5 min read

Someone called my attention to an Avemco-sponsored newsletter that makes some ridiculous assertions. One is that aviation publications do not accurately report on the safety record in general aviation, painting a brighter picture than exists. Only this newsletter tells it straight.

That is a sanctimonious and incorrect observation. I have been writing for aviation publications since 1958 and have continuously editorialized about the poor safety record in general aviation flying. I have even been accused of making it look worse than it actually is.

NTSB slide

The NTSB says “personal” flying is far more dangerous than “business” flying. Is it true?

It might be true that associations have downplayed the unfortunate safety record but I think even that is getting better.

Worse, the newsletter perpetuates the myth that personal flying has a far worse safety record than business flying by like pilots in like airplanes on like missions. Business flying is defined as that flown by a nonprofessional pilot for business reasons.

That myth is supported by NTSB graphs showing what they call the relative records of personal and business flying. It shows the fatal accident rate in personal flying to be four times worse than in business flying.

The simple fact is that nobody knows how many hours are flown for business and how many hours are flown for personal reasons. Thus any reported accident rate for either activity is fiction and anybody who repeats it without verification is making a mistake.

All business flying is for transportation so the only comparison that would have any meaning would be between transportation flying for business and for personal reasons.

I have done more research on the accident records than anyone and learned long ago that there are few absolutes. The safety potential of any flight is affected by countless variables, none of which relate to whether a flight is for business or pleasure. I have read every fatal accident report issued since 1958 and have never seen any indication that there is a safety difference between the two activities.

One variable that I have seen mentioned is the pressure on a pilot to “get there.” This, though, would exist in both forms of flying. There would be no difference in wanting to get to Thanksgiving dinner and wanting to get to a big meeting to close a big deal.

I have developed accident rates for individual airplanes, using hours flown by type from Aircraft Bluebook, fleet size from Vref, an aircraft value reference, and personal examination of the fatal accident records.

Fatal accident rates vary widely among types that are used for both business and personal flying, accurately reflecting how the airplanes come out while being used as they are by the pilots who fly them. There was nothing found in this research that suggests any difference in risk between using these airplanes for business or personal reasons.

For a fact, the Cessna 172/Skyhawk has the best record that I researched at .56 fatal accidents per 100,000 hours and it is probably flown more than other airplanes for personal reasons. (It does fly in instructional flying which has a stellar safety record but that is a relatively small use of a huge fleet of 172s.)

The worst airplane is the Cessna P210 with a rate of 2.33 per 100,000 hours and it is more likely flown for business. The overall general aviation fatal accident rate runs at about 1.20 per 100,000 hours according to the NTSB.

Cirrus crash in water

The airplane was owned by the business, but was it on a personal trip? Who decides?

In some years, twins have a higher fatal accident rate than singles, according to NTSB numbers. Keep in mind that singles also include experimental airplanes which have a worse rate than certified airplanes. Twins are also more likely to be used for business flying. On the flip side, twins are also faster so the fatal accident rate per mile would be better.

I suspect that disdain for personal flying has some background in the oil crisis of 1973. Because of an Arab oil embargo, the politicians tried to scare everybody silly about the availability of fuel. Draconian cuts were threatened for general aviation.

Russ Meyer, who would later head Cessna, led the fight to preserve our fuel supply. One of the keystones of his strategy was to show that most GA flying was serious business and vital to the national economy. Pilots flying for personal reasons almost felt like they had to take their peanut butter and jelly sandwich along in a briefcase and never smile when within 500 feet of an airplane.

The business about business has persisted over the years with many campaigns championing the increased productivity that is available if you fly for business. That is all well and good but personal flying can add a lot of increased productivity to your lifestyle.

Something else precludes rational thought on this subject. If a person flying an airplane owned by his business crashes on a trip to the beach, business flying likely gets credit for the hours and personal flying gets credit for the wreck. I am sure nobody who uses a business airplane has ever flown for monkey business but that remote possibility could skew any numbers on the subject.

Recreational flying is a different matter. Everything is in the personal column there and when pilots seek enjoyment by playing with their airplanes it opens up a wide variety of hazards when compared with transportation flying. The risk here is easily managed by flying the airplane well within its envelope but, sadly, many pilots fail to do that.

It is my thought that the risks pilots want to take are their own business. There is great personal freedom to be found in flying and that is as it should be.

