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Pilots don’t agree on much, but if you were to ask what are the scariest things that could potentially occur in an airplane you will almost universally get this answer: Fire, Structural Failure, and Midair (in no particular order).
Not that we sit around trembling in fear of such things, but when the thought wafts through our minds, it’s usually not a pleasant experience.
So what do the numbers really say about such morbid occurrences?
I poured over the NTSB database looking at the last 10 years and mined out all of the fixed-wing general aviation reports involving the “big three” listed above.
If you don’t like numbers, let me summarize:
You are more likely to win the lottery than to meet your demise due to one of these three boogie men, but you probably already knew that.*
If you do like numbers I have included my findings.
Based on the GAMA data regarding the previous 10 year period in aviation, we know that we fly on average 24,160,455 hours annually. This is across all of the US fixed-wing fleet. From the NTSB database I obtained the total number of accidents in these three categories and computed a likelihood for each – see caption below each chart. It’s not overly scientific, but I can barely spell actuary table much less create one.
The charts really tell the story. Midairs are the most prevalent of the three, with fires lagging only slightly behind. It seems that structural failures are pretty rare, but deadly as you would expect. Of course, midair collisions usually don’t turn out well either.
The spectre of an in flight fire has been my personal boogie man, but the good news is in the remote chance that one might occur 1:4M (on an hourly basis) and less than 22% of these end up being fatal. This doesn’t count post-impact fires, which were well represented during my stroll through the NTSB database.
These are the total fixed-wing GA occurrences over the last 10 years – source NTSB database
-Source NTSB database. Odds of this happening is 1:4M
-Source NTSB database. Odds of this happening is 1:13M
-Source NTSB database. Odds of this happening is 1:3M
So you can draw your own conclusions, but at the end of the day flying is very safe and there’s really no “boogie men” to worry about.
The lessons learned from the accident records, if I can quickly summarize, are:
- Fires and structural failures are mechanical breakdowns so good maintenance and engineering can go a long way to mitigating these two particular issues. Obviously these statistics are much better these days, but the lesson here is don’t skimp on maintenance for your aero machine.
- The midair is the most prevalent of the group and for the pilot, the most avoidable. That’s because you are in control, right? Keeping your head on a swivel and not letting yourself get sucked inside is key to survival here. With some of the new technology coming on line, we’ll get some help in this arena, but we are still the last line of defense.
*This is based on the Ohio Lottery’s current Powerball with odds at 1:5M to win. The bonus number jackpot is actually closer to 1:175M (not great odds by the way).
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