Some Thoughts on Aviation Safety

Recent events have led me to spend some time thinking about aviation safety and how lucky we are to live in such a safe time for flying.  Regardless of how some people want to sensationalize the events near Denver, it was not as big of a deal as some have made it out to be.

Don’t get me wrong, it was a significant event, and deserves adequate attention from the NTSB, FAA, United, Boeing, P&W, etc. but rather than creating fear, it should instill confidence in the aviation industry.  The fact that such a catastrophic failure of an engine led to nothing more than an emergency declaration and delaying the passengers’ arrival in Hawaii is a testament to all of the safety measures we take in this industry.

It was mostly a non-issue because of the ridiculous amount of training that crew has received in their careers.  I can’t speak to the specifics of the flight attendants training, though they play a vital role, so I will focus on the pilots.

In the course of their careers they have likely done hundreds of landings in the simulator with one engine out.  They have done them in good weather, in bad weather, right after takeoff, right before landing, and a hundred other different scenarios to make sure it would essentially be a non-issue should that day ever come.

In my own personal training in the C-130, which admittedly has been very short, I would venture to guess that I have done more landings with one engine out than I have with all of my engines operating.  That’s because we train for the unexpected and spend far less time in the simulator doing “normal” things.  Even prior to becoming a pilot I had been with pilots that practiced hundreds of landings in the plane with a simulated engine out.  It is part of every single one of their checkrides that they do about every 17 months.

Beyond that, I have been on the plane at least half a dozen times, and probably more, when we have actually shut an engine down in flight.  This isn’t as big of a deal when you have four engines as opposed to two, but in every single one of those instances, it was really not a big deal.  The crew worked together as a team, they assessed the situation, and we all landed safely.  Twice I had it happen over the ocean, and in both cases all it did was delay us to our destination by a couple of days.

I do not mean to undermine the fears of the passengers on that plane, or even those who were reading about it after the fact.  I would not expect them to feel the same way as me or anybody else who has thousands of hours in airplanes and has trained extensively for those situations.  Even those of us that are well trained have moments where our stomachs drop or even a little fear crosses our minds.  We are all humans after all.  I would hope though, that people will look at this as the endorsement of our safety culture that it is, rather than an indictment of it.

One last thing worth mentioning is how this incident will contribute to the continued safety of our industry.  Any time an event like this occurs an investigation will take place.  They will look at the plane and the engine and try to determine what the probable cause of the incident was.  They will talk to the crew and analyze their actions pointing out the good and the bad of how they handled the situation.  They will look at the air traffic controllers and see how well they handled their part.  Maintenance practices will be analyzed and critiqued.

All of this information will then be brought back to people all over the world who will receive training on what happened, what was done well, and how it can be improved upon.  Briefings like that can be incredibly humbling experiences where they were not as fortunate to have no casualties like they did here.  But they are a vital part of our industry and keeping us safe.  We often say the rules and regulations are written in blood because many of them came as a result of injury or loss of life.  In this case we were very fortunate that no injuries occurred, but we will still reap the benefits of lessons learned, and the industry as a whole will be safer for it.

If incidents like this make you scared to fly, the best way to get over that is to learn more about how it all works.  So if you have any questions about the process or how we have made aviation so safe please reach out.  Leave a question in the comments below, or send me a message and I will gladly discuss it with you.  There is no reason for someone to stay scared of something that is so ridiculously safe.