Prior to the start of my flight training, I was clueless about general aviation safety. When I began researching the SR22, I was extremely surprised that in the short lifespan of the Cirrus planes, they have already been involved in 26 fatal accidents (with 52 deaths). That number still runs chills through my body. To put things in perspective, there are only about 3,400 Cirrus planes ever made. With 26 fatal accidents, that means 1 in approximately every 130 Cirrus planes have crashed killing at least 1 person on board. That’s a sobering statistic. 1 in 130.
Up until this point, I had operated under the assumption that “flying is safer than driving.” This is true when comparing Commercial Airliners against the general driving population, but it’s far from it when comparing General Aviation to car accidents. That was all news to me. I decided I needed to do a lot more research on General Aviation Safety and Cirrus planes before becoming an owner.
Pilot Safety Discussions
If you listen to or read any forum messages where pilots discuss fatal aviation accidents, inevitably someone will blame an incompetent and inexperienced new pilot for making fatal mistakes and they move on. With the Cirrus owners in particular, lots of people blame the “new, young, rich entrepreneur” who gets a plane for all the wrong reasons. They claim that the Cirrus airplanes have become the new “must-have toy” for these rich people who have no business flying and they end up killing themselves and their passengers. Some people even blame Cirrus marketing for going after new pilots.
Unfortunately, such pilot discussions are rarely supported by any studies, statistics or proof to support the case against new pilots. These type of posts appear to be a way to convince the writer him or herself that fatal crashes happen to “other people” who are not competent. Since much of the pilot discussions blamed pilots with my exact background, my research into this matter became even more intense. I was afraid that if the overall statistics are “bad”, then for me (new, rich entrepreneur) flying a high-performance plane such as the Cirrus might be much worse.
Reading the Accident Reports
I decided to dig up some accident reports to see for myself. The first place to get some factual information is the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). The NTSB investigates every aviation accident and makes the reports publicly available and searchable on their web site. That’s very cool. Anybody can read the accident reports for themselves. Here’s how to find every Cirrus accident report the NTSB has in its database:
- Go to this page: http://www.ntsb.gov/ntsb/query.asp
- For the “Make/Model” field, type “cirrus”
- If you prefer to just see the fatal accident reports, you can choose “fatal” under the “Injury/Severity” field
- Click Submit Query and your search results will show
Reading the Cirrus accident reports, it becomes obvious that the problem is not just with new inexperienced pilots. There have been fatal accidents with nearly all kinds of pilots with the largest group of fatal accidents (16 of the 26) having greater than 400 total hours of flight experience. So Cirrus Marketing to new pilots and the new group of rich entrepreneurs who need to have the latest toys are not to blame.
Unfortunately, that still was not very comforting.
Statistics Don’t Lie
The next question I had was about how the Cirrus planes compare to the General Aviation average accident rates. Once again, the NTSB provides excellent statistics about General Aviation accidents. Here’s a summary of the number of fatal accidents per 100,000 hours of flight for the past 20 years:
The graph shows that in recent years fata accidents happen at a rate of 1.3 for every 100,000 hours of flight. The NTSB also puts out an Annual Review of Aircraft Accident Data. The latest copy of this report is for calendar year 2003 (where are the newer ones!?!). This is a very well-prepared document with more statistics than you ever cared to know about General Aviation. It’s an excellent source of information and I highly recommend that every pilot, new or veteran, at least review this information:
I’ve gone ahead and summerized some of the highlights of the report here.
1 in 2,000 Pilots Die Every Year
One of the first graphs you’ll find in the NTSB Annual Review of Aircraft Accident Data is this one:
There’s no good story to tell here. According to this graph, approximately 1 in every 2,000 pilots die every year due to a fatal aviation accident. If you plan to be a pilot for 40 years of your life, the chances during your lifetime (assuming the stats don’t improve) is about 1 in 50! Ouch. That hurts.
