Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Risky Business

Little-known tools that can help make your next flight safer

How risky is your next flight? I would bet that few of us know how to answer that. Most pilots wouldn't know how to begin to measure a flight's risk, or would shrug it off with a blanket statement like, "Well, the drive to the airport is more dangerous," (which isn't true). We know that flying an aircraft carries a certain amount of risk, but how much remains something of an abstract, unknowable figure.

Millions of words have been written about general aviation (GA) accidents and why they happen, but the number of GA accidents isn't dropping. While it's true that the total number of GA accidents has been declining each year, so have the hours flown. The accident rate has remained steady at between six and seven accidents per 100,000 hours since 1999. The fatal accident rate remains around 20% of all accidents, or roughly one in five.

But, researchers have found hidden data buried in the raw numbers. The industry is focusing on risk assessment and how pilots contribute to or prevent accidents. More than just a buzzword, risk assessment studies have yielded some useful, intuitive tools for pilots. The challenge has been getting pilots to pay attention to these ideas, especially within a culture of denial about the safety of aviation.

Safe Vs. Risk Free
John King, of King Schools fame, is about as open as anybody is about the accident problem. Having taught thousands of pilots about aviation, today he frequently speaks to aviation groups about risk. King calls our current attitude about aviation safety, "The Big Lie." He says the idea that flying is safe is a fallacy perpetuated by pilots who hear it and pass it on without thinking. He finds it irresponsible to think of flying as risk free, because it isn't.

The harsh reality is you're seven times more likely to die in a GA aircraft than in a car, per mile; 3.5 times more if measured per hour, according to NTSB 2011 statistics. "The idea of flying being safe came from the airlines because they have a phenomenal safety record," says King. "But telling students that GA flying is safe is doing them a disservice. I think we'd do a lot better by telling them, 'Yeah, you're right, there are risks involved. But, what you're going to learn to do is manage those risks. We're going to give you the tools to do that.'"

King, like others, maintains that aviation's risk shouldn't serve as a deterrent to prospective pilots or the public. Instead, he champions the idea of accepting aviation's risk and mitigating it as much as is within our means. In the real world, if we scuba dive, rent a watercraft or even ski, we sign pages of waivers that acknowledge the risks we're taking. We lessen that risk through training, knowledge and practice. In aviation, we tend to scoff at the idea that flying is risky as if it were a ridiculous thought confined to outsiders.


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