Safety Pilot: Scare tactics

Saving an airport near you

July 1, 2013

Bruce LandsbergMedia and political reality today are designed to scare. Be afraid—be very afraid that something terrible will happen to you or someone you know. The motive is usually to sell something or to advance a position. Ultimately, everything seems to come down to economics. Human ability to accurately judge risk is notoriously inaccurate, especially when it relates to airplanes falling from the sky and smacking an innocent bystander.

One of the most common trumped-up excuses to close an airport is the fear that an aircraft will crash into a building nearby with resulting fatalities to people on the ground. That is also why there are—or should be—runway safety zones around airports, because occasionally there is a miscue. Unfortunately, in way too many cases, ignorance or greed has led to poor zoning practices and airports that have been in place for decades are encroached upon.

On average, there are just slightly more than two off-airport fatalities annually nationwide. This is where someone not connected with the flight, and minding their own business, gets whacked by an aircraft falling on them. Sometimes it’s near an airport but sometimes not. In the 10 years between 2002 and 2011 there were 22 off-airport fatalities.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration characterized 15,433 pedestrians as having been killed between 2002 and 2011 by drivers who were legally drunk (blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent or more) at the time. For 2011, a single year, it is estimated that 2,661 innocent people were killed in alcohol-related accidents in cars and another 710 who were not in the vehicle.

You are 700 times more likely to be run over by a drunk driver, on average, while crossing a street (or walking alongside one) than to be killed by falling aircraft or aircraft debris.

The National Weather Service records an average of 54 lightning fatalities per year. Lightning is 25 times more likely to zap you than falling aircraft. A study of tree-related deaths by Ohio State University revealed that, “Some 407 people in the United States were killed by falling trees or limbs from 1995 to 2007—41 percent of them in a thunderstorm and another 35 percent in high winds alone.” The average is 31 per year.

Many people, once reality is explained, will concede that the benefits outweigh the extremely small chance of an aircraft-related fatality close to an airport. But some will not. Human ability to rationalize a particular fear—especially if it’s driven by other factors such as noise irritation, pollution, or economic interests—is inestimable. It’s reasonable to reduce risks by not playing golf when thunderstorms are nearby, just as it is reasonable to have safety zones around airports. I live under the downwind leg of the second busiest airport in Maryland and have concluded the risk is acceptable. I chose not to live off the end of a runway although the zoning laws around here generally are pretty restrictive.

If you move close to a fault line, a volcano, tornado/hurricane-prone property, or an airport—which in almost every case was there long before the neighborhood was established—it’s essential to understand that the environment is not perfectly benign. In all such cases the odds are strongly in your favor and it may be decades—beyond a human lifespan, or ever—before calamity strikes, but life has some risk.

Most pilots shun deliberate risk and in the majority of cases, the accident is truly an accident. Unfortunately, some incidents involve busted regulations. However, humans misusing vehicles of all types are unfortunately part of the price we pay for convenience, business, transportation, and recreation. DUI and operating a vehicle while fatigued, texting, or otherwise distracted cause dozens, if not hundreds, of innocent fatalities every day. Death on the ground by falling aircraft pales in comparison. But that should not be an excuse, and within our own ranks, peer pressure works.

As pilots, we enjoy the freedom of flight—but with that comes tremendous responsibility, which relates directly to operations near airports. Do not skimp on engine maintenance and select proper fuel tanks with fuel in them to avoid that sinking feeling. Weight and balance limitations are there for your safety and those of others—obey them. High surface winds in proximity to thunderstorms, or not, can and do bring down aircraft. Approach minimums are just that; it’s all the usual stuff you’ve heard too many times—and it’s all right on the mark.

Airports should not be closed because they pose an unacceptable risk in a few people’s minds. They don’t. Governments, zoning boards, and neighbors should be educated to the realities of aviation safety, and noise characteristics, even as we who love aircraft strive to improve on that every day.

Bruce Landsberg will present a seminar on “Real-World IFR” at the 2013 AOPA Aviation Summit in Fort Worth, Texas, October 10-12. Visit the Air Safety Institute’s website.