U.S. Department
of Transportation

Federal Aviation

St. Louis
Flight Standards District Office

10801 Pear Tree Lane
Suite 200
St. Ann, Missouri 63074


January 2004 




Thought for the month..... If a little knowledge is dangerous,
where is a man who has so much as to be out of danger?
Thomas Henry Huxley

It ought to be safer flying.... There is always an on-going discussion about which is safer, flying or driving. The problem is, things just don't convert very easily. We normally measure flying safety by the number of accidents that occur in 100,000 hours of flight. Since we really don't know precisely how many hours are flown, that isn't 100% accurate. However, since we use the same flawed data each time the calculation is made, we can fairly accurately identify trends. Given that the errors are consistent, we can tell if more or fewer aircraft accidents are happening.

In automobile safety, a number of different standards are used. The trouble is, there are so many more automobile accidents than aircraft accidents, and we can't seem to find a set of values that really relate to each other. Just looking a numbers, it would appear that driving is more dangerous than flying because of the total number of people killed on the highways. That's not really the case however, because the numbers of vehicles on the highways vastly outnumbers aircraft. If we compare safety by the hour, we find that there are 16 fatal accidents for every one million hours flown by general aviation aircraft. On the driving side, there are 1.7 deaths for each 100 million miles driven. If we assume an average speed of 50 mph it would take 2 million hours of driving to reach that 1.7 figure. During that 2 million hours there would have been 32 fatalities in GA. That would make GA flying about 19 times more dangerous than driving. All this number crunching is based on assumptions, but even if the numbers are only halfway accurate, it would still make driving a safer mode of travel.

Because of the forces involved, aircraft accidents and vehicle accidents don't always have the same outcome. It is not unusual for individuals involved in a vehicle accident to survive the event. Even in a serious accident, if there are several people in the vehicle, it is not unusual for some to survive the mishap. In an aircraft accident, just the contrary is true. It is unusual for people to survive. The recent accident involving a Learjet is an example. Most of us in the aviation community shook our heads and commented how remarkable it was for everyone on the airplane to survive the crash and fire. When an aircraft goes down, the energy forces are usually too great to be absorbed by the structure and certainly our bodies aren't designed to take them.

One thing that I feel fairly certain about is that flying ought to be safer. The reason I say that is because when we are on the road, we don't have a lot of control over the factors that can lead to an accident. We are literally at the mercy of all the other drivers out there. Of all those vehicle accidents, I'm going to take a SWAG (scientific wild ass guess) that 2/3 of the drivers were victims of the 1/3 who screwed-up. Regardless of how alert and careful we might be, if someone loses it and comes over the yellow line at a high rate of speed, we will become the victim of someone else's error. For the most part, while flying, we have much greater control over what's happening to us. We decide if we will go into a cloud, or operate at night in poor weather. We know about the hazards associated with the loss of visual references, so if we get into those conditions and we're not prepared to deal with them, it's not a condition brought on by someone else.

If we have a concern about the structure and security of a 30 year-old airplane, we can have it refurbished or fly something newer. If we choose not to and something fails, it's a result of a decision that we made. Very seldom in aviation are we the victim of someone else's lack of competency. In most cases, we do it to ourselves. That's the reason that flying should be safer than driving. Knowing that we have control of the situation should lead to the obvious conclusion that flying is much safer than driving. All I have to do is make the correct decisions. According to the AOPA Air Safety Foundation, that would be more easily said then done. In 2001, 70% of the fatal aircraft accidents occurred during personal flight. The primary cause was low level maneuvering, and almost 60% of all accidents happened during takeoff and landing.

Clearly, flying involves more skill than driving. We've added a third dimension not present when operating on the surface. Aircraft are more complex pieces of machinery to operate, although the car I drive has more sophisticated navigation and communication equipment in it than the Cessna 150 I learned to fly in. It also has more protective equipment to make any accident I'm involved in more likely to be a survivable one. But, I still feel that flying SHOULD be a safer mode of travel. The fact that in General Aviation it isn't, is a reflection on all of us who participate in it and a challenge for us in the New Year.

Upcoming Events

January 17th
Balloon Instructer Clinic
Spectrum Balloon Port
Chesterfield, MO

January 24th
Super Safety Seminar
Maryland Heights Community Center
8:30AM to 1:30PM

February 6-7th
IA Renewal Seminar
Collinsville Holiday Inn
Collinsville, IL

February 7th
How to Save Money on Your Annual Inspection
Seminar and product exhibit
Collinsville Holiday Inn
Collinsville, IL
9-11 AM

February 21-22
Greater St. Louis Flight Instructors Flight Instructor Renewal Clinic - FIRC

Operations Safety Program Manager
1-800-322-8876 extension 4835