The Safety Thing
By: Andrew Forber

"You'll never get me up in that thing."

If you're a pilot, especially the pilot of a small plane, you've almost certainly heard that sentence before, perhaps often. It's a pronouncement that we hear, along with a catalog of others, when we talk to non-flyers. Sometimes it comes from close family whose next questions involve life insurance policies, or which side of the family the daredevil gene came from.

If you are reading this as the partner of someone who flies, or as someone who has always wanted to fly but didn't want to take the risks, there's good news: flying can be just about as safe (or as dangerous) as a pilot wants to make it.

Let's face it, aviating can be dangerous, but so can smoking, or driving, or failing to exercise. Flying for fun is unusual compared to many of the pastimes people take part in because the pilot really is in control of almost all the risk factors.

Aviation safety is all about learning, judgment, and practice. This author's experience is that most pilots are not daredevils at all. They love life, they don't take unnecessary risks, and they're completely obsessive about safety. But they also understand that life is something to be lived, not something to be watched from the sidelines. They aren't ones to blame their woes on someone else. When you are the pilot in command, the safety of the flight is in your hands. If you're the kind of person who doesn't take safety seriously, or who finds someone else to blame when things go wrong, flying is probably not for you.

This article is about why many people think flying can be dangerous, and how they're not completely wrong. But it's also about how flying can be safe, whatever that means.

Physics Bites (But it bites some things harder than others.)

In just about any physical activity you can name, safety has a lot to do with keeping energy under control. Things that move, like cars or bicycles or airplanes, have an energy (called kinetic energy) associated with their mass and their motion. If you stop one of these moving objects, the energy has to go somewhere.

If the mass and the speed are relatively small - say that of a child running into its mother's arms - human sinews and muscles can absorb the energy without us even thinking about it, and yield it up as a small amount of heat. The asteroid that hit the earth and wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago did just the same thing, only on a much, much larger scale. Big energy means more damage when two things collide.

Little planes - and here I'm talking about what are called "light sport aircraft" in the US and Ultralights or Microlights elsewhere - have about the same amount of kinetic energy when airborne as the average Harley cruising down a paved highway. That's much less than that of an automobile or a typical flying-school Cessna. It's little enough, in fact, that serious injuries and deaths are relatively rare in these planes, provided the aircraft is kept under control by the pilot, and often even when it is not.

When landing, including off-airport landings which happen from time to time, our little planes are going about 30 miles per hour when the wings stop flying. That's the speed that a plane under control will touch the ground on a normal landing. To a human adult in a strong seat harness and surrounded on all sides by an energy-absorbing aluminum or steel roll cage, that's a safe speed. Unlike bigger planes, we can roll to a safe stop in a little field of a farmer, and often take off again from the same field.

The physics majors reading this will know that a plane's altitude represents something called "potential energy," which is really what makes planes more dangerous than cars in a crash. Planes can have a lot of potential energy, but that's only dangerous when it's converted into high speed near the ground, say, by falling. If a plane descends under control, the energy is absorbed by the drag of the air. Again, the energy of a little airplane being flown under control is very small, and therefore safe.

If a pilot loses control and goes into a spin or a spiral too close to the ground to recover, the results are often not good: the plane hits the ground hard, and gives up a lot of energy in a short period of time. The good news is that this loss of control does not need to happen. It can be avoided simply by the pilot being calm, well trained, and practiced at controlling the plane. It does require that the pilot know which way is up. More about this later.

Light planes are low-inertia, low-energy craft. I know someone who had an engine failure and landed in the tops of some trees. He had to sit there waiting for a while to be rescued, but he was unhurt. He simply stayed in control of his plane until it had stopped moving.

Humans Ain't Perfect (But we can train them to be pretty good.)

You may think it's hard to fly a plane, hard to control it, hard to land it. Can you drive a car? Or a motorcycle? The physical skills involved in flying a plane aren't actually all that different. If you've never flown a plane, you probably think it's harder than it really is.

