4 min read

Pilots spend an awful lot of time talking about safety, and we’re no exception here at Air Facts. Some readers have suggested we actually do it too much–quit the morbid talk about crashes and promote the positives in aviation, they say. All we do is scare potential pilots and passengers. No other industry spends so much time sorting through the wreckage of accidents.

newspaper headline airplane crash

The only time non-pilots hear about general aviation?

It’s worth considering: are we overdoing it with all the safety talk?

I don’t think so. Reading Leighton Collins’ 1944 article on flight training got me thinking about safety and how we appeal to non-pilots–and how completely intertwined the two are. As Leighton said almost 70 years ago, general aviation simply won’t become a mainstream activity until it faces up to its safety problem. Yes, there are plenty of other obstacles to overcome, including how expensive flying is. But as we’ve debated before, there are millions of people who can afford to fly but choose not to. One of the most common reasons these people stay away is safety: these successful people don’t want to risk their assets, their reputations or their lives with something they view as statistically unsafe.

And let’s be honest–that’s exactly what the statistics say. I am a big believer that flying can be as safe as you want to make it, but from an outsider’s view, the numbers are discouraging. Compared to the dramatic improvement in airline and car safety over the past 50 years, general aviation’s fatal accident rate has only made small improvements. Flying is now anywhere from 3-12 times more dangerous than driving (depending on which statistics you use). And the most recent numbers don’t give much cause for hope–between October 2012 and February 2013, general aviation accidents were worryingly high.

The safety record we need to worry about is not the overall GA accident rate, but this rate in comparison to the rest of modern life–airline flying, boating and driving to name just a few. As long as this comparison is ugly, our industry will remain weak. This is why, even if you are one of those ace pilots who will never crash (because only bad pilots have accidents, right?) there are some very good reasons to be interested in the safety of others. It affects our entire industry.

Cirrus is certainly worried about it, as they invest in anything that offers increased safety, from a parachute to TAWS. Indeed, the folks at Cirrus view safety as one of their key marketing messages–more important than performance or good looks. EAA is focusing on it, too, working harder than ever to improve experimental and certified aircraft safety. Even our Special Report on the declining pilot population saw this concern about safety come up. So while some pilots may be living in denial, an increasing number of organizations now acknowledge the problem.

GA accident rate chart

The general aviation accident rate has leveled off lately, and is far worse than the airline record.

The hard question is: how do we fix it? Technology, in spite of its appeal, isn’t enough. I’m a big supporter of new avionics, and GPS, autopilots, datalink weather and terrain warning systems are magnificent achievements. But as the Cirrus accident record has proven, pilots are still quite successful at crashing airplanes even when they have all the best technology. The warm body in the left seat is still the weakest link.

Since we can’t change human nature, some think there’s no way to improve general aviation safety. That is demonstrably false. Airlines are incredibly–almost shockingly–safe today, with 2012 going down as the safest year ever. That proves that we can improve aviation safety if we really want to. But it might require twin engine jets, two pilots, dispatchers, tight regulations and more intensive training. The costs involved are obviously quite high.

That’s why I call safety our greatest challenge: it’s not impossible to improve our record, but the cure may be worse than the disease. How much flying freedom do we want to give up in order to get that increased safety? Must we either accept aviation as a free but niche activity for a devoted few, or attract more people to a safer activity by sacrificing some of the go-it-alone ethos? There’s no easy answer.

What do you think–are safety and freedom at odds with each other?

John Zimmerman
20 replies
  1. Todd Copeland
    Todd Copeland says:

    Safety and freedom are often at odds. I choose to fly knowing the danger. Sometimes I question myself, my sanity, my thought processes. Does it make sense to take the risk? Most of us who fly have realized its not a way to travel as we envisioned when we dreamed of getting our ticket. Realizing the limits for travel has had no impact on my love of aviation and airplanes. There are many risky endeavors people pursue in their lives. Many more dangerous than flying. I would venture that riding a motor cycle for daily transportation rivals the hazards in flying. Many other things done purely for sport far exceed the dangers of flying. Have you seen buggy jumpers, cliff divers, dirt bikers who jump huge distances? I know the risks every time I get on my plane and I choose to fly anyway.

