How dangerous is flying in a single-engine plane?

  • Some people consider flying small planes very dangerous. Just how dangerous is it to fly in a light single-engine plane? For example, how does the fatality rate compare to driving a car, riding a motorcycle, etc.?

    Usually, folks argue: the less props, the higher the risk. Interestingly, the same folks do not consider gliders to be more risky.

    @Krumelur Due to the simplicity of most essential glider technology technical failures are *quite* rare. Just about all of the risk there is human factors related.

    @Krumelur The converse argument certainly favors gliders: The more engines you have the greater the chance of an engine failure. Gilders are thus inherently safe, as they have no engine to fail :-)

    The major factor in ga crashes is the pilot. So pick a good one if you fly in a ga aircraft.

    No problem. Every pilot considers himself or herself above average.

    @Krumelur: there's an old adage for private planes that goes something like, "when the first engine fails, the second will fly you to the accident site."

    My grandpa has told me that one. Are we talking two-stroke or four-stroke engines?

    @xpda I am the only driver I trust to drive in the snow, because you all are crazy! :)

    @CGCampbell, you do have a point. :)

    Also remember that a glider is PLANNING to have no engine... they fly with the assumption that they should never be further than a single glide from their location to the runway and plan accordingly. Single engined aircraft will almost certainly get out of glide range of an airfield at some stage of their journey.

    And gliders have glide ratios of anywhere from 20:1 to 50:1 or more. Most airplanes are in the 10:1 to 12:1 range. And then there's the worst glider in the world with a glide ratio of 1:1.

  • I get this question a lot from people who are apprehensive about flying with a private pilot. I'm afraid I won't be reducing these fears in any way. Let's review some general statistics during 2008. Note - these stats aren't specific to light or single engine aircraft:

    • NTSB reported there were 1.21 fatalities per 100,000 flight hours for private aircraft (Part 91 operators).

    • NHTSA reported there were 1.26 fatalities per 100 million miles travelled by automobile

    We can equate that to about 2 million hours (estimating an average speed of 50mph). This gives us 0.063 fatalities per 100,000 driving hours.

    Private aircraft have a fatality rate about 19 times greater than driving. It is also true that a majority of the accidents that occur are pilot error (71%) and could have been prevented.

    There are risks involved when taking to the sky as a private pilot and understanding these risks is part of the continual learning process. The key to safety is performing careful planning, keeping current and proficient, knowing when to cancel flights or turn around and not to exceed your capabilities or the capabilities of your aircraft.

    Was the question specific to single engine aircraft? Can we generalize that single engine = private aircraft?

    @Michael: not a bad question. There are also a lot of incidents involving light twins and asymmetric power flight (e.g. training, engine failure, etc.). Are these cases substantial enough to make a significant difference between single engine accident data, compared to all private operations?

    I remember reading several years ago that twin piston planes had a similar fatality rate to crop dusters. It may have changed since then.

    Could you cite your source? I'm curious/hoping they'll have numbers for commercial flight operations as well.

    Although the risk may be 19x over driving, 1.2 deaths per 100,000 hours still seems awfully safe to me. I don't imagine I could amass 100,000 hours in my lifetime, no matter how much I flew, and if I did, I'd expect to die only once? Sounds like a pretty safe deal to me.

    @abelenky 100,000 hours is 137 years (give or take) of two hours every single day. Put differently, you'd die exactly once after just over 113 years of flying two hours every single day (113 y \* 365 d/y \* 2 h/d \* 1.21 = 99,813 flight hours). Yes, seems reasonably safe. *Statistically,* of course. In practice, with Launchpad McQuack around, you are safe for far, far longer than that.

    But I don't want to die in 137 years! This is probably the best number, though - people fly when they shouldn't, make bad decisions, and fly badly... but they also drive when they shouldn't, make bad decisions, and drive badly.

    As @voretaq7 hints in his answer, this approach seems too simplistic. For people considering flying versus driving (as I am), a comparison of hours is not really a good baseline, as the constant between modes of travel is usually the distance. Also, I think that though the number of passengers on a plane is also masking the true level of risk. Far fewer people fit in a car when it crashes. If cars were to fit more people then I think this statistic would be comparably skewed. When considering a mode of travel, I expect the overall probability of a fatal incident would be comparably lower.

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Content dated before 6/26/2020 9:53 AM