Public perception of general aviation different than reality

To many in the general public there is an adversion to general aviation and small aircraft.

Have you ever had a conversation with someone about a general aviation aircraft? Many people will say they fly the airlines to get to their vacation or business destination, but never want to go near a Cessna, Piper or Beechcraft.

Thursday, March 5, there were two well-publicized accidents in U.S. aviation. First, Delta flight at LGA skidded off the runway into a fence in snowy conditions. Second, actor Harrison Ford crashed his 1942 Ryan Aeronautical ST3KR (or a PT-22 Recruit) onto a fairway of Penmar Golf Course after an engine failure after take off from Santa Monica Municipal Airport. (A side note: Ryan was the company that developed Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis.)

Harrison Ford’s 1942 Ryan crashed in California on March 5, 2015

Both accidents were obviously dangerous situations, but both well-trained pilots avoided fatalities on the planes and on the ground. Damage to both aircraft is regrettable, but repairable; loss of human life is permanent.

With aviation, accidents are much higher profile. A story of a plane not making it to it’s appointed destination always makes waves on the evening news, Internet and newspaper. However, automobile crashes happen much more frequently, but receive far less attention. Stories with automobile fatalities or large pile-ups get covered, but a three-car accident that causes lots of damage, but no loss of life is not a news story. That is, unless, the cars involved cause a major traffic jam.

A look at the NTSB aviation accident statistics reveal that aviation is much safer than traveling by automobile. In Illinois alone, there are three times as many traffic related fatalities than the total aviation fatalities for the entire United States.

Graph courtesy of NTSB

A concerted push from the FAA to get pilots to focus on safety has lowered the total number of aviation related accidents over the last 20 years from 2021 in 1994 to 1222 in 2013 – a difference of 49.27%! Fatalities over that same time period dropped from 730 in 1994 to 387 in 2013 – a difference of 61.41%! During those years the total number of flight hours each year has fluctuated, but never dropped below 20,862,000 hours. Obviously, we don’t keep track of hours in our cars, but miles traveled. While U.S. drivers travel 2.5 trillion miles each year, it’s hard to compare hours of flight to miles traveled as trips are so much different.

There also seems to be a stigmatism that aviation is only for the rich and famous. While expensive corporate jets and twin engine prop planes do carry the wealthy and powerful, and those aircraft are expensive to own and operate, all planes are not expensive to own or operate. In fact, once you factor in all the costs, some airplanes can be cheaper than a boat or recreational vehicle to buy and operate. New aircraft are expensive – in excess of $100,000 – but many used single engine aircraft can be purchased for under $30,000 and even under $20,000. An annual aircraft inspection, fuel, oil, hangar fees and insurance will cost an owner some extra money per year, but boats and recreational vehicles can cost more and are much less fuel efficient.

All are fun extracurricular pursuits, and each person is different, but flying is certainly not anymore expensive than other pursuits – or any less safe. Head out to your local airport and ask about a discovery flight. I expect it’ll be more exciting than you think.

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