  2. David M. Phillips
    David M. Phillips says:

    To know the dangers of the environment, understanding from previous readings and dialogue of traps, challenges and risks attendant to a certain situation is to be able to see forward.
    Having a feel for the progress forward in a flight is understand the red flags and not so good feelings that come to us as we operate.
    Knowing the outcome via the experience of someone else is to have been forewarned.
    The airlines operate in the light of past successes and failures. Recurrent training and flight simulations are all about recreating situations of the past, preparing for us the mindset for decision making thereby making us, causing us to be safe, safer than we as aviators would otherwise be.
    Talking fear is not the purpose of articles to GA operators but to make aware the focus.
    A constant tuning of the skill set in light of the experiences and wisdom of fellow pilots and aviation experts is to make us aware and prudent.
    Flying is not dangerous more than the people in the plane are as poor decision making processes are engaged with a sense of bravado or invulnerability.
    I as a long time GA and commercial airline pilot, better for these articles I read all the time from pilots of experience and reputation and education like Mr. Collins, a safer pilot because I can see with greater clarity, the path forward as I make decisions in the air.
    Read the articles. Learn. And then, assimilate the information into a plan of action in the decision making process. Knowledge is power.
    Thanks for the discussion. Las Vegas Dave

  3. John Otter
    John Otter says:

    We must talk about air accidents, it’s the prima facia evidence of what can happen if we ignore, forget or are not taught the things that keep us safe. Otherwise we have to take on faith what is taught and I like evidence. The public lacking confidence in recreational flying does not come from our reporting and debating accidents and air safety; it comes from the proliferation of “Air Accidents” on You Tube etc. The usual sensationalisation I’m afraid.

  4. Edward Todd
    Edward Todd says:

    Both at different times. Promote all the positives to the general public for sure. But inwardly we still have to keep punching each other and asking why so many pilots do stupid things like run out of fuel? No excuses. Keep the stupid mistakes in front of every pilot as a reminder that none are above making mistakes.

  5. David Megginson
    David Megginson says:

    When comparing stats, you have to decide what question you’re asking, because there’s no absolute thing called “safety”:

    – If you compare the rates of fatal accidents per hour, you’re asking how risky the activity is while it’s in progress.

    – If you compare the rates of fatal accidents per mile, you’re asking how risky the activity is as a mode of transportation.

    – If you compare the rates of fatal accidents per year, you’re asking how risky the activity is as a lifestyle/hobby/career choice.

    To give a simple example, if flying as a recreational pilot is 6x as dangerous per hour as driving, but the average pilot flies 50 hours/year and drives 500 hours/year, then she’s more likely to die in a car accident than a plane accident; however, on any given day, she’s safer picking the car over the plane for a trip of the same time duration. And so on.

    • John Zimmerman
      John Zimmerman says:

      Very true, but none of these operate in a vacuum. If I fly 30 hours a year, the stats might suggest I reduce my exposure. But if I fly 200 hours a year, I’m probably more current and safe.

      The good news for us is that we control our safety in the air, almost exclusively. That’s not true in the car, where drunk drivers and plenty of other things can overwhelm our good driving. That means we can improve.

  6. Mason
    Mason says:

    We have lots more regulation than we used to have, but no improvement in safety. In areas where safety is good, regulation often followed safety improvements, not the other way around. The participants in aviation are highly incentivised to avoid accident; what they lack is the experience and skills to do so. One big reason for that lack is that expense keeps people from flying very much, postponing the experience gain and currency. The difference between flying 200 hours a year or more and fifty hours a year is huge.

