Many question the safety of “little airplanes.” By the way, they are only “little” until you have to wash and wax them; then the smallest airplane suddenly appears similar in size to a Boeing 747.
General aviation aircraft have always been safe – extremely safe. In fact, flying privately owned airplanes is a great deal safer than the public may ever realize. Then why do so many crash? Are there a lot of crashes, or does it just seem so? Why are there constantly stories in newspapers or on television about airplane accidents? It seems as though aircraft accidents always make the six o’clock news and the front page of the paper, no matter how insignificant or minor the accident.
The sad truth is this: about 40,000 people die on the nation’s highways each year. Typically, less than 500 (per John’s comment and research below in the comments) die in all aircraft accidents in the same period. Today, only one or two people may perish in all airplane accidents in the entire United States (these fatalities are from all categories of air travel including the airlines, the commuter airlines, corporate aviation, charter operations, and privately owned aircraft). During this period, however, more than 109 Americans will perish on American highways! Yet, do those 126 individuals have the story of their demise plastered all over the front page of the newspaper? Is there news at eleven regarding the deaths of those lost on the roads? No! Why?
The reason is this: as a society, we have come to accept death on the highway as a part of life. Highway fatalities are sad, but commonplace. An airplane crash on the other hand, is usually a spectacular, sometimes fiery event that thankfully, does not happen often. Consequently, airplane crashes, no matter how minor, make the news because the accident sells papers and draws many to the evening news.
Regarding the safety of small airplanes, the first and most important characteristic of safety is the operator. The degree of safety in general aviation is directly proportional to the operator of the vehicle. Just as with small boating, the careless skipper usually gets into trouble. If, however, the captain of the vessel is knowledgeable in the rules of the road, skillful in the handling of the craft, and avoids unnecessary risks, the predictable conclusion of the sail is never in doubt. The same applies to general aviation and flying “little airplanes.”
In general aviation, as with other avocations or careers, the intelligence level of the participants runs the typical bell curve — at each end of the curve, there are the two percent very gifted and the two percent who should never be allowed near an airplane. All the rest of us fall into the 96 percentile making up the middle of the curve. Consequently, if you study the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) accident files on general aviation mishaps, you will find the NTSB attributes the many of the incidents and accidents involving light aircraft directly to decisions made by the pilot-in-command. To be more specific, many times the NTSB cites the pilot’s poor judgment as the cause of accidents.
As with any other sport, activity, or career, flying is only as dangerous as you make it.
©2013 J. Clark
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