What separates flying from driving a car - aside from the pure joy of seeing the world from way up there - are the mental aspects. There are no stop signs or traffic signs in the sky. Pilots can't pull over to the shoulder to consult maps if they get lost. They have an extra vertical dimension to move their vehicles in, and a bunch of lower as well as upper speed limits to observe depending on what they happen to be doing at the time. Pilots have to make decisions all the time, many more decisions than drivers, and they have to do it based on training, knowledge, and practice. Sometimes they make the wrong ones.

Here's an example: Some time ago near where I live there was a man who had taken a friend up flying to see the day's "second sunset." It was to be a repeat performance of the sun slipping below the horizon, a thing that some pilots love to view by flying high right after the sun has set for people stuck on the ground. In this case, though, the pilot was in an aircraft equipped for day-only flights. He was flying in a rural area without enough lights on the ground to provide a visual horizon after the sun had set that second time. He found himself with no way to know which way was up, or how to return to his landing spot. Tragically, he crashed, killing himself and his passenger.

At least 30% of aircraft accidents result from just this sort of disorientation when a pilot unintentionally flies into clouds or other low-visibility situations. It's the pilot's job to exercise judgment and apply his or her training and reasoning ability to anticipate and avoid that situation. The sunset pilot, with better planning or forethought, would have foreseen the visibility problems and stayed on the ground.

Humans aren't perfect, and sometimes their flying gets ahead of their training and decision-making. Usually a pilot who has an unhappy landing does so as the result of a chain of decisions which should have been made differently. Fortunately this does not happen to the vast majority of pilots. As you take flying lessons and continue to train even after you've acquired a license to fly, you'll learn to stay well within your comfort envelope, make good decisions, and stay safe.

This means not flying when you have doubts about the safety of taking off. It means continuing to train, practice, and take instruction. It means reading about how to stay safe, and reading to learn from the mistakes of others on those days when you're not flying. These are things that all pilots actually love to do anyway. Flying is safe for pilots who are alert, aware, current, and who know when not to fly.

There's an old saying: a superior pilot is one who uses superior judgment to avoid having to use his or her superior skills.

Stuff Breaks (But we can over-engineer our stuff, and we can usually tell when it's going to break, before it does.)

As recreational flyers, particularly those of us who build or maintain our own airplanes, the risks of mechanical breakage are once again our own to manage. As the maintainers of our own planes, we are very safety-conscious indeed, and our aircraft tend to be in very good condition before we'll take off in them. We have a passion for the mechanical quality of our planes. And we have more to lose if something goes wrong than a mechanic who knows he'll never be up there with us.

And if stuff does break, it's usually no more than inconvenient. We train to handle situations where there are failures. Many people have parachutes attached to their planes which, when the pilot pulls a handle, will allow the plane to float to the ground. As with your piloting, your plane can be about as safe as you want to make it.

Mother Nature is Not On Our Side (but she isn't actively out to get us, either)

Sailors love to tell stories of the squall that came up out of nowhere and sank the fleet, and people could be forgiven for thinking that every storm that pops up is a risk to pilots. That wouldn't be quite correct.

To be sure, weather is a continual challenge to a pilot and their decision-making skills, but they have resources that non-flyers aren't aware of. Storms don't just suddenly pop up and blow aircraft out of the sky. There are forecasts available to the public which detail when the wind is going to change and how, and what the weather is likely to be where you want to fly. These forecasts are updated frequently throughout the day and have detailed, hour-by-hour, predictions. Pilots also talk to each other and report turbulence or poor conditions to each other and to the control-tower people who watch and control air traffic.

Not only that, if you're in a plane, you can see most adverse weather from much greater distances than if you're on the ground. You usually have the option of flying over, around, or away from situations that are dangerous. Or, you have the option of landing in a field or at an alternate airport to wait it out. Or of staying home if you're not sure.

This is a hobby, a passion. But to us, getting from point A to point B is rarely a matter of life or death, or even livelihood. If things aren't right, there is always the option to simply not fly that day.