  7. Ben Roller
    Ben Roller says:

    I think you make wonderful points Jon. I am very concerned about the freedom to fly in this country. Each accident we have or each time someone flies into a TFR without proper coordination we are giving more ammo to the politicians in Washington to place more restrictions on our flying and scaring the general public. General aviation has a fragile reputation and it is our duty to protect it. I often wonder what it will be like 15 or 20 years from now when one of my kids tell me they want to fly.

  8. Eric Tallberg
    Eric Tallberg says:

    In terms of what the alphabet soups provide for training, that’s fine. We pilots need to see that. I think the issue I have in regards to “Safety” are some of the ridiculous aspects of aviation that are not necessarily just GA. Airspace, TFRs (which is only “Safety” for VIPs and offers NO practical public safety, but yet pilots are whacked with stiff penalties for doing nothing more than taking their airplane over some geographical area.
    Safety with regard to flying safe and safety that is enforced is quite different. It’s practical to check gas, ensure the rigging is correct, or remove all ice from the surface before flying. That’s simply going to save your life. Having an ELT versus a GPS transmitter simply because the rules state I must? That’s silly, impractical and infringes on me as a pilot/citizen to force an obviously inferior product because of ink on paper.
    In my opinion, though maybe not wanted nor sought, is that safety of the pilot is necessary, but take the regulations and match it up against the freedom to fly and find the massive hole we’ve dug in terms of making flying FUN… Some pilots I know fly and wonder which regulation they broke just by flying the pattern.

  9. Steve Phoenix
    Steve Phoenix says:

    Seems like, by definition, safety and freedom have to be opposites. Example; you are safe in a car when you adhere to the rules, drive on the correct side of the road at posted speed, etc. You are free in a car when you can go down the middle of a road, wide open, drunk, ignoring all stop signs.

    I think for all activities, the applicable rules attempt to strike a balance of freedom and acceptable safety. So the question is do we have that balance in GA? If the primary reason that outsiders do not consider the activity is lack of safety, then perhaps more requirements are necessary to gain a favorably perceived balance. The other problem is that aviation rules are a little tougher to enforce than other kinds of rules once the flight launches. Personally, I prefer the rules to error on the side of freedom, but I recognize that society as a whole has been drifting the other way for some time.

  10. Kayak Jack
    Kayak Jack says:

    John Zimmerman reminds us, “The good news for us is that we control our safety in the air, almost exclusively. That’s not true in the car, where drunk drivers and plenty of other things can overwhelm our good driving.”

    Well, yes and no. Three near misses in the last three years lead me to think that it is all relative. I all three instances, the other plane gave no evidence that the pilot had any idea there was another plane nearby. And, we often fly on the ragged edge of control. Moving the yoke or pedals just a little bit differently could lead to much different results.

    Steve Phoenix adds, “Seems like, by definition, safety and freedom have to be opposites. You are free in a car when you can go down the middle of a road, wide open, drunk, ignoring all stop signs.”

    Another way of looking at that is that, “Our freedom to swing our fist stops where our neighbor’s nose begins”. All freedoms have both limits, and responsibilities that go along with them.

    Improved technology gives us more opportunity to be safe, but we may squander some of those opportunities? We tend to behave as a reflection of the way we think. We don’t always think in a prudent manner.

    • John Zimmerman
      John Zimmerman says:

      Fair point Jack. Although the stats show midair collisions are an extremely rare event. Not impossible, but rare. I still say we are in control for the most part. That’s probably why many of us fly in the first place.

      Your comment about the limits of freedom are spot on. As Hunter Heath wrote on Air Facts this week, there is a sort of social contract between the public and pilots. No man is an island.

      • Steve Phoenix
        Steve Phoenix says:

        Common guys, how do you put the words “limits” and “freedom” in the same sentence and have it mean anything? Or are you talking about limited freedom? I was talking about total freedom.

  11. Kayak Jack
    Kayak Jack says:

    I certainly agree that the feeling of accomplishment for being able to control a complex machine in a non-native environment (TV remotes notwithstanding) is a strong motivator for flying. “I do it because I CAN do it.”

