Saturday, 03 March, 2001

Private Aircraft Are Safe

I still hold a private pilot's license, although having been out of the left seat for over 5 years I'm not current.  If I wanted to fly again I'd have to take some refresher courses.  I still get into conversations about flying, though, and invariably somebody brings up the safety issue.  "Are those little planes really safe?  I always hear about them crashing."  I've heard this question so many times that I should print my response on a card and just hand it to whoever asks.

Private aircraft are safe, and the FAA's regulations for private aircraft and pilots are more than sufficient to maintain that safety.  The problem is attitude.  Too many pilots treat their aircraft like they treat their cars, and their flying like they do their driving.  But an airplane isn't a car, and piloting takes considerably more skill than driving.  Getting careless or daring in a car is potentially dangerous, but nor normally life-threatening.  Getting stupid in an airplane is much more likely to end in tragedy.  "There are old pilots," the saying goes, "and there are bold pilots.  But there are no old, bold pilots."

Yet all too often, pilots get daring (read "stupid").  One guy in Paulden, AZ sustained serious injuries when he crashed on takeoff because he forgot to turn on the fuel selector[1].  A guy who owned property near mine in Northern Arizona killed himself and three other people by trying to take off in an airplane that he had not maintained properly and had loaded over gross weight[2].  He didn't clear the trees at the end of the runway.  Another guy in Arizona killed himself and his buddy when he tried to do aerobatic maneuvers in an airplane that was not built for such stresses[3].  In these three cases, the pilots were experienced flyers with thousands of hours.  The aircraft were perfectly safe, but the pilots took unreasonable chances and lost.  I could list hundreds of similar incidents.  Short of banning private aviation, no amount of FAA regulation could have prevented these crashes.  Certainly there are cases where lack of experience is a contributing factor, the JFK Jr. tragedy, for example.  Given more experience, perhaps he would have realized that he had no business flying in those conditions.   

There are also cases where faulty equipment is a major contributing cause, but in most such cases the pilots would have seen the problems had they performed their pre-flight checklists.  "Why should I do a pre-flight check?  The airplane was fine when I parked it last weekend."  An airplane isn't a car.  If your car runs out of gas or your engine breaks down, you simply pull over to the side of the road and call AAA.  If your airplane engine quits, you have a problem—especially at night, or when you're over water or rough terrain.  If it happens on takeoff, you're probably dead.  You can't afford to take your aircraft's condition for granted.

Whenever there is a car accident, we assume that somebody--a person--was at fault.  Yet every time a private aircraft accident occurs, people think the airplane is unsafe.  Why, when the overwhelming majority of reports in the NTSB Aviation Accident/Incident Database cite pilot error as a major (or the major) contributing factor?