It might be comforting to know that according to the National Safety Council’s general population Odds of Dying by any accident during the average lifetime, is about 1 in 22. As a pilot, you’re barely nudging your overall chances in the wrong direction. So don’t worry, you’re in good company. Even if you weren’t a pilot, your overall chances of dying from an accident is 1 in 22.
Fatal Accidents by Type of Operation
Unfortunately, it doesn’t get much better for us casual personal & business pilots. Since the overall GA accident statistics also includes corporate jets, which have a signficantly lower accident rate, breaking it down by type of operation brings the casual pilot accident rate closer to 2 fatal accidents per 100,000 hours of flight:
Notice how low the grey bars are. It appears that Corporate/Executive fatal accidents are closer to .1-.2 per 100,000 flight hours making corporate/executive traveling significantly safer than cars. So if you can afford it and you don’t enjoy the flying aspect of being a pilot, hiring a professional pilot for your corporate plane might be a better way to go.
Accidents by Type of Aircraft
One additional set of statistics worth examining is the rate of accidents based on the type of aircraft:
As you can see from the chart above, Amateur-Built experimental planes have the worst safety record, with nearly 4 times as many fatal accidents as a single-engine piston airplane.
Back to Cirrus Planes
With all the General Aviation safety statistics in hand, you’re probably still wondering as I was how the Cirrus stacks up to the GA average accident rates. Fortunately, or unforutnately, depending on how you look at it, the Cirrus planes don’t stand out in either direction. With about 1.44 fatal accidents per 100,000 flight hours during their lifetime, the Cirrus planes are slightly higher (but statistically insignificant) than the average Single-Engine piston, which stands at 1.41. The big problem is that you’d expect that Cirrus planes would definitely stand out and have a signifcantly lower fatal accident rate. After all, the Cirrus planes have a lot going for them:
- Significantly newer fleet compared to average age of GA planes
- CAPS Safety System (parachute)
- Modern Design for Safety and Control
- State of the Art Avionics
Yet, with all the advantages that Cirrus planes should have, the fatal accident rates so far have not been better than average. There is a lot more Cirrus-specific accident information and statistics on COPA. There’s also an excellent presentation that was given by Rick Beach which is available on COPAPedia. COPAPedia is a Wiki for COPA members with information about everything from maintenance to safety to operations and even accessories. If you aren’t a COPA member and you’re considering a Cirrus plane, it’s a great place to do extensive research and meet other Cirrus pilots.
In Rick’s presentation, he also points out that the CAPS system was activated 13 times with 10 saves (saving 22 lives) and 3 CAPS activations being counted as failures (2 fatalities). However, the overwhelming evidence points to the CAPS system working well in emergency scenarios where the pilot loses control of the aircraft. So when in doubt, pull the chute, ask questions later when you live.
It was disapointing to find that Cirrus planes don’t appear to be any safer than the general single-engine fleet of planes. That brings the safety responsibility back to the pilot. The bad news here is that a lot of pilots don’t think it can happen to them and they blame fatal accidents on stupid pilots. The problem is that we’re all stupid pilots every now and then. The key is to not be in denial. General Aviation is not as safe as driving. Period. It’s about 7 times more fatal (about the same risk as motorcycles). But the risks are significantly less when flying in good weather during the day, in VFR conditions and in familiar territory. Night accidents are almost twice as likely to result in fatalities and forget about it if the weather is bad. Overconfidence contributes to the bad statistics. The plane is a small part of the accident story, which is why the Cirrus planes have not been able to save the pilots who make bad decisions. That’s too bad. I think more can be done.
The thing to remember is that it can happen to you. Make good decisions and when in doubt, pull the chute!
If you’re looking for additional information on aviation safety, here are some great sources:
- NTSB’s Annual Review of Aircraft Accident Data for 2003
- AOPA’s Air Saftety Foundation Special Reports (Includes a Report on Glass Cockpit planes)
- Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association (COPA)
- COPAPedia (the Wiki maintained by COPA members)