Flying can be scary at first, but is it actually dangerous? We examined the data to find out the percentage of private flights that end up crashing.
One of the main reasons that prospective pilots decide not to move forward with their dreams of flying is because it can be scary. After all, you’re flying tens of thousands of feet in the air at well over 100 miles per hour, with nothing below you except open space and the ground. But how often do private flights actually crash?
Based on recent data from the National Transportation Safety Board, there were 1.049 accidents per 100,000 flight hours. In total, there were 1,085 accidents for general aviation (private planes), and of those, 205 were fatal. This accident rate indicates that flying is generally safe.
Flying in a private plane is typically considered safe in general. But sadly, that doesn't mean that nothing bad ever happens. In this article, we will take a look at the percentage of private planes that end up crashing and compare it to the rate at which commercial planes crash. We will also discuss why private planes crash and whether or not they are becoming more or less common. So, is flying in a private plane as safe as we like to think it is?
The biggest priority on SkyTough is to provide you with the most accurate information we can. Even though we think everyone should become pilots, we understand that it can be scary to think about crashing. So while I’d love to tell you that no pilot flights ever fail, that just wouldn’t be true. It’s incredibly rare, but it does happen. So strap in and get ready to learn all about it.
What Data Counts as Private Plane Crashes?
Before we can start talking about private plane crashes and comparing them to other types of flying and transportation, let's define what we're really looking at here. It's important to understand that when we say "general aviation" in this article, we're referring to private planes and flights.
That's because this term is used by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in their reports and statistics, so it's important that we follow the same nomenclature.
To be a bit more specific so that it (hopefully) makes a little more sense, general aviation includes any type of civil aviation that isn't operated by the major airlines. If you fly on a private plane, ride along in a small charter plane, or fly your own personal aircraft, then that's general aviation.
So if you've gone out and purchased an affordable airplane of your own to fly, then you are part of these statistics. Keep all of this in mind as you read through this article since we'll refer to private planes as general aviation throughout this article.
Now that we've gotten all that administrative stuff out of the way, let's get into what you're really here for. The data!
How Often Do Private Planes Crash?
All of the information that we talk about in this article will come directly from the NTSB itself unless noted otherwise. After all, this is far and away the best and most reliable information available since it's the government agency that tracks all of this kind of data.
One last thing to know is that aviation accidents are typically discussed on a per-flight hour basis since planes travel at different speeds, for different lengths of time, etc. So with all of that in mind, how often do private planes really crash?
According to a recent NTSB report, there were a total of 1,085 general aviation accidents in 2020. Based on data from the same report, these accidents occurred over the course of 19,454,467 flight hours.
Since these raw numbers don't carry much weight and are hard to compare, aviation accidents are typically dwindled down to the number of accidents per 100,000 flight hours. Based on this data, there were 1.049 accidents per 100,000 flight hours of general aviation.
Are Private Plane Crashes Always Fatal?
What might surprise you about the number of general aviation accidents is that not all of them are fatal. In fact, out of the 1,085 accidents that there were in 2020, only 205 of them were fatal (with a total of 332 actual fatalities). This means that roughly 18.89% of private plane crashes were fatal in 2020.
A more optimistic way to look at this is to say that over 81% of all general aviation crashes in 2020 involved zero fatalities. These numbers also show that there were only about 0.198 fatal accidents per 100,000 flight hours of general aviation flights.
I don't know about you, but I was shocked to see this. When you think about a plane crash, you typically think about it as being a fatal accident. After all, when was the last time you heard about a commercial plane or private plane crash where everyone survived?
As you can see, this is actually far more common than an accident being fatal, but these types of stories are far less likely to make the news, just like how most automobile crashes are not widely known about since they're not fatal.
Now that we've started putting numbers to it, I understand that the data still might not mean much without anything to compare it to. So let's move to the other major sector of aviation: commercial flight.
How Often Do Commercial Airplanes Crash?
Let me preface this data by saying that commercial airplanes have significantly fewer accidents and fatalities. This is largely due to the fact that the commercial airline industry is far more regulated in terms of safety, inspections, maintenance, and more. After all, we're literally comparing something like you or I taking off in a Cessna 152 to an Airbus A320 being operated by a billion-dollar corporation like Delta or American Airlines. That said, how often do commercial planes crash?
According to the same NTSB report referenced above from 2020, there were a total of 59 accidents in 2020 between all commercial flights. This includes accidents of all Scheduled (11) and Non-Scheduled (3) flights operating under 14 CFR 121 as well as Commuter (5) and On-Demand (40) flights operating under 14 CFR 135. Between all of these different types of flights, there were a total of 12,161,141 flight hours. This means that in total, there were about 0.49 accidents per 100,000 flight hours.
While that's about half as common as what we saw above for general aviation, it's heavily skewed by On-Demand flights operating under 14 CFR 135. But the type of commercial flight that we're all familiar with is actually just the scheduled flights operating under 14 CFR 121.
This sector of the industry amassed 8,331,981 flight hours with only 11 accidents, which ended up totaling just 0.132 accidents per 100,000 flight hours. This is only about 12.6% of the rate we saw above for private plane crashes.
What's even more astounding about this is that there were zero fatalities for commercial flights operating under 14 CFR 121. So even with those 11 accidents mentioned above for scheduled flights (and even the extra 3 that occurred during non-scheduled flights), none of the accidents were fatal. If we bring in the data from Commuter and On-Demand flights operating under 14 CFR 135, there were 6 total fatal accidents among commercial flights.
