Ask A Small Plane Pilot: What’s Up With the All the Crashes, Dude?

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You know those little tiny planes that people like to fly for fun and some people take as air taxis? I have a friend who flies one of those itty bitty planes and keeps offering to take me out on a ride one day. I constantly demur, because, well, tragedies like this happen. As you’ve probably heard, Travis Barker and DJ AM are in critical condition, and are expected to make a full recovery, but their friends, including Chris “Little Chris” Baker, 29, of Studio City, Calif.; and Charles Still, 25, of Los Angeles, Calif. both passed away (along with the two pilots.)

While the risk of commercial airline crashes are still smaller than automobile crashes at 1 in 11 million, vs 1 in 5000 driving, private plane crashes seem to happen all the time. That’s because they are statistically more likely to happen. If you think about the most famous deaths related to airplane crashes, they are all in small planes: John F. Kennedy Jr., Stevie Ray Vaughan, John Denver, Randy Rhoads, Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly, “The Big Bopper,” all died in small plane crashes. Sometimes they were the pilots.

Small planes crashes are more frequent in part because of an inability to counter electromagnetic surges; they are more vulnerable to a faltering GPS system; weather can upset a smaller, lighter plane more easily, whereas a monstrous Boeing 747 can weather the weather. And there’s always pilot error to consider: small planes are more likely to be flown by hobbyists; you can’t just whisk off to a nearby state for a day in a 747.

I asked my pilot friend, Bryan Keith, who flies small planes as a hobby, about small plane crashes. Of the Barker/AM crash he says: He says, “Most pilots are always pissed about the bum rap that general aviation gets. Mainstream news stories about plane crashes are almost always sensational and factually inaccurate.” He explained that we have Small Plane Bias and tried to set the record straight.

Why do I seem to read more about these accidents than others?

You hear about these accidents more than others, such as a common, everyday fatal car wreck, because a plane crash is more interesting. Coverage of a small plane falling from the sky and crashing into a huge ball of flame is a more exciting news report than the guy who falls asleep and crashes his Honda Accord into a tree. Throw some celebrities into the mix and you’ve got yourself a headline news story.

Doesn’t this scare the bejesus out of you?

Not really. Do I want to get in a crash? Hell no. It would be awful. But here are the facts…in 2006,  1.26 fatal accidents occured for every 100,000 hours of flying. If I fly an average of 150 hours a year, I need to fly something like 540 years before I can statistically expect to be in a fatal accident. There are obviously tons of other factors to consider, but you get the idea. Part of being a safe pilot is to study plane crashes. What happened? What can I do to mitigate the risk? I don’t have the exact number in front of me, but the vast majority of accidents are caused by human error. Very rarely does a mechanical issue cause an accident. If you try to avoid repeating the mistakes made by the accident pilots, you’ve already greatly reduced your odds. For instance, one of the most common causes for small plane crashes is fuel exhaustion.  The plane simply runs out of gas. How do you avoid this? Simple fuel management before your flight will eliminate this from ever happening.

Why are small planes statistically more likely to go down?

As opposed to airliners? It happens more often in smaller planes for a few reasons. First, many small planes are flown by people that don’t do it for a living. They don’t have as much disciplined training as a pilot who carries hundreds of passengers on a daily basis. Secondly, small planes often fly into smaller and riskier airports than a large airliner. Shorter runways, grass runways, runways on the side of a mountain..that kind of thing. Third, small planes usually perform many more take offs and landings per flight hour than airliners. These are statistically the most dangerous parts of a flight. Lastly, small planes, although they have to follow strict regulations in order to legally fly…these are less stringent than the regulations that large airliners must adhere to.

What is the small plane that you fly, and do you pray to the gods every time you get in it?

I’m currently flying a Cessna 177B, also known as a Cessna Cardinal. It’s a four-seat, 180 horsepower single engine plane. I sometimes get a few butterflies before a flight, but I think that’s normal for a low time pilot like myself. I think it’s healthy too. You always have to remember flying a plane is not like driving a car. It requires a little planning before you hop in the plane and go. Go through your checklist. Make sure you don’t leave out any steps.  The plane that crashed (in Barker and AM’s case) was a very complex, very sophisticated jet flown by two professional full time pilots. It more closely resembled an airliner than a single engine plane, like the kind that I fly. From what I’ve read,  the plane may have blown a tire or tires when going down the runway.  They tried to abort the take off…but they were going too fast to stop.

How long have you been flying?

I would definitely be considered a low time pilot. I got my pilot certificate about four months ago. It took me almost a year of training to get my certificate. I have about 110 hours of flight time.

What’s the biggest risk in a small plane?

Pilot error is the most common cause of accidents in general aviation. The biggest error that a low time pilot makes is flight into weather conditions that are beyond his/her skill level. A pilot needs to know what kind of weather he/she should expect along their route. If the weather poses a risk…change your route or cancel the flight until the weather improves. This is exactly what happened to JFK. He was a low time pilot flying at night, over water in very poor visibility. He had no reference outside the window. He shouldn’t have put himself in that situation. He didn’t have the proper training to deal with what is normally a routine situation for a pilot with more experience and an instrument rating (a pilot rating that allows one to fly into clouds and low visibility situations).
What’s the biggest risk in a big plane?

Getting into a car crash on the way to the airport.

3 comments on “Ask A Small Plane Pilot: What’s Up With the All the Crashes, Dude?
  1. Also, a big difference is that small GA aircraft have one engine. Something goes wrong, and you’re making an emergency landing. Depending on the situation you’re in, it can lead to a fatal crash (such as in mountainous regions, or at low altitude where you don’t have the time, altitude, or location to get down safely.)

    An airliner must be able to maintain a reasonable altitude on only one of it’s engines (I believe. It may be half of it’s engines so a 747 has to be able to maintain on 2, but I think the 747 can even run on just one. I’ll have to look it up).

    Regardless, a commercial plane can lose an engine and be fine. The chance of losing both engines to a mechanical failure are very very low.

    Coupled with the facts stated above, it is more dangerous than commercial aviation, but I still wouldn’t consider it dangerous by any means.

  2. This misuse of stats drives me bonkers. Flying small planes is, obviously, extremely dangerous. 1.62 fatalities per 100,000 hours. That’s 1 per 61,000. Sounds low risk, right? Consider that 2 trillion miles are driven every year with 40 thousand fatalities. That’s 1 death per 70 million miles or about 1 per 2 million hours. That makes flying small planes, per hour, 32 times more dangerous than driving.

    The fact that most pilots don’t log many hours is not a factor. When you operate a small plane, your risk is 32 times greater than the drive to the airstrip.

  3. I believe the lady who wrote this article should have at least done some research about GA aircraft.

    I feel much safer in my plane flying cross country because I am not 4 ft. away from a possible head on collision every time I meet a car on a two lane highway. Factor in texting, or drinking those highway deaths do ocur many more times than plane crashes.

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