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On Death and Flying

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The list of the top ten most deadly jobs for 2011 is out, and once again on the list, weighing in at number 3, are pilots and flight engineers. Given the extraordinary safety record of commercial flights, this is a bit of a surprise.

I am sure we overlook many of the most dangerous segments of the aviation industry when we think about pilots and similar job categories. There are many dangerous segments; crop dusting, bush pilots, fire fighting and the like that probably account for a majority of the deaths. Helicopter and private pilots working in general aviation, which has a much higher incidence rate, also contribute to this number. 

I am not a nervous flyer by any stretch of the imagination. I travel fairly regularly, and know that flying itself is extremely safe. It is landing improperly that causes most of the problems. Most flying fatalities can indeed be chalked up to landing at improper angles or orientation, or at excessive rates of speed. True, there are usually other contributory elements that cause the eventual improper landing, but it is the final impact where the rubber hits the road. Or more accurately, where the rubber hits the road, but in the wrong order with which to facilitate a safe and proper landing.

We tend to romanticize the loss of a daring young (or middle aged, or old) pilot when they are lost tragically in flight (or rather its sudden and unexpected termination). We look wistfully and say things like, "At least he died doing what he loved".

Really? Then he must have loved crapping his pants, because that is what I'd have been doing if I hit the side of a mountain at 600 miles an hour. He may have loved flying, but I'll bet a week’s wages he was not that crazy about crashing. I am pretty certain that, while he loved floating amongst the clouds, that "die in a huge fireball in a corn field" was not on his list of things to do today.

Regular readers know that I have a rather unique sense of humor. You would probably not be surprised that it can wend its way into the most morbid of tales. Back in the 90's there was a terrible plane crash in Pittsburgh. A US Air Boeing 737 was on final approach for landing when, at about 6,000 feet, it unexpectedly "barrel rolled" and dove headlong into the ground, obliterating the craft and all on board. My wife and I were discussing this, and she made the comment of how frightening it must have been for the pilots of that plane. I agreed, but assured her that sentiments probably were very similar throughout the entire aircraft. She said, "Yes, but the pilots are sitting up front, looking out through the windshield, and can see exactly where they are headed". To that I added, "True. Plus they know that in about 5 seconds 150 people will be coming through that little door!"

When we relayed that story to my uncle, who has a similar humor to mine, he quickly added, "And they're bringing their own chairs!"

I am counting heavily on the hopes that God has a sense of humor. I am probably going to burn in hell otherwise.  At least I’ll have my uncle to keep me company.

Whenever that happens, I am pretty sure it won’t be because of a plane crash. Statistically it is not in the cards. Over the years I have only had two flights where we went through what can be considered an emergency landing. Years ago, landing in Albuquerque, NM a Delta Flight I was on had to do a “fly by” of the tower because the pilot could not get confirmation that his front gear was locked down. He assured us that the tower “had a looksie” and they had checked some other things (their life insurance policies, I presume) and that they were “reeeeeasonably sure the gear was down and locked”. After a very long go around we landed without incident.

Fireman on plane after emergency landing

The second time was more recent, 2 or 3 years ago, when something started to burn on my Southwest flight from Philadelphia to Tampa. At least it quickly smelled like something was burning. We had been pushed east due to bad weather, and were diverted to Orlando (which we were essentially over) when this occurred. It was a wild, wooly, and twistingly steep descent to Orlando International. The plane quickly sat down on the runway and came to rest alongside a phalanx of fire trucks.

It was an interesting diversion, plus many of us got cool pictures of what firemen look like on a plane.

In both incidents the planes landed rubber side down, as intended and statistically inclined. While death by flying might be a top killer for pilots and flight engineers in this country, it is thankfully not within the realm of aviation where most of us work and play.

My uncle and I can be very thankful of that. But should something ever happen and a flight I am on experiences an improper landing, know that I took my own chair with me…..

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Subscribe to comments feed Comments (5 posted)

avatar
Jeanie 10/11/2012 04:53:37
I thoroughly enjoyed your comments! I have a 92 year old father-in-law who still flys. It is a very small plane, 2-seater, and one that he has flown for more than 60 years. He used to fly in our rural area to check windmills, pastures, etc. Now, he just goes up for the fun of it, every couple weeks or so. He has his plane's "annual exam" on a very regular basis, but I fear that he has not done so for himself. We live in a very rural part of Nebraska....I realize that my be an oxymoronic statement...all of Nebraska is rural! I also enjoy the sense of humor! Have a great day.
avatar
Bob Wilson 10/11/2012 08:15:57
That is amazing. 92 and still flying! I can relate to a degree. My father will be 93 in December, and still runs two businesses. He is in a New Mexico. He drives and lives alone now, although we wish he would get more help to maintain the house :)

Thanks for your comments.
avatar
Mike Benishek 10/11/2012 15:36:19
Bob -

PlaneCrashInfo.com reports the odds of dying in an airliner crash are 0.089 per 100,000 flight hours. The odds of your dying in a 1 hour flight are less than 1 in 1,000,000.

Those odds are averaged for all airlines, including those with the worst safety records. The odds of dying in a flight on one of the 25 airlines with the worst safety records are about 1 in 724,000. Fly with one of the 25 safest airlines and your odds improve to less than 1 in 10,000,000.

If you average one round-trip flight per year (on the safer airlines), your lifetime odds of dying in a plane crash are less than 1 in 66,000. Even an "air warrior" flying round-trip every work-day for 30 years, has a lifetime risk under 1 in 787.

Are those good odds or bad odds?

National Safety Council data show the one-year odds of dying in an automotive accident as an occupant of an on-road motorized vehicle are about 1 in 12,300. This translates to lifetime odds of about 1 in 158.

Now if they only had "real food" on the plane like the old days........

Mike B
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Bob Wilson 10/12/2012 05:52:30
Mike, that is an interesting site. In 1956 my father was in Los Angeles for a meeting, which ran long and caused him to miss his flight home. He missed it by minutes and had to take a later flight. That plane collided with another over the Grand Canyon, and all aboard were lost. It is a relatively famous accident, and it was interesting to look it up in that database.

I had not been born yet, so I suppose I should be particularly thankful for long winded meetings!
avatar
M. Erichson 10/16/2012 16:11:13
Thank you, thank you, thank you! My oldest brother died 25 years ago when he fell 500 ft to his death while hiking. I was amazed at how many people said to me, "At least he died doing what he loved." My brother was an avid outdoors man and loved hiking and skiing, but after hearing this several times I started to respond, "actually I'm pretty sure he didn't love falling 500 feet to his death." Think people! I also enjoy your sense of humor!
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