Is that safe?

There seem to be two common reactions when I tell people I’m learning to fly… “Are you crazy?” and “Is that safe?". I can assure you, that as to the former, there is probably little I can do to change people’s opinion. But, on the topic of safety…

Flying is dangerous. So is my motorcycle. So is an average car. What you need to do, is learn to manage those risks. Many (but definately not all) of you have mastered this in a car, for example. All things are relative, and the only way you’ll escape danger, is to hole yourself up and treat yourself like a mushroom.

There are many safety features to flying. Some of which are procedural, some of which are features of the aircraft itself.


First of all, there is training. Just like, at least for some of us, we had an instructor for learning to drive a car or ride a motorcycle, I have an instructor for flying. Lots of ground school, lots of instructor time in the air. Instructors demonstrate procedures in the air (not just the ground).

Remember learning to drive? Remember your instructor’s only control, the extra set of brakes? Remember that person slammin the break and you freaking the car is just stopping for no reason? Remember the look on his face just before that point?

Well, in a plane, there are two sets of controls. Full controls. Not just the brake. The instructor can demonstrate procedures using the yoke and rudder. The instructor can also take the controls for safety reasons. If a student decides on inadvertant spin training before he or she is ready, the instructor can take the controls and recover. The first two sessions I’ve had, the instructor has also done the landing, with me just lightly holding onto the controls to set my expectations on how much to manipulate them when it is my turn.

Another role the instructor will fill is to teach how to recognize warnings of impending danger - and how to correct for it before it happens. Also, how to correct for it AFTER it happens.

We intentionally stalled the plane, 2500 feet in the air. You know what? That’s not so bad. Stalling means you pulled the nose too high. Put it back down. You can always add power to help with altitude. Likewise, training includes spin recovery.

If I do manage to stall then spin the plane, I know what I need to do to recover. Rudder opposite spin to stop the spin, push nose down to stop the stall quickly, then smoothly recover attitude.

Okay, so, all that’s fine and dandy. But is that all? No sir!


The day actually starts out with preflight. It goes something like this:



All of that is done before you ever turn the engine over! I am probobably forgetting something, too. Pilots _always_ use a checklist, specific to the plane they are flying.

If you’re flying a different configuration than normal, you also do a weight and balance check. Make sure you’re not too heavy, and also, make sure you’re not unduly balanced towards the front or the back - a plane is designed with a specific range for center-of-gravity. Moving things forward or backward (or people) may be neccesary to keep the CG optimal.

After you’ve checked ATIS for weather, runway info, and other important data, you call ground control on the radio. Ground control is responsible for making sure that nobody hits each other on the ground. They track all vehicles - winged or not - on the field. You simply must have permission to move a vehicle, end of story. In the case of the airport I’m using, taxi instructions will generally have me crossing at least one runway - they are keeping track of when it is safe, as I may not see all the traffic in the area. The faster the plane, the more suddenly it might appear out of a cloud.

During Taxi


Once you’ve taxied to the designated runway, you start doing your runup tests. This is where you do one last check of your engine.

Speaking of magnetos, another safety feature. Magnetos provide the spark to the engine. They run off battery initially, to start, but don’t need battery to keep running. There are two sets, so that even if one fails in the air, you’ll only lose a tiny percentage of engine power. More info about magnetos can be found at Wikipedia.

Once you’re done with all the preflighting checks, you call the tower. Tell them who you are, where you are, and that you’re ready to take off into whatever direction. They may make you wait if there is other traffic cleared to use the runway already. Once it is your turn, they give you clearance. Paranoia is good - controllers are not in your plane. They are good at what they do, but ..things happen. Make sure you see no traffic that would cause you problems; then go onto the runway and make your takeoff.

In the air

The first few moments are the most dangerous, since you’re low to the ground, which means little time in an emergency. You need to pay attention, don’t bank the plane’s angle too much (the more you bank, the less lift you have; and it increases the speed at which you can stall).

Training will drill in what you need to do if you have an engine failure at this point. The short gist is, you don’t have time or altitude to turn around. Find your best options _ahead_ of you. Period. Smart pilots learn their options at new airports before they ever leave the ground. The situation sucks, but training can help prevent this from being fatal. This also highlights the need for properly preflighting the plane. If you didn’t check for water in the fuel tank, for example.. this .. is the time you’d notice.

Once you’re in the air, things are a bit easier. Altitude is your friend. There can be no harm by going higher (within reason, or pack oxygen). There is no GOOD reason to stay low to the ground, other than clouds. It doesn’t take much height to make a fall fatal - so there is no difference between 100 feet and 10,000 feet in terms of surviving the fall. Might a well gain some altitude.

The first thing altitude will give you is time, in the event of an engine failure. You can glide a 9:1 ratio in a Cessna 172. Every 600 feet higher you are, you can glide another mile out from where you are. We have been practicing at 3000 feet. If I have an engine failure at 3000 feet, I can go about 5 miles, and I have about 6 minutes to do that. Plenty of time to retest the engine, and executie on “plan b”. (While flying, you always update “plan b”, so that if you do have a failure, you already know what you’re going to do.)

The second thing altitude gives you, is radio coverage. Aviation communications are in the VHF band - which means, line of sight. Hills and buildings can block communications. The higher up you are, the more likely you can call for assistances. You can tell the where you are, and enough information for them to guess where you’re going. They can efficienctly send rescue after you this way. And if you’re in need of rescue, that efficiency _can_ be quite valuable.

Accident rates

So, again, you think this is “too dangerous”. Perhaps. NHTSA does keep statistics of vehicle crashes, and NTSB of plane crashes.

On the Ground in 2003: Cars, 1.23 fatalities per 100 million miles. Motorcycles, 38.93 per 100 million miles travelled. [NHTSA ]

In the Air in 2000 (NTSB is a bit slower): General Aviation specifically: 1.21 fatal accidents per 100,000 hours flown. 6.57 accidents per hours flown. [ NTSB]( NTSB “wikilink”)

Comparing the two is not so simple. For sake of argument, let us assume that average airplane speed is 100 knots, or 115 “normal” miles an hour. *I* do not think this is unreasable, but I’m not a statistics person either. Caveat emptor.

This would make 1.21 per 100,000 hours into.. 1.21 per 11,500,000 miles. Normalizing this to per 100 million rate, means 10.5 fatalities per 100 million miles.

This puts the safety of flying to be 9x riskier than driving; but only a third as risky as riding a motorcycle.

(An interesting exercise might be to compare against urban driving statistics.. I am fairly certain people on the road are out to get me!)


Hey, planes are dangerous. So is driving to the grocery store. Just like motorcycles (and cars), training and paranoia are key to improving the odds of surviving another day. Check your equipment, use those checklists, do regular maintenance. Watch out for the other guy out there. Don’t operate outside your comfort zone. Train to increase your comfort zone.

And remember, life is a terminal disease. Enjoy it while you can.

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