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The Risk of Flying in Small Airplanes vs. Large Airplanes

On January 30, 2006, a small Cessna 421B plane crashed a mile from Palwaukee airport in Wheeling, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, killing all 4 aboard. This accident was one of ten fatal crashes and 56 small aircraft accidents in the first weeks of 2006 in the U.S.

85% of small plane accidents are due to pilot error, while only 37% of large plane accidents are due to pilot error.

And according to the FAA's August 2005 Factbook, there were 2,339 small aircraft accidents in 2004-2005 and only 39 accidents involving large airliners.

With air traffic expected to double in the next 20 years, and initiatives underway to source this surge in air travel to smaller planes, it is worthwhile to understand the basics behind why it is considerably more risky to fly in small versus larger commercial airplanes. (It also bears repeating that flying in any sort of plane is still far less dangerous than driving in a car.)

For starters, over 50% of the active aircraft in the U.S. are considered small aircraft, and over 75% of the pilots in the U.S. are licensed to fly only small aircraft. Many fly without the aid of Air Traffic Control, and use small airports with no control towers.

Visual Flight Rules (VFR) vs. Instrument Flight Rules (IFR)

To become a small airplane pilot requires about 50-70 hours of flight training, with various studies in meteorology, navigation, simple aircraft maintenance, air law regulations, cockpit practices and principles of flight.

All small aircraft pilots must also be minimally trained using Visual Flight Rules. VFR training limits when and where pilots can fly.

Visual Flight Rules (VFR) pilots must fly in good weather, and are required to keep a specific distance from clouds with a strict minimum visual requirement. The pilot visually controls altitude, navigation and is responsible for maintaining safe distances from other aircraft and obstacles (terrain).

Small aircraft pilots trained for VFR usually fly under 12,500 feet, in uncontrolled airspace. Additionally their cabins are usually not pressurized and do not carry oxygen supplies. They are able to choose their own course and heading, use small airports with no control towers, and are not required to communicate with Air Traffic Control (ATC). The pilot alone is responsible.

Instrument Flight Rule (IFR) training combined with the necessary instrumentation and the support of Air Traffic Control allows continued flight operations in reduced or no visibility situations. All major airline pilots are IFR trained.

Air Traffic Control operates airspace between 18,000 and 60,000 feet. All airspace from 18,000 - 60,000 feet is designated Class A, requiring all aircraft to operate under Instrument Flying Rules (IFR), relying wholly on ATC.

IFR pilots are further trained to use on- board instrumentation to fly, and must communicate with Air Traffic Control, when operating above 18,000 feet. Instead of using only visuals, ATC can support them in navigation through bad weather and in separation from other aircraft and terrain.

Small Aircraft Transportation System

85% of all small plane accidents are due to pilot error, generally the pilot's lack of good judgment in knowing their limitations. Mechanical failures play a role in only a small percentage of small plane fatalities and are usually compounded by pilot error.

Pilot error accounts for only 37% of large airline accidents.

However, the major airports - home of the large airliners -- are busier than ever, clogged with delays and security issues.

In an effort to resolve these growing problems, the FAA and NASA have embarked on an ambitious research project called the "Small Aircraft Transportation System" (SATS).

Together the FAA and NASA are exploring ways to use small aircraft to ease the strain of today's airline schedules. The idea is to utilize the 3,400 small airports in the U.S. to free up the scheduling problems and traffic of the major airport hubs.

"The small aircraft transportation vision is a safe travel alternative freeing people and products from transportation system delays, by creating access to more communities in less time." -The SATS Vision

But weather, poor safety records, and capacity at the smaller airports, both in the air and on the ground, are key issues requiring solutions for the SATS project.

Some of SATS research will include:

  1. The ability of small aircraft pilots to function in constantly evolving airspace, keeping up with technology, training and advancements.

  2. The high volume of airplanes at small airports with no control towers

  3. Finding better technology for safe landings in severe weather

  4. Integrating small planes with the higher capacity air traffic control airspace

While flying in small airplanes is indeed more of a risk than large commercial airliners, though, it pays to refresh yourself on why a fear of flying is largely an irrational one, at least relative to other dangers.

We encourage you to read Fear of Flying: How to Get Over Your Phobia of Flying in an Airplane for details on why, and strategies on how to overcome your fears.

Recommended Reading

Fear of Flying: How to Get Over Your Phobia of Flying in an Airplane


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