Helicopters and planes have both been involved in some devastating crashes that long stick in the memory.

But are planes or helicopters more dangerous?

Helicopters are more dangerous than planes by a big margin – and there are statistics that clearly prove it.

Are Planes or Helicopters Safer?

What the Statistics Say

The crash rate for helicopters is 9.84 per 100,000 hours, which means that for every hour in the air, helicopters crash approximately 35 percent more often than an average aircraft.

However, this includes single-engine piston planes that are 10 times more likely to crash than jets.

If we just look at commercial aviation, which are the planes we all travel on for vacation and business, then the statistics show that commercial aviation is remarkably safe.

Air New Zealand 747-400 Plane
Air New Zealand is one of the safest airlines in the world

When learning to fly, the numbers show that helicopters are even more dangerous than planes – twice as dangerous, in fact.

There are 12.69 accidents per 100,000 hours when learning to fly a helicopter, compared to 6.08 accidents per 100,000 hours when learning to fly a plane.

Why Helicopters Are More Dangerous Than Planes

Helicopters are more dangerous than planes for a number of reasons.

  • Fly at lower altitudes: Helicopters are unable to rise above turbulence and bad weather, and are more likely to encounter obstacles at lower altitudes.
  • Frequent Takeoffs and Landings: Takeoff and landing are the most dangerous parts of flying, which helicopters do more often than planes. This inevitably results in a greater number of crashes.
  • Complex Machinery: Helicopters are complex machines with a lot of moving parts, which means that there is more that can go wrong than with planes.
  • Challenging to Fly: Helicopters operate differently to planes, with hovering being particularly challenging. To hover, the controls are quite sensitive and require a certain level of multitasking, too, that leads to more cases of pilot error than with planes.
  • Risky operations: Helicopters are used for risky operations in areas that are inaccessible by plane. Again, this inevitably results in a greater number of crashes.

Helicopters Can Crash For a Number of Reasons

Helicopters crash for a variety of reasons, including human error, mechanical problems, and environmental factors.

More specifically, helicopters crash due to:

  • Loss of Main Rotor Control
  • Loss of Tail Rotor Function
  • Main Rotor Damage
  • Component or System Failure
  • Pilot Error
  • Poor Maintenance
  • Midair Collisions
  • Fuel Starvation or Exhaustion
  • Weather & Environmental Factors
  • Air Traffic Control Negligence

The Helicopter Crash Survival Rate is Actually Better Than Planes

Even though helicopters are involved in more crashes than planes, you’ll no doubt be surprised to learn that helicopters actually have a lower fatality rate than for aircraft in general.

For helicopters, the fatality rate is 1.3 deaths per 100,000 flight hours, compared to 1.4 deaths for aircraft in general, though this has been declining in recent years.

We must stress that this data includes single-engine piston planes that are 10 times more likely to crash than jets, though.

Be Weary of the Robinson R44

The world’s best-selling general aviation helicopter, the Robinson R44, is also the most dangerous in the world, with a death rate of 1.61 every 100,000 flight hours.

However, this isn’t necessarily due to the design of the helicopter itself.

Robinson R44 in blue skies

Due to its popularity, the R44 is naturally flown by helicopter pilots of all skill levels, including those without prior extensive training.

The Airbus 130 is as Safe as it Gets

If we look at the death rate per 100,000 flight hours, the Airbus 130 is the safest helicopter in the world with a fatality rate of 0.09 per 100,000 flight hours.

The Airbus 130 is used for passenger transport, sightseeing and VIP duties, as well as medical airlift and surveillance missions.

Helicopter Tours Are Generally Safe

Generally, helicopter tours are safe, though just how safe they are depends on the company running the tour, the skill of the pilot, the weather that day, and passengers following safety instructions.

According to the FAA, there were 106 helicopter crashes in 2016, with air tourism accounting for 17 fatalities.

Helicopters Are Probably More Dangerous Than Cars

Compared to cars with a fatality rate of 0.017 per 100,000 hours of driving time, helicopters are a staggering 85 times more dangerous than driving.

However, this doesn’t necessarily show the whole picture.

The fatality rate of traveling a similar distance in the U.S. by either helicopter or by car shows that driving or riding in a car/SUV has a death index of 453 compared to 63 for non-scheduled helicopter flights.

Death index shows the number of times more likely you are to die.

Helen Krasner holds a PPL(A), with 15 years experience flying fixed-wing aircraft; a PPL(H), with 13 years experience flying helicopters; and a CPL(H), Helicopter Instructor Rating, with 12 years working as a helicopter instructor.

Helen is an accomplished aviation writer with 12 years of experience, having authored several books and published numerous articles while also serving as the Editor of the BWPA (British Women Pilots Association) newsletter, with her excellent work having been recognized with her nomination of the “Aviation Journalist of the Year” award.

Helen has won the “Dawn to Dusk” International Flying Competition, along with the best all-female competitors, three times with her copilot.