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Are flying lessons safe?

Here’s another one instructors get asked all the time! I’m afraid it’s not one with a straightforward answer, though. I could of course trawl through reams of accident reports, but I’d only make us both bored and depressed, and the truth is, statistics alone aren’t very helpful in determining how safe flying lessons are.

base jump with lawnmower

Having said that, I’d hate to be accused of putting statisticians out of work – so let’s start with a statistic!

You are 6 times more likely to have an accident in your car driving to the airfield than you are to be involved in an aviation accident.

Now, if your idea of a death-defying day is mowing the lawn, cleaning the car and then settling down to an episode of Midsomer Murders, then you might consider learning to fly a somewhat risky endeavour. However, if you’re an avid BASE jumping enthusiast (jumping off buildings, cliffs etc with a parachute) you’d have to consider these very good odds indeed!

What causes aviation accidents?

There are many excellent articles about the risks of light aircraft flying so let’s continue this one with a slightly different perspective. I asked some of my aviator friends for the first thing that came into their heads when asked “How safe is light aviation?” – let’s have a look at some of their answers.

  • ‘As long as people don’t do anything daft they should be OK’
  • ‘Pretty safe as long as people follow procedures’
  • ‘As long as people plan thoroughly they shouldn’t have too many problems’

You’ll very quickly notice one word in common – yes, you’ve got it – people!

Human error is by far the biggest cause of accidents in aviation. Aircraft are maintained to extremely high standards and very rarely does a wing fall off or the engine stop. So the real variable is people.

It takes all sorts

I’ve flown with many different personalities and can safely say some are definitely more suited to flying than others. It’s no great mystery what makes for a good pilot though. Which of the following would you consider to be good traits or personality types for a pilot to possess?

Gung Ho
Meticulous
Macho
Timid
Confident
Arrogant
Decisive
Blasé

people

I think you’ll probably agree with me that meticulous, confident and decisive would all be positive traits in any pilot. Arrogance or timidity – not so much! You really don’t want to be dithering when you’re about to land and Air Traffic Control let another aircraft onto the runway!

Good planning

We’d all prefer to go flying with, let’s call him/ her ‘Meticulous’. They’ll have thought long and hard about all aspects of the flight – and if something went wrong they’d have the confidence and decision making skills to deal with the situation. Before flying they will have considered several questions to ensure a safe and legal flight:

  • Is all the paperwork good? Certificate of airworthiness, insurance etc.
  • Have I got plenty of time to thoroughly check the aircraft before I fly?
  • Has the aircraft got sufficient fuel for the trip?
  • Is the aircraft within weight limits?
  • Is the weather going to be good enough for the flight?
  • Am I current? (Your flying skills erode very quickly if you don’t fly often).
  • Can I remember what to do if the engine decides to stop?
  • Who flew it last? Have they left everything in working order?
  • Where am I going to land if I can’t get to my planned destination?
  • Have I thoroughly planned my route? Do I know where I’m going to be when and at what altitude? Are there any ruddy great mountains in the way?
  • As you can see, Meticulous has really put some thought into this!

    Virtually every aspect of a flight can and should be planned for – and with this careful planning we can make the flight as safe as possible.

    Surprise, surprise

    Of course, there will always be at least one area which we can’t fully control, and even with all the planning in the world things might not quite turn out quite as expected. The number one cause of surprises? You’ve guessed it – the wonderful British weather!

    There are many weather factors that can affect a flying lesson, some more obvious than others – thunder, lightning, clouds etc – but here I’m going to look at a couple of areas that rookies may not have considered.

    I’ve got wind!

    At the relatively slow speeds that light aircraft travel the wind direction and strength can significantly affect how long it takes to get somewhere. If you had planned to land at an airfield just before closing and you had encountered an unexpectedly strong headwind en route you might not make it back in time.

    If the wind speed was 20 mph and at a right angle to the runway direction, a crosswind, this could be ‘out of limits’ for some light aircraft and would make the landing difficult.

    Phew, what a scorcher!

    A beautiful day on the ground may not necessarily be a great day for flying and you might be as well staying at home and getting the barbecue out. Surprisingly, in extended hot weather, visibility can become extremely limited. It may look clear when stood on the ground but as soon as you take off on such a day, you’ll soon wish you hadn’t!

    Another ‘nice day’ phenomenon is something that I encountered recently. It had been a beautiful flying day with excellent visibility but the approach to the airfield and landing became rather ‘interesting’. Heading back to the airfield late afternoon in a Westerly direction, the sun, which sets in the West, was directly in my eyes. I couldn’t see the airfield let alone the runway and had to rely on instruments to get down. Imagine this had happened on a low visibility day and with a full crosswind, things could have been even more ‘interesting’!

    Just how safe is it then?

    Let’s sum up. In aviation, as with anything we do in life – even mowing the lawn – things can go wrong. There will always be things you can’t plan for. But the biggest factor in flying safely? People.

    People can cause problems – by failing to plan and prepare. But people are also usually pretty good at solving them! Personally when I’m flying I never lose sight of that fact and am constantly monitoring everything I possibly can.

    The great news is that when you learn to fly, you’ll have the help of plenty of other people – meticulous, confident, experienced people – and with all of us on your side, flying lessons can be fun, exciting and, most importantly, safe.

    Safe flying everyone!

Jon has always been fascinated with anything that flies. His first foray into manned flight was at the age of 19 when he built a man-lifting kite. The contraption made a couple of successful sorties, pulled aloft by his mate's trusty old Morris Marina.

Deciding the project might be a little dangerous, and in his continuing quest for flight, Jon learnt to hang glide, paraglide and then to paramotor (basically a paraglider with a lawnmower engine and propellor strapped onto your back).

In 2008 at the relatively late age of ###, he began ‘proper’ flight training. By 2011 he had his CPL and an instructor rating. In 2012 he attained an instrument rating.

He now works as an instructor flying Cessnas and PA28s and also as a survey pilot flying Partenavias. He has so far amassed 1000hrs of ‘very enjoyable’ flight time.

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