What is involved in general aviation accidents involving small planes?

In the four-year period from January 1, 2007, through December 31, 2010, about 6,500 general aviation (GA) aircraft registered in the United States were involved in crashes and other accidents, resulting in the deaths of 1,908 people and several thousand more injuries. On average, this means that 1,613 small aircraft crash annually, killing about 480 people.

General aviation aircraft encompasses all flights other than military, scheduled airlines, and most cargo jets. Most often, general aviation aircraft consist of private and charter jets used for flight training, business, recreation, police and firefighting operations, crop dusting, and other applications.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board, these aircraft account for more than 75 percent of all air traffic in the U.S., so it’s not surprising that the vast majority of all airplane accidents in the U.S. every year involve general aviation aircraft.

Most (half or more) general aviation aircraft crashes occurred in airplanes, gliders, and other smaller aircraft used for personal flying, according to NTSB data. Aircraft used for flight training, aerial application of agricultural products, ferry and repositioning of other aircraft, and business also followed in the number of crashes in that order from 2007 to 2009.

What are the dangers associated with general aviation accidents in small planes?

Soaring through the sky with people and cargo at hundreds of miles an hour thousands of feet above the earth leaves little room for error. One small mechanical problem, misjudgment, or faulty response in the air can spell disaster for air passengers and even unsuspecting people on the ground, which is why it’s essential to hold the airplane manufacturers, pilots, mechanics, air traffic controllers, and others who may influence flight to this highest safety and training standards possible.

Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Decades of NTSB data demonstrate that the majority of aviation crashes, whether they involve small general aviation aircraft, helicopters, or commercial passenger jets, are preventable.

About half of all air crashes each year are the result of pilot error, usually involving a faulty response to environmental or mechanical conditions. Flying the plane into poor weather conditions; navigational errors that cause the plane to collide with a mountain, building, communication tower or other obstacle; failure to correctly read, interpret, and use cockpit instrumentation; failure to follow air traffic control directions; ignoring fuel levels; improperly de-icing the plane; simple speed control and maneuvering mistakes; disconnection of autopilot; and simple fatigue are just some of the possible pilot errors that could (and often do) spell catastrophe in the air.

Many aviation crashes in recent years have been blamed on poor aircraft maintenance. Aging aircraft sometimes develop flaws and deficiencies that aren’t easily detectable. Simple neglect – failing to thoroughly check the airplane before flight – can also lead to disaster.

By some estimates, mechanical failures cause up to 22 percent of aviation crashes. Historically, aircraft manufacturing defects, flawed aircraft design, inadequate warning systems, and inadequate instructions for safe use of the aircraft’s equipment or systems have contributed to numerous aviation crashes. In such cases, the pilot may follow every procedure correctly but still be unable to avert disaster.

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