I know that was a lot of information about raw data, but suffice it to say that commercial planes have far fewer accidents than general aviation flights. Which then begs the question, are private planes actually safe to fly?
Are Plane Crashes Becoming More or Less Common?
The good news about all of this (as weird as it is to talk about good news when we're discussing plane crashes), is that plane crashes have happened far less commonly over time. Compared to the 1970s for example, it's estimated that there are now roughly 75-80% fewer plane crashes than there used to be. On a macro scale, that seems great, it looks like we're at least moving in the right direction.
While that is promising without a doubt, it doesn't really tell the whole story. According to Earl Weener, an expert in aviation safety and a member of the NTSB speaking just a few years ago, it seems that we've plateaued when it comes to increasing general aviation safety and reducing the rate at which accidents (and subsequently, fatalities) occur.
At this point, maybe we truly have made the most of the technology that we have within the general aviation industry and we're just waiting for the next big breakthrough that will help to reduce accidents even further. But regardless, it's still worth noting that the industry has come a long way and that flying is still far safer than it used to be.
What are the Most Common Reasons that Planes Crash?
Now that we've gone on and on about how safe flying is, you're probably wondering why planes crash if it's so safe. The answer to that question is actually pretty complicated because there are a lot of different factors that can contribute to a plane crash. So let's take a look at the most common reasons that planes crash in the first place.
We do have a full-length article on this topic that goes into each one of these in far more detail, so I'll give you the abridged version here. If you want more information, check out the full article. I might be a bit biased, but I think it's a great read with lots of good information. But I've gone on long enough, let's take a quick look at the most common reasons that planes crash.
By far the most common reason that planes crash is due to pilot error. In fact, it's estimated that roughly 75% of all general aviation accidents are due to some form of human error on the part of the pilot. This could be anything from flying into bad weather when you're not prepared for it, to losing control of the plane while flying and being unable to regain it, to making a simple mistake while landing.
The key here is that most of these accidents are preventable with the right training and education. So if you're a pilot, or thinking about becoming one, make sure to get all the training you can and to stay up to date on the latest safety information.
Although pilot error is to blame for most accidents, there are still a fair number of crashes that happen due to some sort of mechanical failure. This could be anything from an engine failure in flight, to a problem with the landing gear, to a bird strike (yes, that's actually a thing).
And while you might not be able to do much about an engine that unexpectedly fails, even though most multi-engine airplanes can fly with only one engine operating, you can do something to help prevent most mechanical issues. The key is to inspect and maintain your aircraft regularly.
Although this next one happens rarely, we have to take it into account as one of the most common reasons that planes crash: sabotage. Here, we're not only talking about planes that are sabotaged by other people, but also planes that are intentionally crashed by the pilot. As sad as it is to say, there has been a fair share of planes that have been intentionally crashed over the years.
This is one of those things that you can't really prepare for and that inspections and maintenance won't really help prevent. If a pilot is determined to crash a plane, there's not much that can be done to stop them. Again, this is a sad topic to think about, so we won't belabor the point here. It's just one of the reasons a plane might go down.
Errors with ATC or Ground Workers
Another fairly uncommon issue, but one that can still lead to a crash, is an error on the part of Air Traffic Control or ground workers. This could be anything from giving the wrong instructions to a pilot, to not properly clearing an area for takeoff or landing, or even something as simple as miscommunicating with the pilot.
While most of these issues can be prevented with proper training and procedures, there will always be the potential for human error. So it's important to be aware of this possibility and to have a plan in place in case something does go wrong.
Lastly, there are always going to be a few crashes where the cause is never really determined. In some cases, the plane simply disappears and is never found. In other cases, the wreckage is so badly damaged that it's impossible to say for sure what happened. When these types of accidents occur and no cause is ever found, it's typically referred to as being caused by unknown reasons.
So, there you have it: the most common reasons that planes crash. Next time you're up in the air, whether you're flying commercial or private, keep these things in mind and stay safe out there. Thanks for reading!
Are Private Planes Safe to Fly?
If you're starting to get a little bit nervous about flying in a private plane (whether it's your own or you're just tagging along), don't let this information intimidate you. Flying a private plane is actually relatively safe. It's just that flying in a commercial plane is just ridiculously safe, so the comparison makes it seem worse than it is. In fact, there are a number of reasons why private planes crash less often than you might think.
First and foremost, flying is an inherently safe activity. This is true whether you're flying in a Boeing 747 or a Cessna 150. This is just due to the design of airplanes and the way that planes fly in the first place. While this is an incredibly simplified description of how planes fly, there are four basic forces that keep an airplane in the air: thrust, drag, lift, and gravity. For the most part, these forces naturally seek a balance that will keep an airplane flying even in adverse conditions.
Another reason why private planes are relatively safe to fly is that most pilots are very experienced. In order to get a pilot's license, you have to put in a lot of training hours and pass a number of tests. And even after you've gotten your license, you're required to keep up with your training by flying a certain number of hours every year. So by the time you get up in a private plane, you can be sure that the pilot knows what they're doing.
So while flying in a private plane is not without its risks, it's actually pretty safe. After all, I wouldn't be a pilot myself if it weren't! So get out there, become a pilot, and take to the skies. It's something you won't regret.
About THE AUTHOR
After spending years watching every video I could find about flying, I finally scratched the itch and got my pilots license. Now I fly every chance I get, and share the information I learn, here.Read More About Joe Haygood