Is flying safe? Wrong question.

Richard Collins’ latest article stirred up quite a discussion about Cirrus airplanes and their safety record. Amid all the emotions, though, the basic point is hard to argue with: the SR22 has not lived up to the original hype about safety.

That means either Cirrus pilots are crashing too many airplanes or the hype was overblown in the first place. Both are probably true to some extent, but I’d like to focus on the latter because we should know better by now.

Cirrus crash
The airplane is not responsible for a safe flight.

The Cirrus story is nothing new. Every 10 or 15 years, some company declares its new airplane to be a giant leap forward in safety, usually because of how easy it is to fly. The brochures suggest anyone can have a mini-airliner in their hangar and reliably get to business meetings and family vacations anytime the pilot wants. Safety? It’s built-in.

But from the Ercoupe to the Cirrus, reality ends up being less impressive than marketing. Airplanes continue to crash, and for the same reasons they always have, with weather and loss of control usually high on the list. These reasons have a lot to do with the pilot and not much to do with the airplane.

It’s time for the aviation industry to admit the facts–flying is not and never will be like driving a car. For IFR transportation flying in particular, it’s complicated, demanding and certainly not for everyone. And yes, that means you can die doing it if you’re not attentive. A Cirrus is a wonderful airplane; it does not make bad pilots invincible.

But let’s not go overboard either. There’s a growing group of pilots and flight instructors who want to talk about how unsafe flying is, in a misguided attempt to scare us straight. Some of these advocates of the “flying is dangerous” philosophy even suggest flight instructors talk about the dangers of flying on a student pilot’s first lesson so they know what they’re getting into. Think the dropout rate is bad now? Just wait until these CFIs get their hands on some students.

I think this whole “is flying safe” debate is wrong in the first place. Nothing in life is truly “safe.” Even getting out of bed in the morning isn’t risk-free. What makes flying unique is not how dangerous it is, but rather how unforgiving it is. That’s a subtle but very important distinction. Unlike boating or even driving a car, there are no second chances if you make a big mistake in an airplane. You can’t call for a tow when you run out of gas at 8,000 ft., and that should change the way you approach flying.

Specifically, being a safe pilot is all about flying with margins built-in. If the POH says you need 2450 ft. for takeoff and the runway is 2500 ft. long, you have no margin and no chance to try again if something goes wrong. The same goes for weather, weight and balance, fuel planning and countless other things in flying. In fact, much of what we do in training and through experience is to learn where the margins are thinnest and develop strategies to increase them.

The real takeaway here–for student pilots and old pros alike–is simple: flying is as safe as you want to make it. You as the pilot in command control how safe you are, not the airplane (nor anyone else, for that matter). Unlike driving, drunks and 16 year-olds can’t kill you in the air by swerving into you. That’s a good thing if used properly.

No, you don’t control the weather, but you do control when you take off and what route you fly. Likewise, you don’t control how much weight your airplane will carry, but you do control how much fuel to put in and how many passengers to carry. Flying can either be safe or extremely dangerous, depending on the choices you make dozens of times on every flight.

For once, the FARs are actually quite clear on the matter, too. FAR 91.3 explicitly gives the PIC total control over a flight–even the ability to deviate from other regulations if necessary. When the chips are down, the FAA is saying, it’s all about the human in the left seat.

That much responsibility is uncomfortable for some pilots, who seemingly want to pick the right airplane and outsource all risk management to the airframe and engine. But it’s also a very powerful tool, one that many people don’t experience much in everyday life. Indeed, I think it’s one of the most rewarding things about personal aviation.

So is flying safe? That’s up to you. Choose wisely.

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18 Comments

  • The thing about flying is that it’s so different from most people’s day-to-day lives: you actually need to be careful. After a couple of beers you can get into your car (which probably hasn’t had an oil change in six months and has bald tires and bad shocks), and even if you’re cut off by a texting teenager, the airbag will probably save you.

    Defects in the “wetware” (brain) are far more exposed in aviation due to the high energies involved. A pilot’s inability to think ahead of the aircraft is highlighted. If you’re thinking about things other than the flight (e.g., business, family, etc), you shouldn’t be acting as PIC. Either get somebody else to act as PIC, or choose another mode of transportation.

    The FAA tries to address this with SRM, CRM, IMSAFE, hazardous attitudes, etc. But really they’re addressing are symptoms of the underlying issue: your brain isn’t always capable of acting as PIC. Without additional training you’re not even good at evaluating this.

  • I fully agree, flying is as safe as the pilot is willing to be. If your head is in the game, and you allow some leeway room, then flying is safer than the drive to the airport. But if you fool around in the air, leave no room for error, do not plan ahead, and are not thinking about the task at hand, flying is a very dangerous sport. It isn’t the aircraft that defines aviation, it is the human element involved. Flying is only as safe as the pilot is wise.

