Aviation Safety Letter 2/2003

COPA Corner — Let's Stop Talking About Safety

By Adam Hunt, Canadian Owners and Pilots Association (COPA)

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I recently had a non-flyer approach me and ask about learning to fly. He asked the usual questions including the one I always hate to hear: "Is it safe?"

The easy answer is to reassure them, "Of course it is safe; otherwise the government wouldn't let us do it, would they?" But that isn't a truthful answer.

It would be more accurate to say; "No, flying isn't safe," but many people in aviation, particularly in aviation safety would consider that heresy! But the truth is, flying is not safe.

Webster's defines "safe" as "without risk" and that was exactly what this person was asking me, "If I take up flying, is it without risk?" The answer is no, it is not without risk.

For years we have been talking about aviation safety as if it were the way to achieve flying without risk. But that approach draws us away from the key issue — it isn't about being "safe," it is about understanding where the risks are and managing them effectively.

Perfect aviation safety can only be achieved by locking the hangar doors, with the airplane inside. Then you can have a situation "without risk." Well, except for hangar fires, I suppose.

The truth is that all activities in our lives are risky to some extent. Canadians die every day from smoking cigarettes, driving their cars, jaywalking or even taking a shower. We don't ask if taking a shower is "safe." We take steps to manage the risks that can occur when you mix soapy feet and slippery bathtubs. We install non-slip surfaces, grab handles or perhaps don't wash our feet in the shower.

We need to start looking at aviation the same way we do showers. We need to manage the risks, which isn't a very difficult thing to do.

The first step is to acknowledge that there are risks in flying and that there are some activities that are more risky than others. Accident data tells us where the risks are. For general aviation, flying light aircraft at night is more risky than flying during the day, and instrument flying is more risky than VFR flying. Night IFR flying is a high risk. Low flying is more risky than flying at higher altitudes and flying really low is very risky. Flying while tired is more risky than flying while fresh. And so on...

The risks are different in each type of flying. History has shown that for airlines, VFR flying is unacceptably risky.

Once you identify where the risks are, you need to add them up and see if they are too high. If they are too high then you need to take steps to reduce the risks to an acceptable level. Sometimes that will mean waiting rather than flying. A night VFR flight home in a single pilot aircraft, in marginal weather, after a 16-hour workday filled with meetings and no time for dinner might add up to too great of a risk. Perhaps that risk could be reduced by staying overnight and leaving in the morning, after a good night's sleep.

We don't want to stop flying or taking showers. But we owe it to ourselves, and those who depend on us, to deal effectively with the risks of flying.

So what did I tell the prospective aviator? "Flying has its risks, but almost all those risks are manageable. We learn to identify and manage risks. That is what learning to fly is all about."

That seemed to make sense to him.

More information about COPA is available at http://www.copanational.org/

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