Helicopter crashes stick in the mind due to the terror we imagine everyone onboard must have felt as they knew the helicopter was going down.
But what exactly is it that makes helicopters so dangerous?
Helicopters are so dangerous due to being complex machines; flying at lower altitudes; their inability to handle inclement weather; taking off and landing so often, being challenging to fly; and because they are used for risky operations.
While helicopters are considered very dangerous, do they even deserve this reputation, though?
Well, we take a look at what the data says to see just how much more dangerous flying in a helicopter is compared to flying in a plane or driving a car. Or if a helicopter even is more dangerous than these other modes of transportation.
6 Reasons Helicopters Are So Dangerous
One of the main reasons that helicopters get a bad rap is because they are used far more often in risky operations.
Inevitably, this results in more crashes.
Airplanes are flown on set flight paths, in a controlled environment of runways, and with air traffic controllers in a pilot’s ear.
Helicopters, on the other hand, are used to reach areas that are inaccessible by plane, which results in much more unpredictable conditions.
Low Altitude Flying
Helicopters are more susceptible to a range of dangers due to flying at low altitudes.
While many planes can fly above turbulence to eliminate its effect, helicopters are unable to climb as high.
At lower altitudes, helicopters are more likely to encounter obstacles like buildings, hills, trees, and radio and cell phone towers too, which can cause turbulence too.
In foggy conditions, these obstacles can even appear out of nowhere.
Frequent Takeoffs and Landings
Whether we’re talking about helicopters or airplanes, takeoff and landing is the most dangerous part of flying and is when the vast majority of accidents occur.
Due to their primary purpose, helicopters tend to take off and land a lot more often than planes, which inevitably makes helicopters more dangerous and results in more accidents.
Helicopters are complex machines and have a lot of moving parts – certainly more so than planes.
This means that there are a lot of things that could potentially malfunction.
For example, if any of the main rotor, tail rotor, gearbox, or drive shaft break down, the helicopter can spin out of control.
The fact that these parts wear out more quickly due to constantly being in motion doesn’t help things, either.
Additionally, helicopters require highly specialized repair and maintenance.
It can be challenging to find mechanics who have the extensive knowledge and experience to properly maintain and repair a helicopter, especially if the operator is looking to save money.
Hard to Fly
One of the main reasons that makes helicopters so dangerous is that they are hard to fly. Again, certainly more so than airplanes.
Hovering, in particular, is challenging because it makes the helicopter unstable. The controls are quite sensitive and require a certain level of multitasking, too.
Pilot error is one of the leading causes of helicopters crashes, which can include loss of control, improper training, distraction, fatigue, and flying while intoxicated.
Unintended ground impact, loss of situational awareness, and choosing to fly in hazardous or low visibility weather conditions are other common reasons for helicopter crashes.
The ability to handle inclement weather well is another reasons why helicopters are so dangerous.
Rain, strong winds, hail and snow, and thunderstorms have all caused helicopters to crash due to the challenging conditions they pose for pilots to fly in, especially if visibility is impaired.
As mentioned, helicopters are unable to fly above these weather events like many larger planes are able to.
How Much More Dangerous Are Helicopters Than Planes?
Helicopters are undoubtedly more dangerous than planes – and by a good margin, too.
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, along with commercial aviation, which is actually remarkably safe.
The numbers show that helicopters are even more dangerous to fly than planes in the flight instruction phase, too – 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.
Are Helicopters or Cars More Dangerous?
Depending on how you look at it, helicopters are either significantly more dangerous than helicopters or vice versa.
This is because, if we look at the data, there is an annual average of 1.44 fatalities per 100,000 flying hours in non-military helicopters.
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, we can look at the data differently, such as by the fatality rate of traveling a similar distance in the U.S. by either helicopter or by car.
Looking at the data in this way, the “death index“, which is the number of times more likely you are to die, shows that driving or riding in a car/SUV has a death index of 453 compared to 63 for non-scheduled helicopter flights.
Helicopters Have a Better Crash Survival Rate Than Planes
Surprisingly, helicopters 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.
Again, this data includes single-engine piston planes that are 10 times more likely to crash than jets, though.