agencies.
- Scheduled Air Carriers (SAC) operate far more stringent maintenance programs than are required by law for GA aircraft.
- Scheduled Air Carrier flights are planned and prepared by teams of people specializing in meterology, fuel management, flight planning, air navigation, etc.
- SAC flights are crewed by pilots who hold a far more stringent Airline Transport Pilot's Certificate and often have far more flight time logged in all kinds of conditions than do their general aviation counterparts. In addition they are required to be type rated on the aircraft they fly, which includes annual recurrent training and must hold a first class medical certificate to work as airline pilots.
- SAC flights are conducted under Instrument Flight Rules and always under the guidance and observation of ATC.
- Transport Category airplanes are, for the most part, turbine powered and pressurized, allowing them to operate above most kinds of adverse weather and offer effective anti-icing/de-icing equipment and procedures, both before departure and during flight. They generally are multi-engine aircraft with performance guarantees, even with an engine inoperative, giving them much greater redundancy.
General Aviation aircraft operated under Part 91 recreational flight rules generally don't offer such things for their passengers.
- Pilots often hold no more than a private pilot certificate in the category and class of the airplane they are flying and have only themselves to rely on in order to plan, prepare and execute a flight.
- The airplanes they fly are either maintained by an FBO in which they were rented from or by the owner, often consisting of only an annual inspection for owner operated aircraft.
- They are often flown into smaller, remote and uncontrolled airports and operated around other similarly untrained pilots.
- Small, single engine GA airplanes operate at lower altitude in weather, good or bad, and may have limited redundancy, or takeoff and climb performance, given local conditions.
- recurrent training for most GA pilots is limited, often just to a biannual flight review with the only real emergency training check they have received being when they did their practical exam to receive the pilot certificate so many years back.
- Some GA pilots have a very limited mechanical aptitude or fundamental understanding of how an airplane works and how to troubleshoot problems in an emergency.
- An opinion I have, is that the most dangerous thing in an airplane is a pilot that simply doesn’t know what they don’t know ie simply unaware of what the real hazards are or how challenging an aspect of their flight will be until they get there.
Because of this, it's easy to understand why there is much less risk flying the airlines as opposed to on a GA aircraft. That being said a capable, well informed and knowledgeable GA pilot can conduct a flight in a light airplane in a very safe and in a competent fashion, mitigating the risks faced on the flight with good planning and judgment as well as sound operating practices.
It is well documented throughout history of aviation that over 85% of accidents are attributed to pilot error as opposed to mechanical faults or other phenomena. And, a quick review of general aviation accidents will reveal that the lion’s share of them are attributed to this. Most of the NTSB entries for GA accidents are filled with foolhardy, boneheaded, and incompetent decisions by the pilot, exhibition of hazardous attitudes in their aeronautical decision making, caving to peer pressure or other external influences, and otherwise doing things that they just should not be doing in an aircraft. These things can be insidious; nobody wakes up one day, and decides to go do something reckless and die in an airplane crash. But accident chains of poor judgment, hazardous circumstances have a way of coming together to cause an accident which, if the same person were watching the events from afar, would wonder why anyone would do something so crazy.
“Aviation itself is not inherently dangerous. But, to an even greater degree than the Sea, it is terribly unforgiving of carelessness, incapacity, and neglect.” -A.G. Lamplugh
Flying in a small aircraft is far more dangerous than other methods of transportation (see statistics in other answers). I would not recommend it unless you have a positive reason to use a small plane. Thrill seeking or taking aircraft flights for "fun" is not a good idea from a statistical point of view. I fly strictly for practical reasons and I would recommend that as a general policy for anyone considering flying either as a pilot or a passenger.
Flying in a small aircraft is not as dangerous as base jumping or scuba diving.
Pilot nature, skill and attitude have a large impact on the danger in a flight. Most people get killed in small planes because the pilot did something that was either foolish (like taking shortcuts in the pattern), reckless (flying into storms) or because they panicked. If a pilot acts cocky, that is a huge warning sign.