Is Becoming A Pilot Dangerous?

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Original publication date: November 12, 2022
Last Updated: February 9, 2024
Author: Max Skyler
Topic: Proficiency
Number of Comments: 0

In the mind of the average person, becoming a pilot may come across as an inherently dangerous activity. This impression is the product of a number of misconceptions, preconceived notions, misrepresentations and mischaracterizations of the facts with respect to aviation accidents, whenever they occur.

Becoming a pilot is not inherently dangerous in and of itself. Aviation safety standards exist to ensure that all pilots are adequately trained and that all aircraft are meticulously maintained in an airworthy condition. As long as these directives are adhered to, becoming a pilot is extremely safe.

Flying is statistically the safest way to fly. No activity is without risk, aviation included. But what makes aviation so safe are the great lengths to which risk mitigation is built into the federal aviation system. Let’s take a look at the various safety measures that are in place today that give credence to this fact.

Airworthiness Compliance Is Mandatory In Order To Legally Fly

When it comes to automobiles, a vehicle can still be deemed “street legal” even if certain parts of the engine are not tuned properly or some physical components of the vehicle are in need of repair.

Airplanes, on the other hand, are required, by law, to adhere to a very strict set of criteria in order to be deemed airworthy, or legal to fly. If even one of these criteria can not be met according to standards, then it becomes illegal to fly that aircraft, until the issue is addressed or the problem is fixed. This is demonstrative of the Federal Aviation Administration’s commitment to upholding the highest standards of safety.

Preflight Inspections Are Mandatory Before Every Flight

When was the last time you performed an inspection of your car before driving it? How many people do you know use a checklist to conduct a comprehensive “multi-point” inspection of the interior and exterior of their vehicle before driving it?

The pilot-in-command is required, by law, to perform a preflight inspection before each and every flight. This preflight inspection must be conducted using a checklist provided by the manufacturer of the airplane. A typical preflight inspection includes a visual check and operational test of all of the aircraft’s exterior surfaces as well as internal flight controls and instruments.

If even one checklist item fails to pass the preflight instruction, then the airplane must be grounded until the issue is resolved or the repair is made.

This ensures that any potential problems that might have occurred in-flight, are caught on the ground, before it would have been too late.

Biennial Flight Reviews Are Required For Pilot Proficiency

All pilots are required to undergo a biennial flight review every 24 months.

This flight review must be conducted by a certified flight instructor.

It consists of one hour of classroom review, during which the flight instructor will review the rules and regulations, policies and other general knowledge required of all pilots.

It also consists of one hour of in-flight review. The flight instructor will have the pilot demonstrate their proficiency at performing various flight maneuvers, such as takeoffs, landings, climbs, descents, turns, and emergency procedures.

Contrast that with driving: Are drivers required to take a drivers test every two years?

Which mode of transportation demands you to be safer and more competent? Flying or driving?

No Passengers Allowed Without Recent Flight Experience

It’s one thing for pilots to fly alone. You are responsible only for yourself. It’s another thing, when you are carrying passengers with you.

When you are carrying passengers, you are not only responsible for their safety and their lives, but also for their comfort during flight as well.

You do not want your passengers to become frightened, to panic, or to feel uneasy when they fly with you.

Therefore, the FAA requires that all pilots must have completed a minimum of 3 takeoffs and landings within the previous 90 days, in order for you to be allowed to carry passengers with you. 

This is the bare minimum recency of flight experience, required in order to deem it acceptable for you to carry passengers with you. 

The last thing you want your passengers to feel is that they do not have confidence in you. Therefore, 3 takeoffs and landings within the past 90 days is the bare minimum to be able to say that you have enough self-confidence to make your passengers feel comfortable and confident in your ability to competently manage the flight.

An a related note, recency of experience can also be coupled with a consideration over what are the easiest and safest airplanes for pilots to fly.