Really, all flying is private or personal flying, too. The company that took delivery of the first Gulfstream G650 bought the airplane because somebody wanted it, not entirely because somebody truly needed it. Few businesses would own an airplane unless the manager or management wanted an airplane. That makes it all personal which means the business/ personal comparisons relate only to the deductibility of the flight for tax purposes.

My contention is that this has no relationship to the relative safety of a flight. What do you think?

Richard Collins
10 replies
  1. EJ
    EJ says:

    Is there a better way to look at this whole aviation safety issue? As a late comer to aviation, I find it especially frustrating that there seems to be no reliable way to assess its real risk. The comparison to driving is especially irritating. A poorly maintained car might have the engine quit. In driving, this leads to a tow. In aviation this leads to a forced landing and chance to kill yourself. The root cause is not the inherent danger of flying — it’s the inherent danger in flying in a poorly maintained airplane. Does that make driving safer?

    I know that the emphasis on safety is important, but it feels misplaced when generalized the way it is. Statements in the aviation press about how the flight is more dangerous than the drive might be statistically accurate and appeal to (i) some pilots’ morbid side; or (ii) some pilots’ desire to be thought of as dare devils who are just braver than the rest of the population, but how helpful are statements like these really?

    The first 50 hours after I got my private certificate were spent doing cross countries so I could get my instrument rating right away. I switched instructors when I realized that the CFII I was using didn’t have sufficient weather flying experience to work with me on using the place for travel, after getting my rating, I still fly regularly with my CFII, I read everything I can get my hands on about weather, including the excellent work of Mr. Collins, I bought my own airplane so I can control maintenance and work with a great mechanic who is also my instructor (so he knows the plane and flies in it regularly), get out in bad weather with my CFII including actual IMC and cross-winds, etc, and just about anything else I can think of to limit the chances of making my wife a widow, or worse, hurting her when she flies with me.

    I’m writing this because I think that quite a few older people who get into aviation approach it the way I do. This is a great target market for aviation as an industry because if we get snagged, there’s a better chance that our children will get the bug as well. Yet, the safety reporting is so imprecise and instills such dread that it’s amazing anyone would even think of doing this.

    Personally I’d like to see the statistic that corrects for fuel exhaustion, poor maintenance, poor weather briefing, flying into conditions you shouldn’t be in (VFR into IMC, lack of recurrent training, not flying when you’re tired or sick, and the other things that pilots do to decrease the safety of flying.

    After we get that statistic out there, it would be nice if the aviation press would start to use it once in a while. Then maybe we could focus on some of the good stuff too.

    • John
      John says:

      I agree that the safety stats make too many generalizations to be meaningful. Flying an airplane is one of the most complex things you can do (one of the reasons it is so satisfying/interesting) and as a result the reasons behind accidents vary widely..this whole idea of ‘margins’ that Collins has preached for decades is useful stuff, but the level of risk accepted by pilots and ‘acceptable margins’ varies wildly (from maintenance/weather/fuel reserves/recent time/winds/night/runway lengths ..it goes on and on…).. my take is that ‘type of flying’ means little in comparison to ‘type of pilot’….

    • John Townsley
      John Townsley says:

      “Is there a better way to look at this whole aviation safety issue?”

      I think so. EJ mentions “risk” in the post. It’s really clear to me that pilots who engage in aviation have vastly disparate risk preferences. Some of us are comfortable accepting the risk of flying in mountains where off airport landings are difficult and have high potential for injury or death. Others do aerobatics. Some like back country airstrips, and others just like to fly someplace to get a $100 burger. How is that different from other modes? Boating? Is venturing into 8′ seas and 25-30 kt winds a “safe” practice in an open 19′ boat? Maybe. How about cycling on a mountain road with no shoulders and lots of trailer + RV traffic? Hiking in bear country after dripping bacon grease on your boots? Winter driving with bald tires? I know well off, smart, educated, people who do one or more of these things.

      To me, the U.S. obsession with aviation “safety” looks like a media fed, bureaucratic effort to establish (without saying so) an industry wide standard of “acceptable risk”. As a society, many people engage in “risky” activities that might result in an accident. Bungi jumping, wing suit gliding, road biking, motocross, bicycling, scuba diving, bull dogging, mountain climbing, rapelling, snow shoeing, nordic or downhill skiing, horseback riding, and even dog training have a higher risk of accident that flying in a transport category aircraft under FAR part 121. The big difference is media coverage, and therefore political pressure to “do something” to “fix it”.

