Learn to Fly
How Safe Is It?
Safety is Issue Number One in flight training.
BY BRUCE LANDSBERG
- How do student pilots stay safe while learning?
- What happens if the engine quits?
- Aren't most aircraft accidents serious?
- What about weather accidents?
- What about midair collisions?
- Obviously, it's important that aircraft be reliable mechanically. What's the record on this?
- What about getting lost?
- What about running out of gas?
- How does one stay up-to-date on the latest safety information?
When someone considers learning to fly, the question of safety invariably comes up. How safe is flying in a light airplane? How safe is driving a car or boat? It depends on the circumstances.
Compared to automobiles, general aviation defined as all kinds of flying except for the airlines and military has about one-tenth as many accidents on a per-vehicle-mile basis, and the accident rate has dropped steadily since 1980. There are several reasons why the safety record is as good as it is. Training for a pilot certificate is much more rigorous than it is for a driver's license. Mandatory ground and flight training, along with written and practical tests, help to ensure that pilots have achieved a basic level of proficiency. Periodic recurrent training helps to maintain and improve skills.
The environment in which aircraft operate is much more closely regulated, as well. The regulations have evolved over the years to address accident prevention, and most pilots prefer to use regulations as a minimum guideline to exceed in their own flight operations.
Perfect safety is unknown in transportation and probably in most of life's endeavors. Our expectations have been based largely on the airline safety record. By almost any measure, commercial air travel is probably the safest mode of transportation. This is because of the tremendous emphasis that is placed on the reliability of aircraft, air crews, and the air traffic control system in which they operate.
General aviation uses many of the same procedures as the airlines to achieve a good safety record. It is not quite as good as the airlines' record for some of the same reasons that pleasure boating is not as safe as traveling on an ocean liner. The aircraft are different, the pilots are different, and the objectives are different. But just as the diligent and cautious boater can operate safely while recognizing the limitations of his or her craft, so too can general aviation pilots. Pilots who develop and maintain their skills can fly with exceptional safety and derive maximum pleasure from this exciting activity.
How do student pilots stay safe while learning?
Pilots learning to fly are placed in a system that provides checks and balances to ensure that they aren't exposed to dangerous situations before they have been given the necessary knowledge to cope.
Prior to flying alone, student pilots must complete a written examination and have demonstrated proficiency in all activities relating to local flying, including emergencies. So when you take the airplane up for the first time by yourself, you will have been drilled many times in what to do in case something doesn't work as planned. Essentially, the same approach is followed prior to going on long solo trips, called cross-country flights, away from the airport. The objective is to keep new pilots under the watchful eye of an instructor until they have gained the experience and knowledge to go out on their own. That supervision process continues until the student pilot becomes a private pilot.
What happens if the engine quits?
That may be the most-asked question of pilots since the age of powered flight began. First, it should be noted that aircraft engines very rarely quit. Most pilots will fly their entire lives without a major engine malfunction. The engine is designed with dual ignition systems and two spark plugs per cylinder so that, if one system fails, the engine will continue to run on the second system.
But anything mechanical can fail, and if it does, what can we do about it? The aircraft is balanced so that it becomes a glider. The nose of the aircraft will dip slightly below the horizon and assume a stable attitude. Although the engine may have stopped producing thrust, the wings are still producing lift, so a typical training aircraft can glide as far as 9 miles from an altitude of 6,000 feet above the ground. The pilot has full use of the flight controls to turn and descend. The only thing that can't be done is to continue climbing. While a forced landing seldom happens, pilots are trained to look for safe landing sites, such as an open field, just in case that one-in-a-million malfunction occurs.
Aren't most aircraft accidents serious?
There is a common misconception that most aircraft accidents are serious. In reality, about three quarters of all aircraft accidents result in minor or no injury to the pilot or passengers. A great deal depends on the type of accident and how the aircraft was handled.
Just as with automobiles, certain types of incidents are more serious. A head-on collision in a car, although not common, is usually serious. In aviation, weather-related accidents are usually serious, and we'll discuss them in detail momentarily. Fender benders are much more likely. The aviation equivalent to the fender bender is the landing accident. These occur at relatively low speeds, and injuries other than to the pilot's ego are quite unusual.
