Is General Aviation Safe?

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5 min read

A question that prospective flight training students and their families may have about learning to fly is, “Is it safe?” A knowledgeable flight instructor should have a thoughtful and honest answer to this question, but it is not as cut and dried as you might think.

Safer than Driving?

The glib and often quoted answer to the “Is it safe?” question is that flying is safer than driving. For the airlines, this is true.

Airlines receive significant oversight from the FAA in nearly every aspect of their operations. Their maintenance and training programs must meet certain minimum standards and have FAA approval. The airlines have regular inspections by the FAA to ensure that they are complying with the approved programs.

Airlines always fly with at least two fully trained pilots on the flight deck. Training for airline pilots is rigorous to begin and includes refresher training on a six month interval. The pilots only fly to approved airports and they strictly follow FAA approved Operational Specifications and standard operating procedures. Beyond the required training, airline pilots tend to fly many hours each month which lends itself to their proficiency. They also prepare for flights and fly with the support of a trained and certificated Aircraft Dispatcher watching things from the ground. The airline likely has a team of meteorologists supporting flights as well.

Airlines are required to have a Safety Management System (SMS). An SMS is a formal, top-down program to ensure that safety is an uppermost priority throughout the organization. It is intended to identify and mitigate risks before they cause an accident or incident. Numerous other safety related programs generally fall under the SMS and contribute to overall airline safety.

Flying under general aviation (GA) is not safer than driving. Statistically, GA’s safety record is closer to the safety record of operating motorcycles. It just isn’t as safe as airline flying. The rules and requirements for a GA pilot are not as strict but that does provide the GA pilot with a lot more freedom in his or her flying.

Risk Management in General Aviation

two pilots in cockpit

When asked the proverbial question, “Is it safe?” I do my best to be honest with the student or the student’s concerned family member.

Like getting out of bed in the morning, general aviation flying has risks. Our safety as GA pilots depends a lot on how we manage these risks. A big part of flight training should not only be the stick and rudder skills of flying the airplane but the risk management skills needed to provide a safer flying environment. The flight training industry has the ability to train safer GA pilots. Great flight training organizations and excellent individual flight instructors ensure that instilling safety and risk management practices is paramount in their training. This type of training helps to produce the safer pilots within the broad spectrum of GA operations.

Unfortunately, there are flight training organizations and individual flight instructors that are only concerned about teaching enough to pass the test. Pilots from this type of background also contribute to the overall GA safety record, with less positive results.

An individual pilot’s initial and subsequent training practices, ongoing flight experience, and attitudes about risk management will all contribute to the pilot’s likelihood of being involved in an accident or serious incident.

Ongoing Training

The FAA mandates that a pilot have a flight review with a flight instructor (or equivalent) within the previous 24 months before operating as pilot in command of an aircraft. Conscientious and safety minded pilots will seek out more consistent and regular training than this minimum requirement. Safety minded pilots will participate in programs like the FAA’s WINGS program and find instructors to work with that will provide a great learning experience, not just signatures for their logbooks. Rigorous and regular recurrent training is within the grasp of every GA pilot, but the pilot must take the initiative.

GA pilots are perfectly legal to fly off by themselves without another pilot or without consulting with any other knowledgeable pilots before departure. Safer pilots will do a thorough weather analysis and may consult with a mentor pilot before departing in questionable weather. These pilots may also seek the assistance of a knowledgeable flight instructor to review his or her decision making process while still on the ground or to go along on a flight that is outside the pilot’s comfort zone. Good mentor pilots and flight instructors have the ability develop safer GA pilots.

Personal SMS

The majority of GA pilots will not be subject to a formal SMS unless flying professionally in a non-airline environment. This doesn’t mean that we can’t borrow some of the principles of these programs to use in our everyday flight operations. Safety conscious GA pilots will set a personal Safety Policy based upon their own training and experience levels.

Safety Risk Management (SRM) will be an ongoing part of every safe pilot’s plan and program. An individual’s SRM plan might include development of his or her own personal standard operating procedures, personal minimums, and an ongoing training plan. While my SRM plan may not look like your plan, our backgrounds are different. We each might decide to adjust our individual plans as training and recent experience allow changes to be safely made.

Safety Assurance (SA) for an individual would include reviewing how well the implementation of the individual’s Safety Policy and Safety Risk Management are working. This is a time to sit down after a flight or series of flights and reflect on what went right and what could have gone better. Questions answered during this reflection may suggest changes to personal policies and procedures as well as determining how well past changes have impacted the overall safety of the flights.

Is It Safe?

Getting back to our original question about learning to fly, “Is it safe?”

Like many worthwhile endeavors, learning to fly has risks. My job as a flight instructor is to teach you to fly well and to mitigate these inherent risks. Your job as a student is to learn as much as you can and grow in your application of risk management skills throughout your time as a student and as a pilot. Our goal is to make you a safer pilot for the rest of your time on the flight deck.

Fly and stay safe!

6 replies
  1. rmac says:

    So the response to the question I think should be, statistically, it is compared to driving a motorcycle. I think in reality it would be a close comparison also. Both are about skill, proficiency, and management of risk of the individual operator. If you you are deficient in any of these areas, the consequences can be severe. The saying about bold pilots can also be said about maniac motorcyclists. Know thy self and maybe you will be able to append your answer to the question with, as safe as it can be because I am skilled, proficient and take risk and safety seriously.

    • Paul Jurgens says:

      rmac, I have used the motorcycle statistic comparison as well. I agree with the thoughts in your comment. Thank you for the comments. -Paul

    • pevend says:

      The motorcycle comparison is somewhat valid but misses an important point. Motorcycles are dangerous partly because of their physical problems in bad conditions (similar to airplanes) but mostly due to the operating environment. You can be the best motorcycle driver in the world, but if you get hit by a driver reading texts you are toast! Most GA airplane accidents are related to pilot error; if you behave in a safe manner and maintain proficiency, you can be much safer than average.

  2. Steve Alsobrook says:

    As important as training, is individual attitude. A person that thinks they are “bulletproof “ is dangerous no matter what. Knowing one’s personal limitations, and abiding by them goes a long way towards longevity,

  3. Mike McGinn says:

    I remember being told while going through Naval Aviator training back in 1986 that “Aviation, while inherently safe, is extremely unforgiving of mistakes.”

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