Air transportation and aviation safety has made huge strides since the first flight took place at the turn of the 20th century.
So much so that flying is now the safest mode of transportation – and there are statistics to prove it.
However, this isn’t to say that all planes are as safe as each other.
The statistics show that small planes are involved in more accidents, and have a higher number of fatalities per million hours flown.
But why is this?
The reason why small planes are considered less safe and are involved in more accidents partly comes down to the very nature of flying a smaller plane and the problems and challenges it poses, as well pilot error too.
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5 Reasons Why Small Planes Are More Dangerous
Let’s start off with the human factor. To be eligible for a private pilot license, which allows a pilot to carry as many passengers as the aircraft they are legally allowed to fly can carry, 35-40 flight hours must be logged.
Both a recreational pilot license and a sport pilot license allow the carry of one passenger and require a minimum of 30 flight hours and 20 flight hours respectively.
Compare this to a commercial pilot license, which requires 190-250 flight hours, or an airline transport pilot license, which requires a minimum of 1,500 flight hours to be logged, and it’s easy to see why inexperience is one of the leading causes of aviation accidents.
Depending on the type of license and whether an instrument rating has been acquired, there are certain restrictions in place.
These include not being able to fly at night or under low visibility and cloudy conditions.
While this goes some way in reducing the number of accidents, it by no means reduces the majority of them.
The FAA has stated that the primary cause of general aviation fatalities is in-flight loss of control, primarily from aerodynamic stalls.
This occurs when an airplane is no longer at a speed or angle to create lift.
As you might expect, larger planes are more complex and therefore have more redundancies in place to protect against everything from electrical faults to lighting strikes.
In fact, some of the more advanced planes even feature three flight computers that all function independently from each other, with each containing three different processors manufactured by different companies.
Larger planes also have more advanced safety systems like traffic advisory and avoidance systems, along with terrain avoidance, predictive windshear warning, and de-icing systems.
While all aircraft are designed to be able to withstand most turbulence, smaller planes are particularly susceptible to wake turbulence.
This is the turbulence that forms behind an aircraft as it moves through the air, causing wingtip vortices.
A smaller aircraft, whether during the takeoff, climb, following, approach, or landing stage of a flight, can get caught up and be affected by this turbulence.
In some cases, it can cause a total loss of control of an aircraft.
Related: Is Turbulence Dangerous?
In the event of adverse weather conditions, larger planes usually have no problem escaping or powering through it due to their size and more powerful engines, or simply by climbing above it.
Smaller planes, on the other hand, are lighter, not equipped with powerful and expensive jet engines, and are unable to climb due to the lack of pressurization systems.
According to the FAA, in the USA between 1990 and 2019, there have been approximately 227,000 wildlife strikes with civil aircraft.
The vast majority of these strikes have been at lower altitudes, which is the airspace in which small planes operate in.
At altitudes from 20,00-31,000 ft. AGL (above ground level), in which small planes are unable to operate, commercial aircraft have only been involved in 29 strikes.
While there have been a number of accidents with human casualties over the years (292 fatalities between 1988-2019), the good news is that the risk is still considered low.
Small Plane Crash Statistics
Small Planes vs Cars
According to the NSC (National Safety Council), the odds of dying in a car crash as a driver are 1 in 114, and 1 in 654 as a passenger.
The odds of dying in a plane crash, on the other hand, are 1 in 9,821. It’s, therefore, safe to say that air travel is much safer than car travel.
However, this doesn’t account for any differences between general aviation and commercial aviation. For this, we need to refer to other statistics.
Small Planes vs. Large Planes
The year 2017, which is the safest year on record for air travel, provides the perfect example of how small airplanes are more dangerous than larger airplanes.
In 2017 there wasn’t a single fatality on a passenger jet.
However, if we take a closer look at the statistics, we can see that for general aviation, which is what smaller aircraft qualify under, the numbers paint a different picture.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recorded 1,316 accidents and 346 deaths.
To put this another way, according to the FAA, in 2017 general aviation aircraft logged a total of 21.7 million flight hours, with a fatal accident rate of 0.931 per 100,000 hours.
US airlines racked up 19 million hours without a single fatality.
There’s no doubt that small planes crash more often than larger planes, and are more dangerous.
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.