Posted by: Chris Davis | April 26, 2011

Dangerous or Different?

How do we determine if something is dangerous?  Is there a universally known definition or just a matter of opinion?  Webster defines the term as follows:

dan·ger·ous – adj – able or likely to inflict injury or harm

If we stop and think about the literal definition of dangerous, we realize that it applies to most things in our life.  We start off each day with dangerous acts…shaving, taking a shower, cooking breakfast, driving to work…all of which have the ability to inflict injury or harm.   How many of us have cut ourselves when shaving?  How about burned yourself while cooking?  And what about having an accident in a car?   The generally accepted odds are that 1 in 4 people will be involved in a serious car accident in their lifetime.  Let’s take that a step further, based on the average number of automobile trips made by Americans in their lifetime the odds of being killed in an accident are 1 in 140.  Driving is the most dangerous activity undertaken by most Americans on a daily basis and very little thought is given to the dangers encountered because it is just a routine part of life.

Why does the general public view flying as being dangerous?  Any time we cheat the laws of gravity we are entering into a “dangerous” scenario by definition; but is it really dangerous, or is it just different?  According to the National Safety Council, the odds of being killed in a plane crash are about 1 in 250,000.  In comparing these statistics you are 1,786 times more likely to die in a car than in a plane…in other words you are more likely to die on the way to the airport than in flight to your destination.

So what is it that is driving this dangerous view of flying?  In short, lack of education and the media.  This is a funny combination in my mind because the media is supposed to educate, but often times they are just as uneducated as the masses to which they are pontificating.  How does a blind man know what color the sky is?  He trusts the person describing it to him, even if that person is colorblind.  In absence of knowledge we tend to believe whatever sounds the most accurate.  So without further adieu I give you some media quotes concerning recent flying scenarios making headlines.

The Monday night close call, left Obama’s jet 2.94 miles away from slamming into the 200-ton C-17 plane…” – New York Post

This is what is known in the aviation world as a “go around”.  It happens on a daily basis and exists for just such an occasion.  When the required separation cannot be maintained or does not exist, the controllers direct the pilots to break off the approach and send them around to try it again.  Let’s put this in perspective just to give you an idea how far 2.94 miles is…try 15,500 feet.  This is a greater distance than all those aircraft that pass over your house on approach to landing if you live within 30 miles of a major airport.   If their landing lights are on when they fly over your house at night, they are probably below 10,000 feet and only 1.89 miles away from slamming into your house.

“The pilots landed their planes safely but without help from the airport tower.”  – ABC News

“Planes forced to land without help from tower at Reagan Natl” – America’s Newsroom     

News flash…the tower does not and cannot help a pilot land an airplane.  The tower can only give direction and recommendation just like the traffic cop at an intersection.  Pilots land without help from the tower thousands of times every day…it’s how we were trained from Day 1.

Let’s face it, flying is still a widely misunderstood activity and as long as there are reporters there will be inaccurate news reports.  As pilots, we are a relative minority and the understanding of flight is still a wondrous mystery to most.  The how’s, why’s, and what if’s are the stuff of Hollywood legend.  Entire movies have been made around the fear of flying and the perceived dangers that they instill are numerous.  Aviation activities still draw front page news, from the airshow to the accident and the engine failure to the ATC actions.  Is flying dangerous?  Yes.  Is it more so than other daily activities?  No.  It is up to us as pilots, air traffic controllers, and all other aviation support personnel to do all we can to operate as safely as possible and calm the fears of the general public.

Be professional, train appropriately, and be personable.  Just because we can fly does not mean we are above anyone else.

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