  • John:
    Good article, and I absolutely loved the caption beneath the accompanying photo: “The airplane is not responsible for a safe flight.”
    My seemingly endless rant about autonomous control systems is designed to alter that captioned current truth. We actually have the technology to make the airplane responsible for its own (and its occupants’) safety. Pilots’ egos are the principal obstacle. I think that’s unfortunate.

  • While I don’t disagree with the article by Mr. Zimmerman nor the previous comments, I think there’s more to be said about Cirrus aircraft. Last summer I attempted to check out in an SR20. I found that the airplane wanted to be landed about like a Bonanza (flat and at about 75 knots, even with full flaps) and as a result it had rather long landing and takeoff distances compared to most other aircraft I’ve flown. Likewise, I found its handling on the ground clumsy witout nosewheel steering (the nosewheel casters, which might be OK for a low speed homebuilt, but not for something as potent as the SR20.)

    Comparing the performance and subjective feeling of questionable safety of the SR20 with alternatives and gauging the very rapid decline in my bank balance, I decided not to complete the checkout.

    I am not a beginner — I have over 900 hours, including more than 200 in Bonanzas. The SR20 has commendable speed for a 200-hp fixed gear aircraft, but its controls are heavy with very short throws, making it easy to overcontrol. While the Bonanza is even faster, its controls are light and linear; for a midle-aged or older pilot it gives a more reassuring feel, although perhaps a young person could be lulled into a false sense of security and crash it for different reasons than the SR20.

    In principle I agree there is inherent danger in any vehicle that can store up enough energy (altitude or speed) to kill its occupants in a fall or sudden stoppage. I don’t think IFR flight is for everyone, although I like it myself. However, it might not be entirely coincidence that there were more accidents in Cirrus aircraft than you’d expect. The airplane is a slick bird with small wing area; that’s why it performs well in cruise. That also means both attitude and airspeed must be controlled precisely when near the ground (departure and arrival). Perhaps that’s too much to expect from the average GA pilot when he’s also looking for traffic and responding to the controller’s request for a “360 for spacing”.

  • John,

    When I do my in-person aviation weather workshops, I set the tone by telling the class that “Safe does not mean risk free.” We know that flying has inherent risks. The problem is that most pilots don’t challenge themselves enough to probably manage that risk.

    I got a call last week from an instrument rated pilot who was looking to do some online weather training with me. I applauded him for taking the initiative to learn more about weather. He said that he’s never really felt comfortable making decisions related to the weather. His CFI told him, “Just go out and get more experience flying in real weather. Experience is a great teacher.”

    Unfortunately, experience isn’t the answer. You will not acquire knowledge by simply gaining more flight experience. Formal training is required. This is not to say that flight experience isn’t important. Flight experience is what I call applied knowledge. Knowledge and experience go hand in hand. It’s a package deal. After all, you can’t have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with out peanut butter or without jelly.

    In the end, those things that we can control must be controlled and exposure to those things we can’t control must be minimized.

  • I agree, wrong question.
    It’s not that flying is unsafe or dangerous, it’s just that it is terribly unforgiving.

  • Flying and motorcycles both have about the same total risk ( according to aviation pundits). The difference is that in motorcycling much of the risk comes from other drivers on the road. In aviation we have much more control over our own risk factors.

    ” the fault …is not in the stars.. It is in ourselves ” Shakespeare

  • Statistics, risk and my much hated word – ‘safety*’ are creatures of point of view and interpretation. John has done a good job of presenting it in a rational light: Risk comparisons. In the end a bad ticker will get most of us and not a splash of hot oil and screaming engines.

    Google ‘top causes of accidental death in the usa.’ neither GA nor commercial airlines are in the list. Motor vehicles, poisoning, falls, fire and choking are the top five. “Preventable’ accidents are a totally different list: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_preventable_causes_of_death

    Then you can break it down to the ridiculous, such as by sex & age to get a subset of lists. GA just doesn’t play a major role in killing Americans south of the 49th parallel.

    Another list puts risk in probability per lifetime. Again, GA is not statistically significant:

    http://www.rexano.org/Statistics/NumberOddsDeathLifeExotic.pdf

    Of course these numbers look at the total population. Restrict it to just pilots and the odds change, but as a group it’s still not significant. Life insurance companies claim otherwise but a few will cover you for a few sheckels more. I take that as a sign that the actuaries don’t live in fear of a rain of pilots careening to their deaths.

    * “Safety” is best defined as a way to reduce the cost of doing business. After a USAF career and most of another one with CAP, ‘safety’ is just a way to build an empire with little effect on accident reduction. Their program includes safety down days and navel gazing.

