The air was absolutely still save for the far-off putter of an O-320 Lycoming at low power. A Cessna 172 hung silhouetted against high, scattered clouds stained yellow by the rising sun. I stopped and looked up, remembering the sensations and vistas that make flying so magical.
Crashes and Mishaps
Most of what we hear about airplanes … in fact, a great deal about what I research and write about … involves the minute percentage of all flights that end in a mishap. I’ve certainly spent a lot of time warning of high risk activities on the electronic pages of iPilot. It hit home the other day when someone e-mailed me asking for information about the “horrific” rate of light plane accidents — the non-aviation reporter had done a web search and stumbled upon some of my accident report commentaries. Flying is a risky pursuit, unforgiving of incomplete skill or lapses in judgment, but approached correctly and with respect the risks are manageable. And the personal aviation record, known for the “down side” of accident reporting (especially in the popular media) indeed shows that for the most part we pilots manage the risks quite well.
The Ones You Don’t Hear About
How many airplanes in the U.S. will crash today? If this is an average weekday, there will be five or six general aviation accident reports posted on the preliminary accident/incident reports posted online by the FAA. Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it. But think about it. All but the very smallest, back-country “little” airports see at least five airplane operations a day. A few dozen see significantly more than that. Even if every U.S. airport (there’s 13,675 according to AOPA) saw only one GA flight a day, then there will be 13,670 safe general aviation flights today — flights almost no one ever hears about. Figure half those carry at least two persons and over 20,000 people will experience the magic of non-airline, non-military flying today … and you know most G.A. airports average more flights than that! Using the same criteria a typical U.S. weekend day (which average more flying, so more accidents per day) will see 13,665 safe operations still lofting over 20,000 people with no adverse incidents.
Further speculation, let’s lump all those long-distance trips, instructional flights and ’round-the-patch sightseeing together and say the typical G.A. flight lasts 1.25 hours. If that’s valid, at a bare minimum there’s over 17,000 hours of safe general aviation flying every day in the United States. We really are doing a pretty good job of managing risks.
More Good News
The safety record continues to improve. Many helping to amass this record are trying to make a living at it — most wanting to become airline pilots. Although the press is full of dire accounts of cutbacks and layoffs among the major airlines, there is still good news for the prospective people-hauler. Fellow iPilot “insider” Paul Craig chairs the Aerospace department at Middle Tennessee State University, a fairly short distance from my home. I was honored to visit his professional aviation program this week and learned that, even in this post-9/11, economically challenged world, he still has trouble holding on to good instructor pilots. They’re still being snatched up by the regional airlines. He showed me a group picture of the 2002 instructor cadre — about 15 CFIs — then pointed out the six that have been hired away by regional airlines since the photo was taken. In more good news from the regional airline world, I’m personally involved in developing Embry-Riddle’s ab initio First Officer Flight Training program, which kicks off next summer as a result of direct requests from a number of regional jet-flying airlines. News currently isn’t so good for the high-seniority line captain flying for a major carrier, unfortunately, but if you’re just starting your airline career things aren’t as bad as the press might make us believe.
There’s no denying that aviation presents certain high risk scenarios. The good news is that we seem to be doing a progressively better job at managing those risks, and the rarely-told story of thousands of safe private aviation flights every day proves it. Also encouraging is that opportunity still exists for aspiring pilots, especially those wanting to move onto the flight deck of 50- to 70-passenger regional jets.
BOTTOM LINE: The dawn-flight Skyhawk slowly glided out of view toward the local airport, one of tens of thousands of safe, unreported flights that will occur this week.