Many pilots deal with this question very frequently. Many flying neophytes are frequently concerned about their chances of coming back from their journey aloft. So, how safe is flying? Well, it depends on how you look at it.
There is a famous quote familiar to all aviators:
“Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity, or neglect.”
– Captain A.G. Lamplugh
That says it all. Life itself is risky. When you wake up in the morning, you do not know if you’ll slip and break your neck in the bathroom, a tree limb will fall on you, or if a tractor-trailer will plow into you during your commute. You have to live your life as you see fit, either in fear or in joy.
Now, there are certain professions that are considered riskier than others. Combat tops the list. No matter how well-trained and safe the soldier is, there is always a bullet or artillery shell that has his name on it. How about construction? One wrong step or distraction, and, well, you can guess. One can go on and on with speculation about many different “dangerous” professions.
There are many different areas of aviation, each with their own risks. Airline flights are statistically the safest, with private aviation being the least safe, statistically speaking of course. The National Transportation Safety Board has the most recent accident statistics. With regards to private (general) aviation. The Nall report has the most recent data.
When accidents occur, they follow two major themes, and no, “pilot error” is not one of them. They are fuel mismanagement and flight into bad weather. Structural failure and accidents due to engine failures are extremely rare. Despite a couple of newsworthy events, mid-air collisions are also quite rare. The first two themes can be considered carelessness, incapacity, and neglect.
Fuel mismanagement is simply not checking the gauges or trying to go farther than the fuel tank allows. Pilots sometimes fall victim to a phenomenon called get-there-itis. A pilot who is forced to land due to fuel exhaustion most likely bypassed several airports where he could get fuel simply because he was pressured to get to his destination. Another scenario involves not knowing how to read the fuel gauges, or not knowing how to switch tanks, which can be complex in some airplanes as John Denver discovered to his demise.
Flight into bad weather involves a chain of bad decisions starting with the decision to take off into questionable weather in the hopes that it will improve. As the weather worsens, the pilot, again bypassing several perfectly good airports, flies lower and lower below the clouds and hits terrain, or loses control of the airplane because he is not properly trained to fly with his instruments. This is what happened to John F. Kennedy, Jr.
A third common reason for airplanes falling out of the sky involves improper loading. An airplane must be loaded properly or it won’t fly properly. A car on a highway isn’t trying to fight gravity. An airplane getting off the ground is. If you try to load a couple of buffalo into a small airplane, it will just cause problems.
So, is flying dangerous, or is it simply unforgiving of error? This article didn’t cover every aspect of risks within aviation, but the bottom line is that for a pilot, the daily commute can be riskier than his job. The pilot is in control of his airplane. He is not in control of the driver texting in the car next to him.
You can rest assured that if you ask a professional pilot for a ride in an airplane, the tanks will be full, the weather will be great, and he will ask you how much you weigh (and add 20 pounds to that). Professional pilots are cautious, conservative, and good at what they do. Don’t let naïvety and the small percentage of careless pilots make you nervous about experiencing the joy of flight.