14
$\begingroup$

I have met a few pilots who have flown all their lives without declaring an emergency. Pilots such as these are very rare.

says a Civil Aviation Safety Inspector from Transport Canada, source

enter image description here
Emergency landing off aerodrome, source

So a very simple question, aimed to the real pilots community (from GA to commercial to military, but not at war indeed):

Let's define that by voicing/squawking a mayday or a pan-pan. Is there a lot of pilots that never declared an emergency? Is your experience in line with the statement from this TC inspector?

Note: I'm not asking how many emergencies have been recorded by a safety agency. As written, I'm asking what a real pilot knows about the pilot community from the information they got from an employer, an instructor, practice and relationship, just as the quoted TC inspector. I'm not asking for opinions, but for experience. Last, I don't think this less objective than this, so please be fair.

$\endgroup$
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – Federico Oct 13 '17 at 8:05
7
$\begingroup$

In the airlines, the number of flights where an emergency has been declared is about 1 in 600. In general aviation, it could be as low as 1 in 40 or as high as 1 in 6,000, but it's not "most".

In the airlines:

Poking around Google gives this USA Today story: Medical emergencies occur on 1 of every 604 flights, which references an article in the New England Journal of Medicine.

An answer on a different question on this site provides the following anecdote:

had occasion about a year ago to ask our airline safety department what the most common cause was for declared emergencies in our operation, and was told that far & away, sick passengers (medical emergencies) were #1 by a huge margin, and everything else (which includes all the aircraft-related events) was far down in the weeds in comparison.

(emphasis added)

We'll assume that Ralph J's answer is correct and that medical emergencies are the lion's share of total emergencies. That being the case, the 1 in 600 number is probably accurate within an order of magnitude.

In general aviation:

Since 2001, the NTSB aviation accident database has been remarkably consistent in terms of the number of reports they get:

  • About 4,000 reports per two-year span (until 2013, when it dropped to a little under 3,500)
  • Between 60-90 reports containing the phrase "declared an emergency" within that span

As airline travel continues to be outrageously, shockingly safe, let's run with the assumption that most accidents in the database are non-airline accidents. That being the case, one in 30-40 of accident airplanes (not all airplanes) declared an emergency in a way that managed to make it into the accident report.

That doesn't fit with a fact I found in an AOPA handout though, which says that air traffic controllers provide more than one flight assist per day. "More than" one could be anything, but let's be super generous and say there are 1,000 flight assists per year. Another FAA source says that there were 24 million GA flight hours in 2015. Figure a GA aircraft holds about 4 hours of fuel, then there were around 6 million GA flights in 2015, or one flight assist per 6,000 flights. That throws a wrench into our other estimate, but it also goes against the "very rare" statement of the inspector in the original question.

From personal experience

Anecdotally, I've flown a few thousand hours and I would say that I've heard aircraft on the radio requesting emergency services less than a dozen times. If I had to guess, I would put the number closer to the 6,000 side than the 40 side, but even if 1 in 40 was correct, 39 pilots out of 40 not having declared an emergency seems to contradict the statement of the inspector.

Conclusions

The TC inspector could be suffering from selection bias. If she or he deals with emergencies all day, it seems less likely that she would come into contact with the (seeming) majority of pilots that haven't declared.

$\endgroup$
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ "1 out of every 600 airline flights have an emergency declared" and "1 out of every 600 airline pilots have declared an emergency" don't seem to match unless the average airline pilot makes one airline flight in their lifetime. Am I missing something? $\endgroup$ – Terran Swett Oct 16 '17 at 4:15
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Thanks for the answer. Quick estimate: 1 emergency/600 airline flights x 100,000 flights/day x 365 days x 3 years ≈ 180,000 emergencies in 3 years. Let's say there are 180,000 airline pilots in the world ⇒ every airline pilot will have lived an emergency within these 3 years. Is it correct? $\endgroup$ – mins Oct 16 '17 at 20:30
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @mins - More like "In 3 years there will have been enough emergencies that there would be one for every airline pilot if they were handed out equally." In practice I suppose it would work out to some sort of bell curve? Also, bear in mind that this isn't rigorous analysis and I am entirely untrained in this subject. $\endgroup$ – Steve V. Oct 16 '17 at 20:58
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @SteveV. Might be worth editing the question to reflect that when you have some time? $\endgroup$ – mbrig Oct 19 '17 at 1:39
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @SteveV. Do you have any plans to edit this answer to account for the fact that airline pilots make more than one flight per lifetime? Perhaps you should change "1 in 600 airline pilots" to "most airline pilots". $\endgroup$ – Terran Swett Feb 23 '18 at 18:25

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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