Relative risk and absolute risk can both be hard to quantify. And one person’s safe is another’s extreme sport. What we do have are accident statistics and accident rates, and the relative risk of one type of flying to another.
All this data shows that learning to fly is one of the safest forms of aviation. Whether flying with an instructor or solo, student pilots have less than half the rate of fatal accidents than pilots as a whole. That’s according to a report on instructional safety published in 2014 by the AOPA Air Safety Institute. And most of those fatal accidents are in advanced instruction when the student already has a sport pilot certificate or higher. Further, having an instructor on board is good insurance in primary training. Only a third of primary instruction accidents occurred on dual flights, although roughly 65 percent of fatal primary accidents had an instructor on board.
This should give you some reassurance that learning to fly is relatively safe, especially when compared to other types of flying. But, again, context matters. There will always be unusual circumstances that cause a small number of accidents. Focusing on big problem areas will bring more benefit, and like in other areas of flying, takeoffs, landings, and go arounds are the problem areas. Landings alone accounted for 64 percent of student solo accidents, 31 percent of those during primary dual instruction, and 37 percent of advanced training accidents. Takeoffs were 15 percent of dual accidents, 12 percent of student solo, and 10 percent of advanced instruction.
None of this is particularly shocking. Airplanes are damaged when they hit something hard, and there aren’t that many hard things in the sky. Takeoff and landing can also be times of high workload, and distractions are common. Finally, landing is one of the most difficult things to learn, so it makes sense that accidents during landing are the most common, especially on student solos. Thankfully, fatalities are rare.
Once you see a good safety culture at work it becomes glaringly obvious when one is lacking.One area where accidents are exceedingly rare? Maneuvering practice. While practicing stalls, emergency approaches, and steep turns have always and will always make students feel on edge, they are generally low-risk maneuvers. In the 10-year study period only 25 primary dual accidents and seven primary solo accidents were recorded during maneuvering flight. Of the seven solo accidents, four were for aggressive and risky behavior, such as buzzing a house and pulling up sharply. Emergency approach practice factored into roughly half of the 25 accidents.
So, what’s a student to do with this information? After all, the training occurs under the supervision of an instructor, who should be taking ownership of the overall safety of the training course.
One of the best things you can do is ensure your instructor or school has a positive safety culture. This can take on many forms, but once you see a good safety culture at work it becomes glaringly obvious when one is lacking. Things like strict weather standards, close oversight of student solos, efficient and reliable maintenance, repeated discussions of the risks of various operations and how to avoid them, and a solid safety reporting structure are all signs that the school or instructor is seriously concerned about safety.
And as a student, use your judgment. If a maneuver feels unsafe, say so. Question things like the recovery altitude of emergency approach practice, the altitude floor of maneuvers, proper use of traffic scanning techniques, the use of industry standard control swaps, and more. Prompt discussions about the relative risk of various operations and discuss how to mitigate them.
Unlike the road, where lots of knuckleheads are constantly trying to run into you, the safety of aviation rests largely on the pilot’s shoulders. It’s not trite to say that aviation is safe as you want to make it.
The AOPA Air Safety Institute is the world's largest provider of free general aviation safety content.