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Editor’s note: This article, from the September 1963 issue of Air Facts, Air Facts Founder, Richard Collins, answers the question we are still debating 60 years later – how safe is general aviation flying? The question is: “How safe is the pilot who runs the flying machine?” and that’s up to him.


How Safe?


Richard L. Collins

Our one flying student, Hugh Downs, who is now progressing nicely and will be a Private Pilot before long, asked us the other day how safe these flying machines really are. We told him that they are safe if properly operated. The question, and the answer, though is broader than that and having it asked directly and frankly made us start wondering “how safe.”

Statistics don’t mean much as statistics can be had to prove or disprove most anything. We went looking for the answer to the question in the CAB accident reports because accident causes tell the safety story more clearly than numbers ever will. As long as an accident has a cause which you are confident you would have avoided, it really doesn’t affect your safety record.

The first conclusion that can be drawn is that if the only accidents in General Aviation were those attributable to the machine itself we would have a safety record equaled by nothing else that moves.

Airplane accidents are usually separated into simple, or non-serious, (nobody got hurt) accidents and serious accidents. Any accident is serious, though, because if whatever caused it had pushed a little harder things might have been much worse.

All accidents are serious, too, because if they are chargeable to the pilot then that means there was a weakness in his ability or judgment sufficient to make him stub his toe — and that raises the possibility that the pilot could be weak in other areas. It’s been said that a small percentage of the pilots have a large percentage of the accidents. It has also been said that after a pilot has even a minor accident he must fly safely for 500 hours to re-establish himself as a safe pilot. In the automotive field the insurance companies and the licensing bureaus have found the application of the two preceding theories to be profitable, and the only difference between a pilot and a driver is the machine he straps on.

Nobody intentionally goes out and busts an airplane. A lot (there are about 4,500 total accidents a year) get busted, though, and a look at how it is done can give a picture of the great safety available in the personal/business type airplanes if the primary accident causes are studiously avoided.


Simple Accidents

First a look at the less serious accidents as reported by the CAB. Most of these happen around the airports — during take-off, landing, and taxi operations.

A few examples:

A pilot arrived at the airport one morning, carefully pre-flighted his airplane, got in, started it up, got taxi clearance from ground control, and then taxiied straight ahead into an open gas pit!

A 550 hour pilot bounced a tricycle gear aircraft and second contact with the runway was so hard and nose low that the nose tire blew out and the engine mount structure was deformed.

A 650 hour pilot landed pretty far down the runway and with excessive speed. After applying brakes he decided there wasn’t room to stop so elected to take-off and go around again. This didn’t work either and the flight terminated in a neighboring cornfield after traversing a road and a ditch.

A 170 hour pilot landed a tricycle gear aircraft in a crosswind and drift at touchdown was such that the nose gear collapsed.

A 1,500 hour pilot touched down 150 feet short in an attempt to land on the very first portion of the runway. He then applied power to go around, but the aircraft, hit the airport boundary fence, and then the ground with sufficient force to cause the right wheel to separate from the aircraft.

The next one wasn’t serious either as nobody was hurt, and the airplane wasn’t even badly damaged but it does illustrate how easy it would be for some accidents to move into the serious category.



A student pilot and two friends got in a two-place airplane and went for a night pleasure flight. Because of the airplane’s inadequate seating capacity one of the passengers rode in the baggage compartment. After flying for a while the trio became lost and before they could determine their position and find an airport the aircraft ran out of fuel. The nosewheel and the engine mount were damaged in the night forced landing. It was determined that the flight originated after midnight, terminated four hours later, and was dispatched from a local tavern.

Most any pilot would say that he could avoid having any of the preceding accidents. The fellow that taxied into the gas pit just had a careless moment. The ones that bent something while landing or trying to go around found a flaw in their piloting technique the hard way, and the last fellow let his judgment get away from him.



It is surprising how many landing accidents there are involving tricycle gear airplanes, for, in theory, the tricycle should have all but ended landing accidents. It didn’t though, and possibly it is because they were slightly oversold. There is technique to landing any airplane, and every airplane has to be “landed” — not driven into the ground.

It is surprising also to notice the number of high-time pilots who get into trouble on landing. Their trouble usually comes not from the actual landing but from shooting at a very small field, or operating in extremely high winds.

There are a lot of landing accidents on smaller fields. It isn’t the people who regularly fly out of the smaller fields who have the trouble — it is those of us who are used to the wide open expanses of Federal Aid concrete and asphalt who find 1500 foot strips hard to work with. Technique is again the big factor. A Comanche, for instance, will operate quite well on a 1500 foot strip as long as the approaches are reasonably clear, but we would fear for the integrity of the airplane’s shape were a lot of people inclined to suddenly start going into 1500 foot strips with them without learning the technique. It is a simple matter of either staying out of short fields, or learning how to make the airplane fit.

