One of the first questions we are asked when people book their initial rotary-wing flying lesson is “Are helicopters safer to fly in than planes?”, and they’re always surprised by the answer.
No, helicopters aren’t safer than airplanes, if anything, it’s considerably more dangerous to fly to wherever you’re going in a helicopter than it is to fly there by plane.
It might seem a little shocking, but it’s the truth and the way that we came to that conclusion, is the same way that the US government did. Through the statistical analysis of flight and accident data.
When we said that flying by helicopter was far more dangerous than flying by plane, what we really meant was that it’s much more dangerous to fly anywhere by helicopter than it is on a commercial airliner.
Statistically, the fatal accident rate for commercial airplanes hovers around zero, as the number of accidents and crashes is so low compared to the number of flights and passengers traveling on them, that the mortality rate is almost non-existent.
In fact, statistically, flying by commercial airliner is still the safest way to travel. You’re more likely to be struck by lightning than you are to die while jetting off on your next vacation.
The same statistics however reveal that for every one hundred and fifty thousand helicopter flights, there’s one fatal crash. Granted, they’re incredibly impressive odds, which makes flying in a helicopter an extremely safe way to travel, but as safe as it is, it’s still nowhere near as safe to travel by helicopter as it is to travel by plane.
Are Helicopters Safer Than Cars?
That depends who you ask and which set of statistics you believe, but generally speaking, considering the number of deaths per helicopter flight, compared to the number of automobile-related deaths every year, helicopters are far safer than cars are.
But it isn’t as simple as that, as there are far more cars on the road, than there are helicopters in the sky at any given time, which means that it is far more likely that a car will crash than a helicopter will at any given time.
While there’s something in the region of one helicopter crash per one hundred and fifty thousand flights or one death per every one hundred thousand flying hours logged, in two thousand and eighteen almost thirty-eight thousand Americans were killed in car crashes.
That’s almost one hundred and twenty people per day. When you break them down, the numbers are genuinely terrifying, and make you want to fly everywhere you can in a helicopter, as you know that you’ll be much, and far more likely to reach your destination in one piece if you do.
How many Helicopter Deaths Are There Per Year?
There’s an important distinction to make between the number of helicopter crashes that happen in any twelve-month period and the number of people who are killed in a helicopter crash.
Between two thousand and seventeen and two thousand and eighteen, there were one hundred and twenty one helicopter crashes and between two thousand and eighteen and two thousand and nineteen (the last twelve-month period that the data is available for at the time of writing), there were one hundred and twenty two helicopter crashes.
While the number of crashes for the last two years is incredibly consistent, so are the number of fatalities, and people who died in a helicopter crash. In two thousand and eighteen twenty-four people died during, or after being involved in a helicopter crash, and in two thousand and nineteen, exactly the same number of people died in a helicopter accident.
Taking those numbers into account, it means that despite the fact that flying by helicopter is still one of the most dangerous ways to fly, you're far more likely to walk away from a helicopter crash than you are from an airplane crash.
Is Flying A Helicopter Dangerous?
Comparatively speaking, it’s safer to fly a helicopter than it is to drive a car if you’re a commercial or private helicopter pilot. The numbers don’t lie, and while there were only twenty-four helicopter fatalities recorded during two thousand and eighteen, in the same twelve-month period, nearly eight thousand Americans perished in automobile accidents.
We do feel that it’s necessary to point out that the number of recorded helicopter deaths don’t include military personnel serving overseas and in frontline operations where helicopters are far more commonplace and the risk of flying in them is far greater due to the nature of the way in which they’re employed.
The figures also don’t account for the emergency responders and services that use helicopters as their primary source of transportation either, which was, and is fairly alarming.
The scariest thing about it though was that in the opening decade of the millennium, the most dangerous job, year in and year out in America wasn’t a police officer or firefighter, it was being part of the crew of an emergency medical helicopter.
This proves that even though they’re incredibly safe statistically, there is an element of risk involved every single time you get in, take off and fly in a helicopter.
What Are The Chances Of Surviving A Helicopter Crash?
While the odds of dying in a helicopter crash are close to one hundred thousand to one, the chances of surviving a helicopter crash are far better.
And even though anyone who has ever seen a helicopter crash will readily attest to the fact that they didn’t think that anyone would walk away from it, thanks to the way helicopters are designed and the way that passengers and crew are strapped in, and secured before take-off, there’s a pretty good chance that if you do go down in a helicopter, you could survive the crash.
The previously mentioned odds of surviving a crash, are greatly increased if the helicopter crashes, or ditches into water.
If a helicopter does crash into the sea or a lake, the chances of surviving the crash are roughly one in four (there’s usually one fatality for every four people aboard the helicopter), while the same crash on land reduces the odds of surviving to one in three, as a third of the people on board a helicopter when it crashes on land will not walk away from that crash.
What Causes Most Helicopter Crashes?
As is the case with any air crash, a number of helicopter crashes are caused by manufacturing defects, incredibly poor maintenance and mechanical ineptitude and component failure. But they are far from being the most common cause of helicopter crashes.
The single biggest factor in any helicopter crash, and the reason most of them happen, is entirely due to the weakest link in the chain, the pilot.
Pilots are only human, and at the end of the day, they’re prone to making the same mistakes that we all do. It's just that when they make them while they’re flying helicopters, people die.
Whether those errors are due to being overly tired, a lack of flying hours, or an inability to adequately assess and judge potential hazards, the reason why most helicopters crash is always the same. It always has been and it always will be. They crash because pilots can, and invariably do, make mistakes.