A typical scenario will be a windy day where the wind may not be blowing right down the runway. The crosswind will cause the aircraft to drift off the side of the runway if the pilot doesn't make a correction. Landing in the rough will generally cause some damage to the aircraft. These kinds of accidents are easily prevented by developing and maintaining proficiency in handling crosswinds and by choosing runways more aligned with the prevailing winds.
What about weather accidents?
You have probably taken trips on the airlines when a flight was delayed because of thunderstorms, fog, or snow. No mode of transportation is immune to the weather. In general aviation, we see it firsthand through the windshield and take precautions before any difficulty arises. In addition to being a necessity for safe flight, it is a fascinating opportunity to observe and learn about the natural weather phenomena that affect our lives on the ground as well as in the air.
Occasionally, you may read or hear about an aircraft in the local news that crashed in bad weather. The news media are sometimes less than accurate in the portrayal of an aviation accident, frequently because of their haste to provide an instant story. Aviation is a technical business, and quick analysis doesn't necessarily take in all the facts that would explain why a particular accident occurred. In most cases, a "weather" accident should be more properly called a "pilot" accident because the pilot was not properly qualified to fly in bad weather and exceeded his or her own limitations and those of the aircraft.
Pilots first learn to fly under visual flight rules (VFR). This generally requires a minimum flight visibility of 3 miles and a certain distance from any clouds. Most pilots will choose much better weather conditions to give themselves more margin. Fly into a cloud, and you will lose reference to the outside horizon, just like driving into a very thick fog bank. In flight, humans can't tell which way is up when outside reference is lost, so we must rely on the flight instruments to determine the flight attitude. As a student pilot, you will be given some basic instrument instruction that is intended for use only as a last resort. Deliberate instrument flying requires additional training and forms the basis for the next typical step, the instrument rating, which then qualifies a pilot to fly in the clouds.
A VFR pilot who gets into the clouds is clearly in over his or her head, and the results usually make headlines. This is easily preventable. Student pilots are taught the basics of weather forecasting and interpretation. Books, videotapes, and magazine articles on the subject abound.
Prior to all cross-country flights, conscientious pilots get a weather briefing from the flight service station by telephone, personal computer, or in person. This provides actual weather reports from airports along the route of flight, a forecast of what the weather is likely to be, and, sometimes, pilot reports of actual weather from aircraft enroute. In the majority of "weather" accidents, the pilot was warned that VFR flight was not recommended.
Just as boaters have to keep an eye out for weather, pilots must look for adverse conditions, but unlike many boats, an aircraft can outrun storms. Problems develop when the warning signs are ignored, and the pilot presses on. Sometimes the clues are subtle, but as the risk increases, they generally become pronounced and then just a little good judgment can save the day.
What about midair collisions?
When you start to fly, your instructor will invariably advise you that a midair collision will ruin your whole day. You'll be instructed always to look for other aircraft. In a typical year, there are about 25 midairs nationwide, and because they are rare, they do make the headlines. The majority of these occur on clear days within just a few miles of an airport.
To avoid close encounters with other airplanes, there are some elaborate precautions taken to keep aircraft from tangling. At busy airports, particularly with airline traffic, a control tower will provide takeoff and landing instructions by radio. All flights in the area maintain contact with the tower to coordinate their movements.
At smaller airports without control towers, standard traffic patterns are established, so pilots will know where to look for aircraft entering or leaving the area. A common traffic advisory frequency, or CTAF, is available at most places. This is like a telephone party line where pilots advise their intentions on that radio frequency, and other pilots listen in to know what is going on.
The Federal Aviation Administration has an extensive air traffic control system whose sole purpose is to keep aircraft separated. In high-density terminal areas, all flights are tracked by radar and are under positive control. Any aircraft flying in this airspace has a device called a transponder that allows controllers to identify the aircraft positively and its speed, direction, and altitude. Prior to flying in one of these areas by yourself, you will receive training on the proper procedures.
Obviously, it's important that aircraft be reliable mechanically. What's the record on this?
Aircraft are perhaps some of the best examples of over-design in engineering. A factory-built airplane must meet rigid FAA design criteria and performance specifications. Each design is tested throughout its flight envelope, and a safety margin is then built in.