There are many other examples of day-to-day accidents that keep insurance premiums so high. One that is always fascinating is when, in a retractable, the cabin door pops open right after take-off because it wasn’t shut properly. The pilot looks at the runway ahead — decides there is enough room to land and shut the door — so he lands, not remembering that he had raised the landing gear until sliding merrily along on his belly. A lot of airplanes are landed with the gear up without the fanfare of an opened door, too.

It’s easy to look at the simple ones and figure out what not to do.


Serious Accidents

The serious accident picture is of more vital interest, as in the simple accidents the loss is usually only financial which is recoverable in one way or another, but so often the serious accidents are very final in the price they demand for carelessness or lapse of judgment.



Weather is the number one cause of serious General Aviation accidents. Every time a bad weather system moves across the country it causes at least one serious accident. Lately it has seemed more like two. Generally these accidents involve a VFR pilot in marginal weather conditions.

Two Examples:

A non-instrument rated pilot on a VFR flight plan was told by Flight Service Stations that instrument conditions lay ahead, and that cloud tops were over 15,000 feet. The flight continued on course — on top of the clouds. The pilot reported that he had climbed to 15,000 feet to remain on top, and after that he advised that he was encountering clouds between 13,000 and 15,000. He also requested the cloud tops in the area and stated that he did not have oxygen equipment on board. When the FSS called to give the cloud top information the aircraft did not answer. The remains of the aircraft indicated that it had disintegrated in flight after the design strength of the airplane had been exceeded— obviously because of loss of control.

Another. A pilot obtained a complete weather briefing which indicated below VFR conditions along his proposed route, with a worsening trend. Nevertheless the pilot filed a VFR flight plan and departed. En route position reports were made and on each contact the pilot advised that he would encounter instrument conditions were he to proceed. Finally, after entering the area with low ceilings, the pilot radioed that he was landing short of his destination. The air-craft made it to within 20 miles of the alternate airport the pilot had selected, at which point it struck high terrain. The visibility in the area of the accident was reported by an observer to be one-half mile.

          In going through the CAB accident reports there are very many accidents which read like those two.


The Preliminaries

It is not hard to imagine what precedes most of these weather accidents. A fellow has a lot invested in his airplane, and is trying to make it do what he wants it to do. Marginal weather enters, and stands in the way of a trip, and he decides to try it anyway.

Say for instance the weather Here and There is 1,000’ overcast with three miles visibility. This is legal VFR even if Here and There both have control zones. If they don’t have control zones then the minimum is simply one mile visibility plus enough ceiling to stay the required distance from persons, vessels, vehicles and structures along the way. This is good, these minimums, because they permit VFR flight under almost every condition where it is actually possible. They are also bad, because in our society people are prone to feel that anything which is legal is also safe.

Nobody knows what the weather might be between two stations, though, so it is up to the pilot, as he flies along between Here and There, to keep making a constant determination of whether or not the weather is going to allow him to reach his destination VFR. This isn’t easy.

Let’s imagine that the weather is not going to allow our flight to stay VFR. As it proceeds along the way lower clouds start forming in rain showers. Here a fast decision has to be made by the pilot. Turn around, or keep going in hopes that this is a temporary condition.

Keep going. OK. Next the pilot finds himself actually flying along in the clouds — on instruments. From this point on Lady Luck is in undisputed possession of the airplane’s fortunes.

Before he entered the clouds he could have turned around and tried to make it back to his airport of departure, or any airport, or if the weather wouldn’t allow him to find an airport he could have accepted the possibility of aircraft damage in landing in the most suitable area available. Once in the clouds these avenues are pretty well closed.

To try to help the pilot who finds himself in the clouds or on top of clouds with no VFR way down, the FAA instituted the Blue Seal rating a while back. An applicant for a private license has to demonstrate to the inspector that he can fly the airplane under a hood fairly well. An old private pilot can demonstrate the same ability and get a license with a Blue Seal.


Good or Bad

To say that Blue Seal is no good wouldn’t be entirely fair. It does have a serious flaw, though — it contains no requirement that this proficiency be maintained. A human being’s knowledge of human nature brings to mind the old saying about a little bit of learning being a dangerous thing. We can’t help but feel that the presence of a Blue Seal in one’s back pocket would make a lot of people press their luck further than if the subject were unknown to them.

If we find our Blue Seal pilot three years later — with no further exposure to instrument flying since the check ride — in clouds, with the air slightly turbulent, and with distressed passengers, we wonder how good a job of instrument flying he will turn in? There really isn’t such a thing as being partially able to fly instruments. For the facilities on the ground to be able to get a man down he must be able to fly headings pretty well, hold altitude, and control rates of climb and descent. The effort which is being put into helping the VFR pilot once he is in IFR conditions is only a placebo. Either a pilot is an instrument pilot, or he is not, and if he is not his primary aim should be to learn as much as possible about weather, to stay on the ground in case of doubt, and to never, in any event, get in or on top of the clouds.