One Hundred Hour Inspections And Annual Inspections

All commercial aircraft or aircraft used in commercial operations are required by law to undergo a comprehensive inspection every one hundred cumulative hours of flight time. This is true whether it is a major airliner or a single-engine crop-duster.

Additionally, all aircraft are required by law to undergo an annual inspection. This is true regardless of whether the aircraft is used for general or commercial aviation. (For commercial aircraft, this annual inspection must still take place, regardless of whether a recent one hundred hour inspection has just taken place.)

If any issues are found during each inspection, they must be addressed or the necessary repairs and maintenance must be completed, before the aircraft can be certified as airworthy and thus legally allowed to fly again.

Automobiles do not have such an equivalent requirement (except for vehicle emissions tests, which are more of an Environmental Protection Agency – EPA – requirement, and not a vehicular safety issue). At best, most car manufacturers may propose recommended inspections at certain mileage intervals.

With this level of frequent inspections and recertification for airworthiness, is it any wonder that flying is statistically the safest mode of transportation? How is it possible that becoming a pilot could be dangerous, when such strict adherence to the highest standards of safety is mandated by law?

Every Phase of Flight Requires The Use Of A Checklist

For every phase of flight, there is a mandatory checklist that pilots must follow.

When you start the engine, there is a checklist you must follow.

When you taxi for takeoff, there is a checklist.

When you takeoff, there is a checklist.

When you climb, descend, level off, or turn, there are checklists for each of these in-flight maneuvers.

When you come in for a landing, there is a checklist for that as well.

The purpose of these checklists is to ensure that you execute each phase of flight safely.

It is when pilots omit items from the checklist, fail to follow the checklist, or deviate from the checklist, that problems can start to occur.

This is integral to every pilot’s risk mitigation strategy.

Simulated Emergency Training Is Required For All Pilots

All pilots are required to undergo training for emergencies. The training is not merely theoretical, but it is simulated as well. Pilots are required to practice simulated engine failures and demonstrate proficiency at either resolving the failure or landing the plane safely in an impromptu, forced-landing scenario.

This is not merely a one-time thing, either. Simulated emergency preparedness is a recurring item that is covered during every biennial flight review.

Therefore, pilots are fully prepared to handle in-flight emergencies, should they occur. In fact, there are checklists that pilots must follow, in the event of an emergency. (Yes, even in the heat of a crisis, pilots are trained to maintain calm and composure, and to follow the checklist, which they would have memorized, so as not to be fumbling, looking for a physical piece of paper.)

Pre-flight Planning Is Required For All Flights

Typically, when you get into your car, it doesn’t require much planning, apart from inputting your destination into your navigation system and perhaps also checking to ensure that you have enough fuel to get to your destination.

But when it comes to aviation, pre-flight planning is a comprehensive, methodical process.

Pre-flight planning helps you, as the pilot, answer questions such as:

  1. How much fuel will I need for my trip?
  2. What runways should I use at the departure and destination airports?
  3. What altitude(s) should I fly?
  4. What will the weather be like, enroute?
  5. How long will it take for me to get to my destination?
  6. Will my airplane be loaded within the acceptable margin for weight and balance limitations?
  7. Do I have a plan B – an alternate airport I can divert too, just in case the conditions of the flight dictate that I am unable to continue, as planned, to my destination?
  8. Is my aircraft in airworthy condition?
  9. Do I know what route I will be taking to get to my destination?
  10. Is there any restricted airspace or are there any obstacles along my route that I need to steer clear of?

These are just a few of the many questions that pre-flight planning is designed to help you ensure a successful and safe flight. Proper preflight planning is essential to help mitigate any risks that may occur, to the successful completion of the flight.

