Are Helicopters Safer Than Planes?

Airplanes are commonly regarded as the safest and quickest form of travel in the world. The convenience of air travel even inspires some consumers to purchase their own private planes. Elon Musk has even expressed interest in creating an electric Tesla plane capable of supersonic speed.

Meanwhile, helicopters are also commonly used for recreational activity and as a vehicle for first responders in dire situations. Still, NPR reports that tragic helicopter accidents in recent years have called the safety of these vehicles into question. Are airplanes or helicopters more secure?

Why are airplanes so safe?

An Ansat-M helicopter at the MAKS 2021 International Aviation and Space Salon
A row of helicopters at an air show | Sergei Karpukhin\TASS via Getty Images

Airplanes are constantly being updated with new safety technology to protect passengers, even in a crash. Your seat cushion acts as a flotation device and is also completely resistant to fire. Meanwhile, the yellow oxygen masks above the seats can help you breathe in the event of sudden depressurization.

All airplanes are also subject to rigorous testing before being purchased by commercial airlines. The wings are bent at various angles to determine how much pressure is needed to snap the wing. Brakes are also tested, and how long the tail needs to be dragged along the runway during takeoff.¬†Ingestion testing determines how much of an impact flying obstacles will have on any aircraft’s windows and engines. Additionally, testers make sure that all the plane’s major components function properly in extreme temperatures. If the aircraft fails any of these tests, it won’t be approved for commercial use.

Aircraft control also plays a huge part in in-flight safety for both commercial airlines and helicopters. A plane can only leave the airspace once it’s been cleared for take-off by these operators. They keep an eye on the sky to keep planes from smashing into each other. Becoming an aircraft controller requires at least 200 hours of training and additional years of experience before getting employed by an airline. The pilots themselves need to have 1,500 hours of flight time before they can operate a major aircraft.

Safety concerns with helicopters

Helicopter pilots have to accrue the same flight hours before getting in the cockpit. Despite this, the fatal accident rate for helicopter flights rose between 2017 and 2018. However, the accident rate dropped again in 2019, and the rate of fatal accidents this decade dropped by 50%, according to NPR.

Most of these accidents are caused by recreational rides, such as the one taken by Kobe Bryant last year. Bryant frequently traveled in a personal helicopter to his games to avoid congestion on the L.A. freeways. According to NPR coverage, the pilot had been traveling through heavy clouds and fog. These conditions were apparently so bad that local police forces had grounded their own helicopters for the day.

Accidents like that one make up 25% of fatal helicopter crashes. Fortunately, recreational helicopter flights only account for 3% of helicopter flights overall. NPR says that helicopters from news teams, police, and sight-seeing tours are among the safest.

Helicopters probably aren’t as safe as planes

NPR explains that 0.72 deaths occurred every 100,000 hours of helicopter flight time a few years ago. Commercial airplane flights typically have zero deaths per year, despite shuttling millions of people each day. However, both transportation methods are far safer than car travel, even when you’re just driving through a parking lot.

Still, passengers and pilots should be wary about flying their own leisure planes and helicopters. Never ignore unsafe weather conditions because you’re in a hurry to reach your destination. The United Helicopter Safety Team also discourages pilots from flying too low to the ground. Additionally, training to perform maneuvers like autorotation can safely land a helicopter during a malfunction.

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