Going Direct: Not So Fast: Do Small Plane Pilots Make A Deal With The Devil?

Small plane

A recent story on the webzine Air Facts Journal characterized the decision we pilots of small planes make as being a deal made with the devil.

Without ruining a good read for you, the story by former Flying and Sport Aviation editor Mac McClellan (you can find it here) discusses the difference between transport category jets and Part 23 planes, and the observations he makes are undeniably true. In fact, our entire certification paradigm is built on the concept that standards for planes designed to carry lots of passengers are going to be a lot more stringent than little four seaters. Everything from the level of software certification to the degree of redundancy is more demanding for transport planes, which leaves less chance for error and less reliance on dumb luck to keep the crew and passengers in one piece.

And, as Mac points out, it has worked. Accidents at the airlines are so rare it’s hard to remember when the last crash of a U.S. passenger plane operated by a major airline even occurred. The uncontained engine breach of Southwest Airlines earlier this year resulted in the death of one passenger, but you’d have to go back to Colgan Flight 3407, a commuter plane that crashed in Buffalo 10 years ago, killing 50, to find a crash of a U.S.-operated airliner (a turboprop, not a jet) with multiple fatalities. Flying the airlines is almost inconceivably safe. The drive to the airport is truly a much greater risk.

One risk that remains is the loss of two engines on a big jet. Strangely, in his piece, Mac mentioned the controlled crash of U.S. Airways 1549 into the Hudson in 2009 as a once-in-a-lifetime occasion…only to have the exact same thing happen to a Ural Airways Airbus A321 days after the Air Facts Journal piece was published! And for the past week, we’ve seen dozens of people floating the idea of redesigning engines so they’d survive such multiple-birdstrike incidents—which is how airline flying keeps getting safer. We learn from our mistakes. And it should be noted that in neither accident was anyone killed. 

When we fly our single-engine airplanes, even turboprop- powered ones or single-pilot approved light jets, are we giving away a lot of safety? Yes, we are. Your chances of getting hurt or killed in a small plane are far, far greater than if you were flying the airlines, and your safety in a light jet is far greater than in a small piston-powered single.

That all said, things are changing, and that’s not because the devil is being kind these days, but because we’ve made progress in finding ways to make our flying safer, despite the fact we’re still working under the same limitations—one engine, limited redundancy, one crew member with no professional certification required. For that improvement, we can thank the advent of small, light and affordable digital technology, and improvements in user interfaces and the proliferation of affordable safety systems, everything from runway safety utilities to collision avoidance gear. This has advanced to the point where pilots of light planes have extremely affordable and capable flight control gear available for their planes, some of them featuring advanced-envelope protection that can keep the pilots out of trouble should they begin to lose control, or even consciousness.

And let’s not forget the incorporation of the whole-airplane parachute recovery system by Cirrus Aircraft in all of its planes, even its jet, and by just about every LSA maker in the world.

And we’re just seeing the beginning of all of this. New, affordable and even better technologies will emerge, and they will continue to drive down accident numbers.

Combine this with greatly improved training philosophy, including an emphasis on aeronautical decision making, and you get a compelling array of safety technologies and methodologies working together, sometimes by design, to make our flying safer.

Will flying small planes ever be as safe as flying the airlines? Not even close. But we’re tackling safety in ways our grandparents couldn’t have imagined and at price points that I still have a hard time believing.

So if we really are making a deal with the devil when we go flying in small planes, then the old goat’s hand is getting weaker and weaker, and our odds are growing better by the year. 

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