I’ve been part of a community for three decades now, each of us, instructors, educators, writers, pilots, doing whatever we can to help cut the toll of fatal aircraft accidents. And we’ve succeeded, not in eliminating them, of course, though that is the ultimate goal, but in cutting crashes and deaths substantially. In the year 2000, there were 596 fatalities caused by crashes of general aviation aircraft. In 2019, there were 381, a 36% decrease. And the 2000 figure represents years of steady safety improvement, as well.
So we have greatly improved GA safety, and that’s a nothing but a good thing.
But are we overemphasizing safety in personal aviation? I mean, given the death toll of Covid-19—more than 400,000 Americans have died of causes related to the disease—isn’t our activity’s annual toll of fewer than 400, and dropping, good enough? Haven’t we banged the safety drum long enough and hard enough already? Haven’t we gotten our message across to every pilot who’s the least bit receptive?
First, if you have ever had someone you knew and cared about not come home from a flight, ever, you know the pain of that loss. Every one of those 381 people who perished in a GA crash in 2019 left a trail of pain behind them. Any single person who doesn’t die in a crash, and with few exceptions we will never know who those people are, who lived because they (or the pilot they were flying with) made a good call, matters. They might be alive because of improved training, education, more modern, reliable equipment or better maintenance practices—it’s a long list of factors, and we all play our part. So even in a world filled with risk, from deaths from preventable illness, from automobile accidents, from gun violence and suicide, every life matters and any life we can save erases a potential bloom of broken hearts. It all matters.
Will flying small planes ever be perfectly safe, or nearly so? Sadly, it will not. The physics of moving really fast way up high introduce risk into our lives that can’t be entirely mitigated. That said, there is still much work to do. We can make flying safer.
We have to, because for so many of us, flying is living. It’s a thing that brings us such joy that it’s hard to put into words. And such joy, in my view, is what life is all about.
So we’re not going to stop flying. And we are going to keep working to make it safer (while keeping it free and open to everyone who wants to fly), because even if it seems like there are bigger risks out there, if our focus is on aviation safety, all we need to remember is the memory of one person who’s no longer here and the wish to keep from adding one other person’s name to that worst of all lists.