58
$\begingroup$

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.?

$\endgroup$
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @Krumelur Due to the simplicity of most essential glider technology technical failures are quite rare. Just about all of the risk there is human factors related. $\endgroup$ – yankeekilo Dec 20 '13 at 10:08
  • 20
    $\begingroup$ @Krumelur The converse argument certainly favors gliders: The more engines you have the greater the chance of an engine failure. Gilders are thus inherently safe, as they have no engine to fail :-) $\endgroup$ – voretaq7 Dec 21 '13 at 5:43
  • 12
    $\begingroup$ No problem. Every pilot considers himself or herself above average. $\endgroup$ – xpda Feb 3 '14 at 6:09
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ @Krumelur: there's an old adage for private planes that goes something like, "when the first engine fails, the second will fly you to the accident site." $\endgroup$ – Ed Griebel Mar 20 '14 at 17:55
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ And gliders have glide ratios of anywhere from 20:1 to 50:1 or more. Most airplanes are in the 10:1 to 12:1 range. And then there's the worst glider in the world with a glide ratio of 1:1. $\endgroup$ – rbp Jan 2 '15 at 0:36
59
$\begingroup$

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.

$\endgroup$
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Was the question specific to single engine aircraft? Can we generalize that single engine = private aircraft? $\endgroup$ – Michael Dec 20 '13 at 8:38
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ @Michael: not a bad question. There are also a lot of incidents involving light twins and asymmetric power flight (e.g. training, engine failure, etc.). Are these cases substantial enough to make a significant difference between single engine accident data, compared to all private operations? $\endgroup$ – Qantas 94 Heavy Dec 20 '13 at 9:02
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Could you cite your source? I'm curious/hoping they'll have numbers for commercial flight operations as well. $\endgroup$ – Jeff Bridgman Jan 14 '14 at 2:47
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Although the risk may be 19x over driving, 1.2 deaths per 100,000 hours still seems awfully safe to me. I don't imagine I could amass 100,000 hours in my lifetime, no matter how much I flew, and if I did, I'd expect to die only once? Sounds like a pretty safe deal to me. $\endgroup$ – abelenky Jan 29 '14 at 21:30
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ But I don't want to die in 137 years! This is probably the best number, though - people fly when they shouldn't, make bad decisions, and fly badly... but they also drive when they shouldn't, make bad decisions, and drive badly. $\endgroup$ – Jon Story Nov 21 '14 at 16:55
44
$\begingroup$

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?

$\endgroup$
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ As an aside I have a delightful personal "Risk Management" story I'd be willing to share if there's interest in setting up a site blog at some point. It involves two legs of a flight, a mechanical issue, and two radically different risk profiles. $\endgroup$ – voretaq7 Dec 22 '13 at 9:38
  • $\begingroup$ The argument could be made that each flight and each drive is as safe as the pilot wants to make it. $\endgroup$ – Steve V. Jan 13 '14 at 2:11
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ @SkipMiller You are always accepting some level of risk when you undertake any activity - even walking along the street on a sidewalk is not free of risk. When you've eliminated the risks within your control you've maximized safety to the extent possible when undertaking an activity. The only way to eliminate the risks outside your control is to not engage in the activity, which is always an option, but it would be so boring :-) $\endgroup$ – voretaq7 Jan 29 '14 at 20:52
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @SteveV.: not really as far as driving goes as there are far more drivers on the road that I can't control compared to the ones (me) that I can. $\endgroup$ – Ed Griebel Mar 20 '14 at 17:58
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @JonStory hourly accident rates are certainly useful, but passenger-miles are more universally comparable across modalities: the gross distance from Farmingdale to Albany doesn't change, but times can vary widely between aircraft, train, and car. (Time varies within modalities too: A Cherokee will take much longer than a Meridian to make the trip.) A better measure might be the "per trip" accident rate, but that's much harder to quantify. $\endgroup$ – voretaq7 Nov 21 '14 at 17:06
20
$\begingroup$

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'.

$\endgroup$
  • 8
    $\begingroup$ lol, don't know that I completely agree, but I will say, I'd never fly with a pilot who I've ever heard utter a phrase that starts with "Watch this!" $\endgroup$ – Jay Carr Feb 11 '14 at 1:48
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ I wish I could cite sources, but at an AOPA Safety Seminar, I remember Phil Boyer saying something to the effect of "we need to stop saying that driving to the airport is more dangerous, unless you're riding a motorcycle. Statistically, flying an airplane is about the same risk statistically as driving a motorcycle," and then he went on to cite the actual percentages and all that. Again, I don't have sources for stats, but I think its fitting with your analogy :) $\endgroup$ – Canuk Apr 9 '14 at 3:26
  • $\begingroup$ @Canuk That would only apply to private flights though $\endgroup$ – Cloud May 4 '18 at 9:39
  • $\begingroup$ @Cloud well yeah, the OP was asking about "flights in a small plane" which I assumed he was talking about flights in small, private aircraft. $\endgroup$ – Canuk May 7 '18 at 5:40
0
$\begingroup$

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.

$\endgroup$
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Looks like we've got ourselves a nonflyer, boys $\endgroup$ – boulder_ruby Jul 8 '16 at 15:59

protected by Federico Jan 2 '15 at 10:28

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.