Are smaller planes safe? It depends on the pilot: Ask the captain - USA TODAY

3 months ago 29

John Cox  |  Special to USA TODAY

Recently a colleague asked me whether small airplanes are safe or not, citing recent small aircraft accidents.

I learned to fly in a small civilian airplane, have flown them for over 50 years and continue to fly them when possible. Yes, they are generally safe, but let’s look at some statistics.

Firstly, general aviation is different from commercial aviation. General aviation includes small aircraft, fixed-wing and helicopters, both commercial and privately owned.

Several friends own small airplanes that they fly for personal use. These are in the general aviation category. Non-airline size jets flown by corporations are also considered general aviation. This is a broad category that has to be broken down to answer whether small airplanes are safe.

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According to annual data from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association Nall Report, which includes private aircraft information, there is a continued improvement in the rate of accidents and fatalities. In 2021 there were 939 accidents with 268 fatalities, compared to 988 in 2019 pre-pandemic with 307 fatalities.  

The leading causes for general aviation accidents are the same as in past years, runway excursions (running off the runway, landing short, or overrunning the runway) lead the list, but fortunately, this accident type has a low fatality rate. The low speed of this type of accident is a primary reason for the lower injury and fatality rate.

Authorities say a small plane crashed in the front yard of a home in Manville, N.J., leaving one person aboard the aircraft injured on April 4.

Fatalities are most frequent in loss-of-control accidents. Sadly, this type of accident is the leading cause of fatalities and has been for many years. The unintentional stall of the aircraft accounts for almost half of this type of accident.

What is behind most general aviation accidents?

While pilot experience is important and many think is the most important factor in accidents, it is equally important for pilots to be proficient and have recency of experience.

Flying is a skill that needs frequent practice. One reason professional pilots have lower accident rates is that we fly more frequently, a professional pilot may fly over 500 hours a year, whereas a pilot flying for personal use may only fly 100.

General aviation pilots that have not flown recently may book a flight with an instructor to ensure their skills are fresh, so they can safely handle crosswinds, inflight abnormalities and/or deteriorating weather.

So far, in 2022, the number of noncommercial fixed-wing accidents is down by about 1/3 (from around 1000 per year to a forecast of 660 in 2022) from previous years. Part of this is due to the lower number of flights, but some are due to increased vigilance by pilots. The number of fatalities is also down from around 165 per year to a forecast of 96 in 2022.

How can these accidents be prevented?

While the improvements are good to see, aviation safety requires continuous improvement. No matter how safe we are, our passengers expect us to get better.

Technology helps improve safety. Navigation systems today are much better than the systems I learned about in the 1970s, but the most important safety device in the aircraft is a well-trained, current and competent pilot. Many groups, such as Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, the National Business Aircraft Association, and others, continue to push for continuous improvement in safety for General Aviation. As pilots, we should too.

Have questions for the captain?

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