For example, the structure of a typical training aircraft is certified to withstand 4.4 positive Gs. This means that if the airplane and contents weigh 2,000 pounds in normal level flight, the structure can safely handle up to 8,800 pounds in turns and pull-outs from dives, where the weight increases from centrifugal force. In routine flight, a pilot will usually not exceed 2 Gs.
There are very, very few accidents caused by an aircraft just coming apart, and this is easily prevented. The leading cause is where the pilot overstresses the aircraft in a pull-out or exceeds the top (redline) airspeed. In an automobile, if you over-rev the engine or take a corner too fast, you've exceeded the car's envelope. The vast majority of drivers know the limitations of their cars and never have a problem. The same principles apply to aircraft, and pilots who adhere to the operating limitations will never have to worry about the aircraft structure.
The other prevention area is in maintenance. All aircraft are required to have an extensive inspection each year, conducted by an FAA certified inspector. The engine, controls, and airframe are given a thorough inspection, and any problems that are found are corrected. The inspector must sign his or her name in the aircraft logbook, attesting to the airworthiness of the aircraft.
Aircraft that fly for hire, such as the ones you would most likely be renting for training, have an additional requirement. These airplanes must, in addition to the annual, have an inspection every 100 flight hours. In the case of a busy trainer, this could be as often as once per month. Any damage or corrosion is spotted long before it can weaken the airframe to the point of failure.
As a result of this emphasis on continuing airworthiness, actual mechanical problems are identified in only about 10 percent of the accidents.
What about getting lost?
Almost every pilot has been los ... er ... disoriented at some point, usually fairly early in their flying career. (We seldom admit to being lost it's just that the landmarks don't quite match the chart momentarily.) As usual, procedures and training keep this from becoming a serious situation. As a student pilot, the planning for every solo trip will be carefully scrutinized by your instructor. The weather forecasts, navigation calculations, flight log, radio navigation, fuel consumption, communication frequencies, and, yes, procedures to follow in case of "disorientation" will be reviewed.
When you are first taught to fly, navigation by pilotage or reference to ground landmarks is explained. This is followed by radio and possibly even satellite navigation. In most parts of the country, pilots can call on the emergency radio frequency, 121.5 MHz, which is monitored by all FAA facilities, to ask for help. In many cases, you will be guided by radar vectors to a nearby airport.
What about running out of gas?
This should never happen to a pilot because of the emphasis put on planning. Prior to every flight, a prudent pilot will always ensure that there is far more than enough fuel to get where you're going.
Unlike a car, running out of gas in an airplane is likely to be more than just a source of embarrassment or inconvenience. Every year, a number of pilots push their luck by trying to stretch fuel reserves. We recommend a minimum of one hour of extra fuel upon landing at your destination. If the wind is stronger than you planned or you got momentarily "disoriented," the margin is there to find the closest airport and refuel. By following such a simple procedure, you can eliminate this concern entirely.
How does one stay up-to-date on the latest safety information?
In aviation, more time is spent on safety-related areas than anything else. Just as one must review regularly in professions such as law, medicine, and business, pilots have a wide range of materials to help them stay current on safety procedures and regulations. AOPA members receive the association's magazine, AOPA Pilot, every month to keep them abreast of the latest happenings.
The function of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation is to promote general aviation safety through education, research, and training. As a nonprofit charitable foundation, we conduct more than 180 free safety seminars all over the country each year to teach pilots new techniques and to review research on safety studies and accident trends.
The foundation also runs the leading flight instructor refresher program in the country. Instructors must renew their certificates every two years by regulation, and the foundation offers a comprehensive program to help all instructors maintain proficiency.
We publish numerous low-cost pamphlets, safety reviews on specific aircraft, and videotapes and provide other materials to make the education process interesting and enjoyable.
Additionally, many groups, such as the FAA, flying clubs, and aviation-industry-sponsored organizations, offer lectures, seminars, and materials to help the education process.
Proficiency in any endeavor, recreational or professional, requires periodic review and refresher training. General aviation is no different, and pilots who practice regularly and seek competent instruction should enjoy an excellent safety record.
Bruce Landsberg is executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.