Planes are falling out of the sky!

Unfortunately, in the world we inhabit, our views of what constitutes a risk is filtered and distorted by politicians, interest groups, and the media, and that's where we get a lot of our world view. It seems that a room full of news editors will mostly ignore a rash of fatal road accidents if a safe emergency landing of a little plane happens the same day. Politicians and police officials feed paranoia over little planes flying safely near cities, and completely ignore larger and more probable vulnerabilities.

The actual number of light plane crashes every year in North America is low: car accidents are far more common. But the plane crashes will always be reported, and usually as the first item on the local TV Deathwatch News channel. When you see these, just remember that the accidents are reported far out of proportion to the rate at which they actually occur, perhaps just because they really are unusual.

Is it safer to fly in a light plane than to drive a car? Statistically, no. However, it is certainly safer to fly in an airliner than to travel in a car, any way you measure it. For small planes, as for any other mode of transportation, some people are safer than others, and some vehicles are safer than others. It's difficult to untangle the statistics to make meaningful statements about whether flying is safe.

Is the risk being measured by the hour, or the mile, or the trip? It's hard to compare the risk of flying fifty hours a year to the risk when you are driving for five hundred. I tend to think of the risk of flying my plane as comparable to the risk of riding a motorcycle. Safety is the first concern before and during every flight. The key is that you have control over how safe you will be. And the likelihood of someone running a red light, or cutting you off and forcing you into a ditch, is much lower in the sky than it is on the ground.

The engine quit, we're ALL GONNA DIE!!

No, not really. Oh, engines do quit from time to time. Certified aircraft engines may stop in flight once in every 3,000 to 6,000 hours of operation, on average. For most recreational flyers that's once every 30 to 60 years. Even so, we train for it incessantly, and must be able to perform emergency landings as a condition of earning a pilot's license.

Most light, uncertified aircraft like ours have a higher failure rate than that for certified planes, but the pilot's response is usually "oh drat" (or words to that effect) followed by landing the plane and phoning home. If the engine quits on a typical small plane, it won't simply fall down. It will glide, usually descending only one foot for every 8 or 10 that it moves horizontally. There's lots of time to pick out a good place to land. Pilots exercising good judgment choose routes that give them options for landing should the engine fail. At the altitudes we fly and in the places where we fly, there are almost always lots of choices.

There is a brief period right after takeoff when little planes are more than usually vulnerable to engine failures, when the plane is low enough and slow enough that the pilot has limited options. In our planes, at regular airports, we use so little of the available runway that it's often possible just to land on what remains unused in front of us. And if that doesn't work, we just land in the field beyond the end of the runway. Or if we're absolutely sure we're high enough, we turn around and land in the opposite direction. The key is to have good alternatives in mind before you start to roll. An engine failure for a pilot who is planning his flight around the possibility that it might happen, is just inconvenient.

Learning More

Figuring out just how safe any pastime is, is difficult. There are dangers in most aspects of everyday life, and how you decide which things are worth the risk and which are not depends on how much you know. The human brain isn't equipped to know absolutely everything about anything. The best we poor mortals can do is arrive at a set of simplifications that works for us, and compare them to how we see the rewards. Flying for fun has many rewards.

How can you measure the risk of a rough landing, or the small risk of something worse, against soaring like the birds and seeing the world spread out below you like a multicolored quilt? How can you measure the possibility of being hurt or spending a night in a treetop against the feel of the wind in your face and the waving people smiling up at you?

In the end, it's a decision only you can make, balancing the facts you're able to gather against the joy you, yourself, experience. There are organizations that can help, and links to those are provided on this web site. An hour's visit to a local flying school to talk with an instructor is a great investment.

If you are like me, you'll study the risks and learn to understand what they seem to be and how to minimize them. Then you may conclude, as I have, that they are clearly outweighed by the many joys of flight. That, in the end, may be what "safe" really means.

Andrew Forber