I am not a thrill-seeking person, nor am I the kind of person who demands a regular dose of adrenaline to stay happy. Growing up in the ‘90s and early ‘00s at the height of “extreme sports” popularity, I was leisurely cruising down the local ski hill while my friends played in the terrain park. To this day, I still hate roller coasters and even aerobatics if I’m not the one flying the plane.
So when I decided to learn to fly, despite the fact that it seemed my pre-ordained fate given my lifelong love of aviation, a question really began to gnaw at me: “Is it safe?” Yes, I am aware that aviation gets more than its share of negative attention, ironically because it’s extremely rare that a plane happens to crash in a given local news station’s coverage area. Still, I was and am both a cautious and numbers-driven person so I wanted to find some way to quantify the risk.
It’s morbid to use fatal accidents as a comparative statistic, but it is a measure of how often the absolute worst-case scenario happens. In raw figures there were 385 general aviation fatalities in FAA fiscal year 2015 resulting from 238 fatal accidents (FAA data). By itself, that’s a tiny number. There were 35,092 motor vehicle fatalities the same year (NHTSA data), a nearly hundred-fold difference. But of course, nearly everyone drives or rides in a car. If you never fly in a general aviation aircraft your exposure to the risk is almost zero. Thus, if you choose to partake in GA, what is the risk? In aviation we most often use hours as our denominator to calculate accident rate, since it is an easy, though sometimes flawed, activity metric to track. In fiscal year 2015 it is estimated that there were 1.03 fatal accidents per 100,000 hours of flying. If borne out in the final numbers, this would be an all-time low.
That rate may seem low or high to you, but let’s see if we can set the risk in the context of other common activities. In aviation we seem eager to compare ourselves to driving. Some GA pilots even believe that GA flying is safer than driving. Sorry folks, taken as an average it’s not. Only the airlines can claim that statistic. In 2015, as mentioned, there were a little more than 35,000 fatalities on America’s roads in motor vehicles, out of just over 3 trillion miles traveled (fun fact: that’s more than 5,000 times the distance Earth itself travels around the sun in a year). Breaking down some data in a recent AAA study, the average American spends 293 hours per year driving 10,900 miles, giving us an average speed of 37 mph. So, at 37 mph, the motor vehicle fatal accident rate works out to 0.04 fatalities per 100,000 hours. Yikes! That’s more than 25 times lower than the GA rate!
Okay, using that exact statistic is probably a flawed comparison and we probably lost a little fidelity in the miles to hours conversion, but it seems clear that no matter how you slice it, general aviation is more dangerous than driving a car. Let’s not overreact, however——remember that we’re still working with very small numbers.
Let’s try to find a different point of comparison instead: How about motorcycles? Like GA planes, motorcycles are almost always an optional form of transportation (at least in the United States). They are sometimes used for commuting and travel, but just as often are used purely for enjoyment. They also demand a high level of skill and good judgement to be ridden safely. So, here are the stats: motorcycles were ridden just short of 20 billion miles (about 34 laps around the sun) in our comparison year of 2015, with just under 5,000 fatalities. At that same 37 mph estimate, the fatal accident rate is close to 1 per 100,000 hours.
So there you have it. On average, general aviation is about as safe as riding a motorcycle, at least according to our crude statistics.
Now, here’s the good news: In general aviation, you as the pilot are in control of almost all of the risk factors. You decide when to fly, you decide how proficient you are, you decide how well to keep the airplane maintained (if you are the owner; otherwise you decide what FBOs or flying clubs to do business with). You have the power to make your flying safer than average, or indeed more dangerous than average. And if we all work together and stay proficient and stay within our abilities, the average itself will continue to go down!
So back to my original question: Is flying safe? It’s as safe as I want to make it, and that’s acceptable to me. Life is a series of managed risks, and many of those managed risks yield the experiences and enjoyment that make life, well, life. I am not a thrill-seeker, but I am a romantic. Through aviation, I have traveled, as Paul Poberezny put it, “that great ocean of air above us” and lived the dreams of countless people who came before me. Along the way, I found the courage to fly solo, and felt the profound sense of self-reliance that comes with that singular accomplishment. I took my girlfriend on a frigid tour of Door County on our third date, and she liked it (and me) so much we wandered our way across the Great Plains in an RV-6 last fall. I love aviation, but I also respect it. I hope that respect will yield many happy and safe years of flying.