Air Traffic Control Is A Pilot’s Second Set Of Eyes

Air Traffic Control exists for the purpose of ensuring proper separation of traffic in the skies, as well as providing navigation assistance, weather information, and more. They are a second set of eyes for all pilots, and can help you to get from point A to point B safely, helping to ensure collision avoidance, helping you to steer clear of adverse weather, and helping to provide you with real-time information that may be helpful to your flight. Of course, this does not absolve the pilot of their responsibility for the safe operation of the aircraft, but it is an integral component of what makes for a safe and efficient flight.

The Instrument Rating Can Make You A More Competent Pilot

There is a saying in aviation that a private pilot license is a license to learn. In other words, once you get your private pilot license, your education is not complete. In fact, it is just the start of a journey of improving yourself, honing your knowledge, skills, and proficiency as a safe and competent pilot.

The next step in a pilot’s journey is typically to obtain an Instrument Rating. Whereas the private pilot license limits you to only being able to fly while avoiding the clouds and inclement weather, the instrument rating allows you to fly through clouds and fly through in adverse weather conditions that might otherwise restrict your visibility.

As the name implies, an instrument rating allows you to fly “blind”, solely by reference to the flight instruments, even if you cannot see the ground outside of the window.

Pilots who have obtained an instrument rating are empowered with upgraded skills, knowledge, and tools at their disposal, to be able to carry out a flight with greater precision and increased safety.

All Pilots Must Pass Regular Medical Exams In Order To Fly

All pilots are required to undergo period medical exams every few years, in order to ensure that they are fit to fly. If you have a medical condition that the FAA deems would preclude you from being able to operate an aircraft safely, or which poses as a serious risk that could jeopardize the safe operation of an aircraft, then you could be disqualified from flying, either permanently or temporarily.

Fitness Self-Assessment Can Mitigate Flight Risk

All pilots are trained to perform an introspective fitness self-assessment before each flight:

  • Have you gotten enough sleep and enough rest?
  • Are you under the weather?
  • Are you under any type of emotional or other type of stress in life?
  • Are you under the influence of any medication?
  • Have you consumed alcohol within the past 8 hours and / or are you currently reeling from the effects of inebriation?

These are just a few of the questions that pilots must ponder over, before each flight. Pilots should never feel compelled to fly when they may not be feeling “up to it” or if they are not in an optimal state of mental alertness and physical stamina to endure the rigors of flying.

There is an old adage in the aviation community:

“It is better to be on the ground, wishing you were up in the air, than to be up in the air, wishing you were on the ground!”

Setting Personal Limits Can Help Ensure A Safe Flight

Just because the FAA regulations may allow you to fly under certain weather minimums, doesn’t mean that you should.

Just because an aircraft is demonstrated to handle a 17-knot crosswind on landing doesn’t mean that you should fly in a 17-knot crosswind on landing!

Just because you can legally fly when the clouds are overcast at 3,000 feet doesn’t mean that you should fly under such cloud conditions.

If you are a novice or a low-time pilot, it is important that you set personal minimums or personal limitations for yourself, even if those limits are less than the minimums actually allowed by the FAA.

As you gain more experience and develop more proficiency as a pilot, you can then endeavor to stretch those limits.

Doing so will help you to grow and develop as a safe and competent pilot.

Is Becoming a Pilot Dangerous?

Given all of the aforementioned means that the FAA provides to ensure the safety of pilots, passengers, and the airplanes that they fly, it can be asserted assuredly that being a pilot is not any more dangerous than any other type of activity. So long as the appropriate and relevant safety standards are adhered to, it is no wonder that flying is statistically the safest mode of transportation in the world today.

Max Skyler

Max Skyler is a Private Pilot with nearly 200 hours of total flight time under his belt. He is a freelance writer for Flying is not his day job. (He's into computers.) But flying is among his passions and hobbies. He just passed his instrument ground school course, and is getting ready to take the IFR written exam as we speak, in early January 2024! He hopes to earn his instrument writing within a year. We've brought him onto our team to share his insights on all-things general aviation, with our community of readers. Let's wish him good luck on his instrument written exam!

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