How Safe are Small Airplanes?

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General aviation airplanes have one of the world’s best safely records among all forms of public transportation.  In fact, since 1950, the accident rate per 100,000 flying hours is down by more than 93%.

Some of us will always feel a little nervous about flying in small airplanes.  But here are a few facts about how safe they really are.  Nearly twice as many people are killed each year in recreational boating accidents than in accidents involving private planes.

A small plane that loses power at 10,500 ft altitude can glide for more than 15 miles.  This gives the pilot ample time to select an appropriate landing spot, over 700 square miles of available landing spots, in fact.

In 2006 out of 22.8 million hours of flight operations, general aviation had only 303 fatal accidents.  On the average, 80% of small plane accidents involve no loss of life.

According to the FAA approximatley 36% of all accidents occur during descent and landing.  Another 18% take place during taxi and takeoff.  Only about 15% of accidents are found to be due to mechanical failure of the aircraft.

Experience as well as equipment are often a factor in general aviation fatalities.  Statistically, pilots with fewer than 100 hours are the most likely to be involved in a fatal  crash.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

Manufacturers of light aircraft continue to innovate with safety in mind.   Single lever controls, electronic displays with audible alarms, fuel injection to prevent carburetor icing, improved lighting, seats, belts and attachments, low fuel warning lights, internally lit instruments, more redundancy in instruments…all play a part in making light planes safer to fly.  When something does go wrong, the whole aircraft parachute is often there as a last resort.  This technology is credited with saving many lives.

Last year my husband’s flight instructor lost a wing in flight and crashed into a vineyard.  He was able to deploy the BRS chute on his Challenger light sport aircraft and walked away from the accident with only minor bruises.

Critics of general aviation say the accident and fatality rates are still too high and safety improvements lag behind those of commerical aviation.  So called general aviation accounted for 91% of all aviation fatalities between 2002 and 2005.

The highest fatality rate is among single engine, fixed gear airplanes.  These accounted for 118 fatalities in 2006, down significantly from prior years.  Collision with terrain, wires or trees was the most common cause (52.5%), followed by loss of control (42.5%).

So, while flying a small plane is still riskier than watching football, general aviation is safer than traveling by car.  There are one tenth as many accidents per vehicle mile and the accident rate has steadily gone down since 1980.  Pilot training is a lot tougher than what is required for a driver’s license.   Aircraft is closely regulated, aircraft mechanics are certified and the NTSB reviews and publishes details about every reported accident.

So, while is is true that commerical airlines have a significantly better safety record than general aviation, it is also the case that flying your own small aircraft coast to coast (if you are a licensed, experienced pilot) is considerably safer than the same trip by car.

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2 Responses

  1. I had a pilot friend who passed away recently because of bad weather and I’m not familiar with the aviation industry myself or airplanes etc but I was wondering why small airplanes do not have as many safety features as cars do?

  2. “There are one tenth as many accidents per vehicle mile”

    That’s a bit of a stretch from the statistics I’ve seen. It’s almost true if you assume GA aircraft fly at an average of 200mph and the drivers you’re talking about are less than 19 years old.

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