    Good training and attention to detail are meaningful and produce results, a topic that doesn’t appear on the radar of most safety officers. In war, risk takers with a ‘git’er done attitude’ become heroes. In peacetime they break stuff and get fired.

  • Flying safely has mostly to to with attitude and savvy. Yes, training and experience is important too, but with the above mentioned premises it won´t work.
    I give you an example: Last week at the airport near to our town a “crew” of 4 people peparred a C172 for a joy ride.
    What was wrong?
    – The pilot tried to run the pre-flight check. OK
    – Grandma asked the pilot a lot of questions during the preflight check (which he performed without a checklist).
    – Grandpa took pictures with a heavy foto equipment and tried to coordinate the best picture with all participants of the upcoming flight, including the pilot (still busy with the preflight check).
    – Passenger No. 3 was running around the plan and touching almost everything without knowing what he was doing.
    – All 4 people were full figured and the C172 ahd full tanks (seen befor at the fuel station).
    – The pilot let us know that he has several hundreds of hours in the C172 ans is flying now form more than 10 years.
    – A simple question “does your crew, the plane and the baggage fit well in the Weight & Ballance envelop” was answered with “don´t worry, I am experienced and have ….(please see above).
    Luckily the the flight went fine without problems and now again the experience of the pilot tells him “that´s OK, it worked fine, as always…”
    So is it about training and experience? Or is there more? Flying is more than the skills of “pushing the yoke => houses are becoming larger; pulling the yoke => houses are becoming smaller).
    Maybe I look more to these things because I am student pilot with just a few hours before the checkride but I hope I will continue thinking that way.
    Take care and think for the others too
    Starki (from Germany)

  • Good article, and comments. To counteract the CFI that might tell a student that flying is not safe. Flying is safe, and pilots alike can be safe, but it’s the attitude or mindset that causes a pilot to be unsafe. Remember how much fun it was as a student gathering all the info for preflight, and finally understanding and experiencing how it would affect the flight. Any pilot can exercise patience, make it fun to do it like in the old days, and cover every base possible during preflight and planning. These thoughts and actions can change attitudes, and create safe pilots. Not just knowing how to use the equipment onboard and being current with it, but exactly what to do if a failure occurs. Whats the weather outlook, and current conditions departing, enroute, and at destination? Do I use flight service during my flight, and monitor whats up ahead? Its basic info, right? but, advanced knowledge, and this stuff saves lives.
    Also, taking advantage of courses like the ones that AOPA and the Air Safety Foundation offers with your AOPA membership helps.

  • Great Ole Time Article, John!

    So I say again: Cirrus??; get that chute outta there and those types you are describing will quit trying to take it everywhere and in to everything or won’t get into the business in the first place.

  • I am loving this thread. What is encouraging is that no-one challenges the notion that the most critical piece of equipment in the cockpit is the Mark I human frontal lobe, and more importantly, the attitude module ver. 2.0.

    I am blessed to have a beach home on the shore of Lake Huron. I have spent hours and hours swimming, sailing, power boating on it’s waters. It is therapy; peace in one place.

    But . . . I never, EVER forget that that place, that I love, that my wife, kids and I will have memories of bliss unparalleled . . . can snuff me in a near instant, and without remorse.

    Same with my dear 172. Chariot, companion, passport to freedom, and treated haphazardly, the thing that will kill me.

  • “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself…and you are the easiest person to fool.” – Richard Feynman

  • The article ignores a couple of very salient points. First, 20% (yes, one fifth!) of all accidents have a maintenance root cause. I doubt very much that the number of accidents involving any other mode of transportation even approaches this. While a good pre-flight might catch some of problems, and some pending failures might be caught by instrumentation (like engine monitors), other faults are simply not discernable until the moment of failure. Boys and girls, that ain’t a “safe” situation.

    The second point is that many pilots cannot reliably self assess fitness to fly. It may be hubris, it may be wishful thinking, it may be the undetected effects of a drug (legal, OTC, or ‘recreational’), or it may be the onset of dementia from any number of reasons… but we as a population, do no better than the drivers of cars and trucks in self sequestering ourselves from our machines. As with the first case, “this ain’t a safe situation”.

    Assuming the machine is functioning as designed, AND as the pilot understands it will; assuming the operational environment (weather, controlled airspace, etc.) are as expected; and assuming nothing unexpected or unforseeable (like coming down with the flu) occurs – then yes, we have control of our destiny.

    Unfortunately, this unexpected and unplanned stuff, or the stuff that we wilfully ignore catches up with us the outcome is often not to our liking. When things get difficult, we can’t just pull over and let the weather pass by. We have to land, maybe at a spot and time not of our choosing.

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