How Do You Define ‘Risk’?

Stephan Zabel

We've all been asked, "Isn't flying little airplanes risky?" And we all have our own answers. If you've been using the old chestnut, "It's safer than driving to the airport," then you've been cheating, at least a little bit. No, statistically, flying light aircraft is much riskier than driving a car. But it is true that if you eliminate the highly preventable primary causes of flying accidents — flight into bad weather, buzzing and maybe a couple more — you probably can make the case that it's statistically pretty safe.

I was mentally distilling the concept of "risk" the other day, and it occurred to me that there are three basic elements that combine to form the risk matrix. It's a three-legged stool, involving 1. The magnitude of damage that could be incurred; 2. The likelihood that the worst of outside elements will, indeed, conspire against us; and 3. The level of skill required to counter those elements (and the realistic assessment of whether or not we have that level of skill available, at that particular time). For example: walking a narrow, straight line isn't particularly difficult, and the likelihood of outside forces (A strong gust of wind? A push from some wiseguy?) intervening are pretty small. But it makes a huge difference if you're trying to walk along a four-inch-high curb stone, or along a steel girder at a construction site, 60 stories up.

We have to be realistic in recognizing that the specter of crashing our airplanes ramps up the first element to a high level. What would be a minor mishap on the ground or at sea is much more likely to be deadly in the air. So we balance that high level by ramping up our management of the other two legs of the risk matrix. We maximize our control over outside forces by constantly studying weather, wind, traffic, terrain, maintaining the aircraft's airworthiness — the list goes on and on. As for us, the pilots, we also strive to maximize our abilities through training, review, flight planning and preparation — and a constant game of "what if" that begins long before takeoff, and continues in the form of mental debriefing long after we leave the airport at the end of the day.

Because the first element of risk is so profound (the potential for deadly outcome) we have built a culture of safety around flying that causes us to be so much more careful than we are in 'most everything else we do that involves risk: driving, boating, skiing — even Extreme sports. And when an accident does happen to someone else, we're quick to point the finger at wherever in the risk triad the other pilot didn't measure up. We use our self judgment to manage our own risk; and we also use another form of judgment to condemn those who somehow failed to do so.

What might be a more valuable exercise would be to play another "what if" game after every one of our flights. What was the riskiest portion of the flight? What if I had had an accident associated with that element of risk? How would we have judged ourselves if I were evaluating at the accident report? And most important, what could we have done to minimize the risk this time around? If you can satisfy yourself that you did an acceptable job managing the risk, but could still have done more without sacrificing the utility you expect from flying, then you're on the right track to improving your skills with every flight.

Call to action: If you have any tips of your own you'd like to share, or have any questions about flying technique you'd like answered, send me a note at We'd love to hear from you.

Mark Phelps is a senior editor at AVweb. He is an instrument rated private pilot and former owner of a Grumman American AA1B and a V-tail Bonanza.

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