Weather Knowledge

It is important for a pilot to know as much as possible about weather because weather information available at FAA Flight Service Stations has to be interpreted, and it is the pilot’s responsibility to do so. The men in the FSS’s have only limited weather training, and in that the go no-go responsibility is with the pilot, where it should be, then the pilot should have the ability, and assume the responsibility of studying the available information and making an intelligent decision.

On the two weather accidents mentioned both pilots were advised by the FAA ground stations that they would encounter instrument conditions if they continued. This would seem to indict the pilots, but it does not. At the time they were told of impending IFR conditions they were both more than likely in good VFR conditions, and were in no way breaking any law. It couldn’t be said absolutely that they were even exercising poor judgment. Where they got into trouble was pushing to the extreme limit — and then a little further. Their primary weakness was in not knowing when to quit.


Traffic Cops?

There’s not any way to have aerial traffic cops to chase airplanes that appear about to err, and it’s a good thing or the FAA would have them all over the sky. People who fly police themselves almost entirely, and those who do a good job don’t have any trouble. Those who do a poor job have a lot of trouble. An example of how self-policed we are — we have been flying for over eleven years, and in this time have pretty well maintained the proper license and rating for what we have been doing, plus a current medical, and an Airman’s ID card when they were required. Nobody knows this but us, though, because nobody has ever asked, and we could presumably have done all our flying without any license at all, provided we stayed out of trouble.

Weather accidents won’t be cured by regulation, by gadgetry, or by semi-training. If a pilot wants to fly in bad weather he needs an instrument rating and all the associated equipment to fly IFR. Otherwise he can fly in complete safety, weather-wise, by never pushing weather and by never flying in or into an area where there is the slightest doubt that good VFR conditions exist.



Stalls and spins caused a large number of serious accidents fifteen years ago, but with improved stall characteristics and a greater margin between cruise and stalling speed in new airplanes these don’t cause as much trouble now, and when a stall-spin accident does occur it more often than not involves either an older airplane, or buzzing, or both.

For example: A pilot and a friend in a two-place tandem trainer were observed circling a town at an altitude of about 150 feet. The aircraft then made a low pass, reportedly at five feet, and then climbed very steeply to an altitude of about 250 feet, at which point the airplane stalled and returned to earth almost vertically.

Another pilot purchased an aircraft which had recently failed to pass its airworthiness inspection. One of the many reasons the aircraft had failed was very low compression on two of four cylinders. Nevertheless the pilot, with a passenger, was making pleasure flights in the aircraft. On the second takeoff of the day the airplane had difficulty getting off. At about 100 feet above the ground a turn was attempted. The engine appeared to lose even more power in this turn and the aircraft stalled and came to earth.

Avoidance of accidents such as these is easy, and really doesn’t need any elaboration.


In too Deep

Another leading cause of serious accidents involves pilots who exceed their and/or their airplane’s capabilities in relatively good weather.

Two Student pilots went for a night flight but did not return. The next day the airplane was found not far from the airport where it had contacted the ground in a near vertical bank. Neither pilot had any known night or instrument flying experience, and the direction in which the airplane was going was toward dark terrain with little horizon reference. It was also cloudy the night of the accident.



Because of high terrain at one end of a 3,700 foot dirt runway a pilot elected to take-off downwind — toward lower terrain. The wind was 15 to 20 miles per hour, and the computed density altitude of the airport was 12,000 feet. The airplane was slightly below gross weight. After running about 2,500 feet power was retarded and heavy braking was applied in an obvious effort to abort the takeoff. Then the pilot must have changed his mind, as full power was applied and some flap was lowered. The aircraft left the ground in a nose high attitude, hit an obstruction past the end of the runway, and then hit the ground with great force. Computations showed that almost 5,000 feet would have been necessary to take-off and clear a 50 foot obstacle under the existing conditions.


The examples cited of course don’t cover every cause of airplane accidents, because human nature is more ingenious than that. It is a sample, though, and a very representative sample, of why airplanes get bent.

Any pilot can work at avoiding the things which cause trouble, and as a result can have in his airplane the safest form of rapid transportation. Maybe a better answer to “How safe are the flying machines?” would be that they are absolutely 100% safe. The question is: “How safe is the pilot who runs the flying machine?” and that’s up to him.

Air Facts Staff
1 reply
  1. John Sheehan
    John Sheehan says:

    Richard always had the knack getting to the essence of aeronautical conundrums with clarity, insight and simplicity. Played a mean game of eight-ball, too!


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