Sunday, January 27, 2019

The Safest Way To Travel?

Zoë Sharp

Last Tuesday, January 22, a Piper PA-46 took off from Nantes in France. On board were the pilot, Dave Ibbotson, and Argentinian football (soccer) player, Emiliano Sala. Sala had just been transferred from FC Nantes to British Premier League club, Cardiff City.

Tragically, the plane disappeared from radar somewhere near the Channel Islands and a search of the area has so far revealed no trace of the aircraft or passengers. Investigations are still ongoing, but it seems another example of the dangers of private air travel.

Looking back over the years, we’ve lost a lot of famous names in private aircraft of one form or another. The very first could be claimed to be Charles Rolls, co-founder of Rolls-Royce, in 1910. He died when the Wright Flyer he was piloting broke up in mid-air.

Musicians seem a particularly hard hit profession when it comes to air accidents. When his tour bus broke down in Iowa in 1959, Buddy Holly decided to fly to Fargo, North Dakota. Holly, together with his guitarist Richie Valens, and JP ‘the Big Bopper’ Richardson, died when the plane crashed shortly after take-off.

Then there was Patsy Cline in 1963, Ricky Nelson in 1985, Reba McEntire’s whole band in 1991—McEntire herself was taking a later flight—and John Denver in 1997.

The sporting world has had its share of tragedies, too, not least of which is this latest crash. Motorcycle champion Steve Hislop died in a helicopter crash in 2003, as did Scottish World Champion rally driver, Colin McRae in 2007. In November 2017, baseball pitcher Roy Halladay died in a plane crash in the Gulf of Mexico.

Before you cancel your next holiday flight abroad, bear in mind the statistics. We are constantly told that flying is still one of the safest ways to travel. That you take a far greater risk every time you get into your car. 

Or do you?

Certainly, when I've been writing the Charlie Fox series, she's been in more than her share of crashes involving vehicles (can't call them 'accidents' when most were intentional) but she's only been in one helicopter which was actually shot down in flight. (As yet...)

Anyway, while commercial aviation has improved its safety rating over the past few decades, general aviation has remained static. The latest figure I could find for general aviation—counted as all domestic civilian flights—equates to 1.05 fatalities for every 100,000 hours flown. That was in 2013.

That same year in the US, there were two deaths in commercial plane accidents. Before that, fifty people were killed when a Colgan Air flight crashed in New York in 2009.

In 2013, figures show that 32,719 people were killed in traffic accidents. But, as traffic fatalities are calculated on the basis of per mile travelled, while those for air accidents are worked out on the number of hours, you have to do a bit of maths to equate the two. Cars equal 1.1 deaths per 100 million vehicle-miles. To work this out in a way that can be compared to flight, you have to assume an average speed, which is a hugely elastic thing to do. A fascinating article on the Live Science website from 2017 gave figures based on a 50mph average. But in NYC motorists apparently spend 91 hours a year battling gridlock, when their average speed is just 7.4mph. 

But, on the assumption of a 50mph average, the fatality rate for vehicles works out as 1.1 for every two million hours. And comparing general aviation in those terms shows 21 fatalities per two million hours. So, general aviation—that’s private, not regular commercial flights—is about 19 times more dangerous than going by car.

This year’s World Economic Forum is currently taking place in Davos, Switzerland. During the four-day summit, one of the major issues being addressed is how best to tackle climate change. Experts estimate there will be a record 1500 private aircraft flying in global leaders. I wonder how many of them might be persuaded to take alternative means of transport, if not for the good of the planet, then for their own safety?

This week’s Word of the Week is altiloquent, meaning loud, elevated, pompous of high-flown speech or writing. From the Latin altus meaning high and loquens, having the power of speech.


  1. Wow, for once your word-of-the-week actually sounds like what it means. I was going to make a snarky comment about Trump being alt-eloquent, but that was too close to the mark to be funny.

    And you missed one of my favorite musicians, Jim Croce in 1973.

    1. Hi EvKa, sorry to miss our one of your favourite musicians. There were so many names came up when I started looking, sadly.

  2. I think the difference between driving and flying lies in the difference in consequences. Stupid automobile drivers MAY kill themselves and perhaps one or two others, whereas stupid pilots often kill more. As they say: there are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are few old, bold pilots. I know of a book that discusses the major contributing factors to general aviation accidents! Its title is Human Factors for General Aviation Pilots by R Jensen and S Trollip, published by Jeppesen-Sanderson. I'm sure Charlie would enjoy it!

    1. When I fly I do so using the parity protocol - the number of landings has to equal the number of take-offs!

    2. Well... barring spacecraft, EVERY take-off is followed by a landing. The question is whether it's soft or not so soft... :-)

    3. You are indeed correct, Stan, that the consequences of a vehicle crash are rarely anywhere near as serious as those involved in air travel. And the book you mention sounds fascinating!

    4. The number of landings matching the number of take-offs rather depends on whether you're into sky diving or not, EvKa.

    5. The comment about soft or not so soft landings reminds me of a story about a domestic flight where the pilot brought the plane in for a particularly bumpy landing. As he and the cabin crew were standing by the door while the passengers filed off the flight, last off was a little old lady. She looked the pilot up and down and said, "Son, did we land or were we shot down?"

  3. All the facts and figures make me want to walk more, but I guess I'd still be at risk from things falling from the sky, or careening off the roads. As for your list of those great celebrity souls who who passed on through a plain crash, there's one omitted. He was the reason I loved baseball, he was the Latino Jackie Robinson, and he died on December 31, 1972 in a plane crash while en route to deliver aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. I lost interest forever in baseball that night, the night Roberto Clemente died.

  4. I've since read up on Roberto Clemente Walker, Jeff. What a sad story.

  5. How can that list leave out Lynyrd Skynyrd? Blasphemy! Absolute blasphemy!