      • James Adams
        James Adams says:

        Roughly speaking, as a private pilot flying a fixed wing aircraft about 100 hours a year for personal reasons, you will have about a one in 1000 chance of being involved in a fatal accident in a given year. If you avoid drugs, alcohol, flying VFR into IMC, don’t run out of fuel, and don’t overload your plane you will do much better. But the end result is that as a private GA pilot your chances of dying in an accident (any accident, from automobile to falls to drowning to flying,etc.) in a given year is about 3 – 4 times higher than the average (non-pilot) American.

        Am I ok with that – yes. The overall total accident rate in the US is so low that even with a multiple I don’t feel threatened. In fact at that level my chances of dying in my plane, car, or bathtub are still less than my chances of dying from a heart attack or cancer (I’m 57). Below a certain threshold (and we are way below that) focus on risk can sometimes be counterproductive. It will lead to avoiding an activity rather than refining it. I am extremely safety focused, but I am not overly risk averse. I prefer to work hard to improve my chances but I will not hide on my sofa and spend my life watching television, which I fear is what the media, public, and government would have us do.

        “It seems to be law of nature, inflexible and inexorable, that those who will not risk cannot win.” John Paul Jones

  2. Steve Phoenix
    Steve Phoenix says:

    I would agree that there is no difference between “business” flying and personal flying safety unless you make the distinction of business flying with professional crews. Professionals generally do better no matter what the activity is; flying airplanes, building airplanes, building houses or fixing the plumbing, pros generally do better.

  3. David B
    David B says:

    So after calling someone else sanctimonious, our author says “I have done more research on the accident records than anyone”.

    The words Pot, Kettle and Black come to mind!

  4. Aaron H
    Aaron H says:

    I have to respectfully disagree with you Richard, I do not believe that GA has a poor safety record. When you compare fatal accident rates for all transportation related activities, GA composed less than 1% of all transportation related accidents. Recreational boating is more than 30% more fatal. Even bicycling is more fatal. Sure, I agree that many GA accidents can be avoided (fuel exhaustion is the biggie that comes to mind) but people still run out of gas in their cars… It just seems like there is this dipole in aviation between cost and regulation and safety falls somewhere inbetween

  5. Kayak Jack
    Kayak Jack says:

    As I recall, “errors” fall into two categories: 1. Acts of God, and 2. Human error. Some of us would like to think that our human errors are actually part of category# 1, but no deal.

    Some accident reports include “material failure”. Seems to me that is a subdivision of category# 2. A part was not made, maintained, or used good enough. Human error is an entire field of study.

    We can take lots of steps to reduce incidence of human error, but no one has ever successfully removed it from the equation. Maybe the reason is category# 1. We humans are an an act of God ourselves. That indicates to me that error is a basic component of our makeup. Making mistakes is an inherent part of being human. I’m not opening a discussion on religion here, only recognizing our inherent human condition.

    We make mistakes. Some of us are better at that endeavor than others. That’s why there are no old, bold pilots. While we need those who push the envelope, we can also expect that the risk they assume will thin their numbers. We may have survivor guilt, we may have to explain what went wrong, and we may benefit or lose from their exploits.

    Fact is, since we are human – it will continue.

  6. Bellanca
    Bellanca says:

    I’ve gotten into this before with the author, unpleasantly, but comparing distinct populations of flyers (or aircraft, namely the interminable single-v.-twin argument) without a control group is pointless. It is not statistically valid, and merely looking at every accident report since 1958 cannot produce a generalizable observation.

    To compare and contrast these modes of flying, one would have to have a sample set of individuals who flew both for personal and professional reasons, and their personal and professional missions would have to be analogous if not equivalent. Then one could examine their outcomes and potentially derive an insight. Obviously no such sample exists, and therefore the author is attempting to exchange (or requesting others exchange) opinion for observation.

    Typically, people who fly for business have training, equipment and resources that exceed those available to recreational or personal flyers. They also fly different missions with different profiles. I don’t see the point of trying to even ask this question, while referencing lots of NTSB report reading as though that will provide objective insight.

  7. Kayak Jack
    Kayak Jack says:

    John Townsley sez: ” The big difference is media coverage, and therefore political pressure to “do something” to “fix it”.”

    An adage in management says that, “Whatever gets paid attention to gets fixed.” So, when the press highlights aircraft accidents, they both sell copy (primary incentive) and can possibly feel good about bringing social improvement (secondary incentive).

    Every action has consequences – some intended and others unintended, some good and others bad. Does the press care one way or another? Maybe. And, maybe the tooth fairy is coming tonight.

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