Editor's Log

March 2002 Issue

Is Flying Safe?

Sure it is. Or it’s not. It totally depends upon what you use to make the comparison

Since the dawn of flight, pilots have been forced to validate their infatuation with aviation by giving a convincing answer to the simple question, “Are airplanes safe?”

It’s a loaded question that addresses a complex set of dynamics, and like most simple questions has no simple answer. No matter what the pilot answers, the response is suspect.

If you answer yes, then you are deemed either a liar whose aim is to generate undeserved approval for an avocation that’s clearly dangerous, or a reckless daredevil with either a tiny brain or a death wish. After all, the evening news is routinely festooned with tales of airplanes – and their occupants – lost to disaster.

If the answer is no, you are simply an idiot for pursuing such folly.

Give the proper answer – it depends – and you are a fence-sitting simpleton trying to figure out a way to bastardize statistics to support whatever far-fetched claim you’re about to utter.

So try this. Put yourself into the shoes of the general population and answer this: “Is Air Force flying safe?” (Military pilots, you’re excused from this exercise, because you already know the answer.)

Most pilots recognize that military flying is decidedly different from general aviation flying, even during ordinary times. The high-performance aircraft are routinely operated near the edges of their envelopes. Maintenance is intense, but the pilot training and proficiency also exists at levels that put general aviation pilots to shame.

It shows in the statistics. General aviation trainers had an accident rate of about 4.2 per 100,000 flight hours during a recent five-year period. Four-seat, fixed-gear cruisers recorded 3.9 and medium twins had about 3.

Compare that with the F-16, which suffered 4.90 accidents per 100,000 flight hours during the last five years. The A-10 recorded 5.21 and the F-15 Eagle 8.41. The F-117 was the highest of the lot, suffering 9.21.

These figures are for Class A and Class B accidents, which are those that involve fatalities, disability or $200,000 or more in damage. About 40 percent of the Air Force’s Class A accidents are engine related, and nearly half are operational.

The safety record is even more noteworthy among trainers. Consider that the Air Force’s T-38 trainer has had only one pilot fatality in the past 10 years, and that was in 1992. During that time, the aircraft have flown more than 1.6 million hours. The T-37 has flown nearly 1.8 million hours in that time and lost two pilots, both in 1992.

The upshot of this analysis is that general aviation flying is safe. Or it’s not. To reduce the world of flying to a simple yes or no is to reduce art to a box of crayons or cuisine to a bag of carrots.

Is flying safe? That’s easy. It depends.

-Ken Ibold