Think about the contrast between aircraft and auto engines. When was the last time your car engine just flat-out died for some reason other than it ran out of gas? I currently drive a 2004 Infiniti G35 that I bought as a salesman’s demonstrator, and it has never quit cold on me. Before that, I had a Nissan Maxima that I drove for 10 years with the same reliability. Before that, there was a Toyota Celica that endured for 170,000 miles and also never failed me.
Additionally, aircraft engines are designed to be inherently more reliable than auto powerplants. They’re rarely subjected to the abuses of car engines. Aircraft piston engines typically operate at lower compression ratios, turn only about half the rpm of automotive mills and normally run at a continuous power setting of 75% or less, rather than being cycled from idle to high power several dozen times on every drive. When aircraft engines do fail, it’s usually no fault of their own. Most often, engine problems are a result of abuse. Pilot-induced engine failures do happen when pilots overlean and overheat their engines, introduce contaminated fuel, mismanage good fuel, shock-cool or otherwise abuse the power source out front.
Structural failures, though extremely rare, are also possible, though again, most occur with help from the pilot, either through willful neglect or by simple ignorance. Corrosion, flying through thunderstorms, failure to properly preflight and a variety of other ills can cause an airplane to come apart in flight. Sometimes, though rarely, inherent design faults can bring down an otherwise good airplane.
That means you can all but exclude mechanical or structural failure from the list of accident causes. This leaves pilot error as the probable cause of three out of four accidents. Traditional wisdom has it that most accidents are rarely a result of a single problem. Sometimes, an avionics or mechanical problem precipitates a cascade of other errors that eventually bring the airplane down.
According to Bruce Landsberg of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation, low-altitude maneuvering and continued flight into deteriorating weather are two of the most common pilot errors. Low-altitude maneuvering scores high for two reasons: pilots who inadvertently stall while operating at low airspeeds near the ground, and those irresponsible hot dogs who decide it would be cool to buzz the girlfriend’s house and misjudge their airspeed, altitude and ability.
CFIT (controlled flight into terrain) accidents usually result from a pilot who pushes weather, thinking he can sneak through a small section of IFR conditions to VFR, only to discover that he’s in over his head, doesn’t know his exact position and is too proud (or stupid) to ask for help.
There’s little we can say to discourage pilots from making stupid mistakes, but even with pilot error, the numbers are encouraging. Accident statistics improve virtually every year. We transport about 65,000,000 people annually and only lose about 600 of them to accidents. That means you have about a one-in-a-million chance of being a victim in an aircraft accident, the lowest rate of all transportation forms.
When an airplane does come to grief, most of us go to school on the circumstances, the pilot’s actions or mistakes, and we vow we’ll never make that error. But the reality is, we very well may. No matter how much we vow not to make the mistakes we read about, we sometimes do, and not just once but twice or three, four or 27 times. Personally, I make a conscientious effort to avoid the same mistakes over and over. I try to find new ones.
Senior Editor Bill Cox is a 14,000-hour student pilot who’s still learning to fly. He provides consulting for media, entertainment and aviation concerns worldwide. E-mail him at
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