I’ve been comparing flying to riding motorcycles in terms of popularity, attitude, and social environment, to understand why more people are not drawn to private flying.
Recently, I came upon several articles about motorcycle and aviation safety. The results may suggest how we communicate private flying to the population of potential pilots and aircraft owners. It turns out that the safety trends for motorcycles and GA flying are diverging.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), motorcycle fatalities are climbing, particularly for over-40 age riders. In 2006, fatalities increased overall by 5% over 2005, while fatalities for riders aged 40-49 and 50-59 increased 7.5% and 10% (fatalities for riders aged 20-29 also increased 10%). These older riders have achieved business success, raised families, and now want the excitement and feeling that comes from freedom, speed, the open road, and the social environment provided by riding motorcycles. But this experience on generally heavier, more powerful bikes comes at a price for the older, slower healing bodies.
In contrast, the 2006 general aviation safety statistics in the Nall Report show continued improvements in both total and fatal accident rates. In 2006, total accident numbers dropped by 8.3%, fatal accidents dropped by 6.5%, and total fatalities decreased by 2%. Single engine, fixed gear aircraft, 2/3 of the GA fleet, showed substantial safety improvement, with total accidents dropping 11.3% and fatal accidents dropping 22.4%. While it can be argued that any fatality is too many, the trend continues in a positive direction. The danger signal though, is that flying activity continues to drop. Accident and fatality rates are dropping, but so are the flying hours.
So which is safer; GA flying or motorcycles? That’s a loaded question. Objective comparisons are difficult since GA flying is measured in flying hours and motorcycle riding is measured in miles traveled. Converting hours to miles involve speed assumptions that are likely targets for criticism. What average speed do you assume for GA aircraft with average cruise speeds that range from sub-100 mph up to over 500 mph? Even assuming speeds at the lower end of this range shows GA flying to have far lower fatality rates than motorcycles. But it’s still a difficult comparison because the operating environment and accident facts are so different. That said, GA flying is relatively safer and the safety margin is increasing compared with riding motorcycles.
But can flying provide the visceral satisfaction that is found in riding motorcycles, so participants are able to enjoy this safety premium? There is certainly an aspect of freedom once you get off the ground (no traffic lanes, still areas of uncontrolled airspace). There is speed. There is also a 3rd dimension that can be fully explored via aerobatics. And there is community, although this is one area that needs work. So we have some of this also working for us.
The goal here is not to lure away everyone who rides. Certain traits make people better candidates to be pilots, and we want to attract those folks. Can we learn from other successful activities, what attracts the participants, and where does GA flying have benefits or have deficiencies that can be overcome so we grow but remain safe?
Safety is one area where we accel (and where we continue to focus efforts). How can we use this comparative benefit to get new participants….hog wild for flying?