Small planes are generally considered being quite safe when operated by experienced pilots and maintained according to best practices. Compared to traveling by car or truck, small planes are much safer, despite their higher speeds and distance from the ground.
But what do the statistics say? According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, statistics reported for General Aviation:
- From 2000 to 2020, there were a total of 10,060 fatalities
- From 2015 to 2020, there were a total of 2,220 fatalities
- From 2000 to 2020, there were a total of 30,661 accidents
- From 2015 to 2020, there were a total of 7,294 accidents
From the fatality and accident data provided, this equated to:
- From 2000 to 2020, there were, on average, 1.07 fatal accidents per 100,000 flight hours.
- From 2015 to 2020, there were, on average, 0.881 fatal accidents per 100,000 flight hours.
- From 2000 to 2020, there were, on average, 5.69 accidents, per 100,000 flight hours.
- From 2015 to 2020, there were, on average, 4.96 accidents, per 100,000 flight hours.
However, the statistics do not tell the whole story. While accident and fatality numbers and rates are higher than commercial airline statistics, we must look at why they are higher.
What is defined as a Small Plane?
In this article, we’ll use the term ‘small plane’ interchangeably with ‘general aviation.’ General Aviation is the term the Bureau of Transportation Statistics uses to classify everything outside of Commercial US Air Carriers and Commuter Air Carriers, and On-Demand Air-Taxis. You can think of general aviation as corporate, jets, instructional planes, sightseeing planes, planes for personal use, and more. A complete list of the General Aviation profile can be found here on the BTS website.
Are Small Planes Safer than Commercial Flying?
Generally, no, but that doesn’t mean they are more dangerous either. Safety depends heavily on who’s flying the plane, where it’s flying, what the weather conditions are, how the plane has been maintained, and other factors.
The odds of being killed or in an accident in a small, non-commercial plane are significantly higher compared to traveling with a large commercial airline. Some factors that affect the overall safety of a smaller plane include:
- Pilot experience
- Mechanical redundancies
- Interaction with Wildlife
The Cessna 172 is a single-engine, fixed-wing aircraft that first debuted in 1955. It is one of the bestselling airplanes of all time and is one of the most common airplanes used by flight schools. Many of today’s commercial airline pilots recall getting their first pilot’s license on one of these.
According to PilotInstitute.com, to earn a Private Pilot’s license, it takes a minimum of 40 hours. To be qualified for a commercial pilot’s license, like flying a plane for Delta, United, or American Airlines, you need a minimum of 1,500 hours.
Simply said, more hours means more experience. More experience typically results in less pilot error.
For a large commercial airliner, like the Boeing 747, mechanical redundancies are built into the plane to make it safer. Many systems have redundancies that provide a backup in case of a catastrophic event on one or two systems.
With small planes, you are more likely to have single-point failure systems with fewer back-up plans for safety. That’s not to say smaller aircraft do not have redundancies, but because of the nature of use with large commercial planes, there will likely be more across the board.
While severe turbulence is rarely an issue for any flight, large commercial airliners have a better ability to detect and avoid it. And if they can’t avoid it, they can handle it better due to their size and strength.
Modern Cessna’s have a maximum altitude of 13,000 to 15,000 feet. While commercial airliners cruise around 31,000 to 38,000 feet - the air is thinner and thus the plane can fly more efficiently over longer distances. There is typically less turbulence at higher altitudes, according to a NASA study, which means commercial airliners will have a lesser likelihood of facing adverse conditions.
Similar to turbulence, commercial airliners are better equipped to fly through bad weather while small planes are more likely to be impacted by it. Secondly, due to their ability to fly at higher altitudes, commercial airliners may be able to avoid bad weather altogether by flying above it.
Smaller planes are also more susceptible to wind shear and can’t handle crosswinds as well. This can create difficulties when attempting to land in windy conditions.
Thunderstorms occur in altitudes around 33,000 feet, but may reach altitudes up to 60,000 feet. So, large commercial airlines may be able to fly above a thunderstorm, but that is not the case for every single flight.
Interaction with Wildlife
More common in light planes are collisions with birds. This is a more serious risk, as it can cause mechanical damage to the plane and result in loss of control or an emergency landing.
Large commercial airliners are designed to withstand bird strikes, meaning they are much less likely to be affected by one. For example, if a bird were to fly into an engine, there are 3 more engines still running and the plane can still safely land.
Smaller planes are not as well equipped for such events and are more prone to mechanical failure or damage.
Are small planes more dangerous than cars?
Smaller planes are safer for travel than cars or trucks, based on data provided by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
- From 2015 to 2020, there were an average of 0.88 fatalities per 100,000 flight hours.
- From 2015 to 2020, there were an average of 4.96 accidents per 100,000 flight hours.
Looking at the above averages, we can compare those to data we have available for cars and trucks (light and large).
- From 2015 to 2020, there was a combined average of 1.59 fatalities per 100,000,000 vehicle miles.
- From 2015 to 2020, there was a combined average of 737.56 crashes per 100,000,000 vehicle miles.
- From 2015 to 2020, there was a combined average of 161.74 injuries per 100,000,000 vehicle miles.
While flight hours do not compare side by side with vehicle miles, it does provide a rough idea of the frequency of each. However, we do not know the number of ‘general aviation’ aircraft in the sky - the BTS does not provide that information. Nor do we know the number of departures that take place.
For the average person driving 15,000. miles a year, it would take about 67 years to drive 1,000,000 miles. Realistically, within your lifetime you will be in 7.37 crashes, be injured 1.62 times, but are relatively unlikely to be killed.
However, for someone to reach 100,000 flight hours, in say 50 years, you would need to fly for 2,000 hours a year. Doing some easy math, if a round trip flight is 10 hours total, then that’s 200 flights a year - a little less than 1x 10 hour flight a day.
To summarize, you’d need to fly 200 days out of the year, 10 hours a day, for 50 years before you even come close to becoming a fatality. Thus, it’s very unlikely you’ll ever be killed in a plane. Statistically speaking, you are more likely to be killed in a car or truck accident than a small plane.
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