Can anyone point me to statistics on the safety record of gliders vs. single engine general aviation aircraft?

  • $\begingroup$ NTSB Accident Database 2326 entries for "Glider" aircraft type, submitting a request for just "Airplane", 1 engine, and "General Aviation" chokes the result. I'm not sure which statistics you are looking for (total accidents, fatalities, incidents, etc). $\endgroup$
    – Ron Beyer
    May 15 '18 at 19:53
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    $\begingroup$ @Ron Beyer: Accidents per 1,000 flights or accidents per number of pilots would probably be a good metric. $\endgroup$
    – DLH
    May 15 '18 at 20:17
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    $\begingroup$ I think you cannot reasonably compare that because flying gliders has completely different hazards than flying powered planes. $\endgroup$ May 15 '18 at 21:03
  • $\begingroup$ @TimothyTruckle Yes, but which is safer? The hazards are different, but surely one is overall more or less safe. I would think that a standard metric of accidents / x hours of flight time or accidents / x flights would be the appropriate way to compare them. $\endgroup$
    – Lnafziger
    May 15 '18 at 21:32
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    $\begingroup$ Flying both, I actually feel quite a lot safer in a glider. This is mainly because of the ability, once you have acquired a bit of skill, to place the glider exactly where you want to thanks to the flat glide + dive brakes that give a huge range of choices. In a medium performance or better glider, if the tow rope breaks at 300 feet, you can pretty much complete a full circuit. On rope break training at low altitude where you turn straight back, most students are shocked to find the problem isn't making it back, it's not overrunning the landing area with the tailwind. $\endgroup$
    – John K
    May 15 '18 at 22:20

I had three days to burn so I took a look.)

Comparative data was very difficult to find beyond accident counts, so determining relative safety is problematic. No one that I could find tracks or estimates the number of flights/hours for gliders, even the Soaring Society of America, so this is all interesting but essentially meaningless. Even if such data existed, the difference in use models would cause problems making a fair comparison. So now that I've told you this was a waste of my time to compile, I will make you waste your time to read.

If you could extrapolate single mode pilot certificate counts to a common usage basis, flying a glider is 2.5x safer than flying an airplane, but of course you can't.

NTSB accident count for 2017 shows 56x more airplane accidents and 90x more fatal airplane accidents than glider accidents.

  • 271 fatal and 972 non-fatal GA airplane accidents, total 1243
  • 3 fatal and 19 non-fatal GA glider accidents, total 22

US Civil Airmen Statistics shows 18x more airplane only pilots than glider only pilots, with 40-80% of both numbers muddied by multiple certificate pilots.

  • 14k registered glider only pilots
  • 24k registered glider pilots with multiple certificates
  • 260k registered airplane only pilots, excluding ATPs
  • 190k registered airplane pilots with multiple certificates, excluding ATPs

AOPA had a report for 2009 for all general aviation where the accident rate per 100k hrs is 7.2, and a fatal rate for the same of 1.33.

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for putting in so much effort to answer the question! $\endgroup$
    – DLH
    Jun 1 '18 at 15:45
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    $\begingroup$ @DLH It was an interesting question and I was curious. Not every question gets a clean answer. Sorry. $\endgroup$
    – Pilothead
    Jun 1 '18 at 16:50

It is hard to compare because of hours flown... I looked at glider accidents for the last 18 years. There are a lot of non fatal accidents. Fatal glider accidents (no particular order) seems to be in-flight break up, stalls and collision with ground (typically in mountainous terrain). Tow accidents resulting in stalls or loss of control is another critical phase of flight it seems. There are different tows like car, wench and of course tow plane. (I am not a glider pilot but ATP, CFI fixed wing.)

One thing gliders have going for them is the slow stall and sink rate. So even an off field landings should be survivable as the speeds are slow. On the other hand there is not a lot of structure around you. High performance gliders put the pilot stretched out in the very front of the air frame. Fiberglass or Carbon fiber does not bend and absorb impact, it reaches it's limit and ruptures. Aluminum airfares typical of powered fixed wings tend to bend and absorb some energy.

  • $\begingroup$ This is an interesting commentary but I don't feel that this (or the other answer) has answered the question yet. Which is safer? $\endgroup$
    – Cloud
    Oct 3 '18 at 10:23

I found a blog post that answers the question by using commercial aviation as a metric.

General aviation (US)

  • 1 death in 64,000 hours
  • 156x as dangerous as commercial aviation

Flying sailplanes (Germany, France)

  • 1 death in 50,000 hours
  • 200x as dangerous as commercial aviation

The following graph shows the relative difference between sailplanes and powered planes:

Death Probability

Charts and sources at this link.


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