  12. Kayak Jack
    Kayak Jack says:

    Steve sez, ” I was talking about total freedom.”

    Steve, total freedom is only a concept, and has never existed in reality. All freedoms have limits. Even a total dictator has limits to what he can possibly do.

  13. Gordon Pratt
    Gordon Pratt says:

    Always interesting to see how GA is held to a different standard of safety than other pursuits–motorcycles come to mind. I think most fair-minded comparisons conclude that GA is about as risky as riding a motorcycle. Of course, with GA (as with motorcycles), the pilot/rider and her attitude have a huge affect on how risky the activity is.

    BUT: there is no NTSB report on every fatal motorcycle accident, most often assigning probable cause to “rider error”. There’s little public hand-wringing about how we MUST make motorcycles safer or withdraw/limit the freedom to ride. Heck, some states even repealed their helmet laws in the (correct in my opinion) belief that people should be free to choose helmets or not.

    Stipulations: I am in favor of safety messages/training for all pilots. I grieve whenever a fellow aviator makes a bad choice. I practice constant vigilance on my own safety and behavior.

    My point: our government, our media, and sometimes we ourselves pay outsized attention to GA and its safety record. Even that would be OK if the attention resulted in enhanced safety. Too often such attention seems to lead to more regulation, restriction, and rejection of GA. Why can’t GA occupy the same “space” in the public mind as motorcycling: can be risky; not for everyone; expect tragedies once in a while; tremendously useful and/or fun; and, ultimately, a choice made by free people in a free country.

  14. Kayak Jack
    Kayak Jack says:

    I rode motorcycle a lot for a lot of years. I finally learned to get off the road and into the dirt. Many drivers either don’t see, or don’t care about, motorcycles – they are merely a fleeting target. And, I’m not really sure I’d like pilots to be lumped with bikers. To my knowledge, there are no outlaw gangs of fliers who get drunk, beat up on women, and vandalize communities.

    Aircraft accidents make good copy; newspapers are selling circulation; it’s almost a natural for the rumor mongers.

    You did, I think, hit a key word when you said attitude – ” the pilot/rider and her attitude have a huge effect on how risky the activity is.” A person’s attitude strongly influences choices of thought, behavior, activities, friends, etc. in our lives. IE: A person reveals a information about their core attitudes through behavior. Now, we can train to shape and correct lack of knowledge and skill.

    We cannot train to correct attitude. Aviation would profit, I think, if some attitudes were never licensed to fly. Attitudes are difficult to impossible to quantify, but behavior is not. Behavior is observable and can be measured. Some behaviors will be solid evidence of attitudes that should not be either in a cockpit or behind a wheel. Or, for that matter, behind a badge and gun.

  15. tom
    tom says:

    There’s something odd about the GA vs airline safety graph; No units of measure on the x axis, no value for the numbers,and no bump in airline rates for 9/11. It looks suspicious.

    It also seems that comparing GA to scheduled airlines is unrealistic. Comparing multi-crew cockpits in all weather jets to is like comparing truckers to non-CDL car drivers.

    Finally, According to the U of So Cal systems and safety management curricula: ‘safety’ is a way of reducing the cost of doing business. If you cannot afford the risk and cannot change your ways, buy insurance. Paradoxically, insurers either charge a premium for risky behavior or insist on training and demonstrating proficiency to an independent school house, like Flight Safety International. The closer one gets to behaving like a multi-crew cockpit and equip the aircraft with all weather capability, the lower the premium.

    I’m sure insurers can do a better job of analyzing this than I, but to my feeble mind, if risk is too high, insurance becomes unobtainable at any price. I don’t think we are even close to that.

    • John Zimmerman
      John Zimmerman says:

      Comparing GA to airlines is unrealistic. But I do it to illustrate the point–we can improve aviation safety to a point where flying is almost risk-free. But we choose not to, because that would come at a very high price. That’s OK in my opinion, but not enough people seem to admit this trade-off.

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