What’s pilot error?

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“Pilot error” is a term used when a plane accident is caused by the pilot’s mistake or lack of due diligence. Commercial pilots are less likely to make mistakes due to the redundancy in their systems, while private pilots are more vulnerable. Despite this, flying is still considered safer than driving.

The term “pilot error” makes the blood of pilots, private and commercial, run cold. This is the term used when a plane has some type of accident that can be traced back to direct pilot error or a lack of due diligence. No pilot wants to make a mistake or a bad decision during a flight. If something happens during a flight, attributing the accident to pilot error may mean that the pilot did not do everything he could have done to prevent the accident.

Because there is so much redundancy in every system on a commercial aircraft, the label “pilot error” takes on an extra layer of meaning. If a commercial flight accident is labeled “pilot error,” then the pilot really must have made a big mistake. This is not necessarily the case, although some accidents point to nothing more than pilot or crew error. The bottom line is that the pilot controls the plane and has final say on all operations, so even a mistake made by another crew member can be called pilot error.

An example of this is Comair Flight 191, which crashed at Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, Ky. August 27, 2006. The plane, a Bombardier Candair regional jet, crashed after attempting to take off on the wrong runway. The runway used was too short to accommodate the aircraft, and 49 people died in the crash. The co-pilot was handling the takeoff and steered the plane onto the wrong runway. The crew noted the absence of runway lights, which should have been a clue, but decided to proceed with the takeoff.

The National Transportation and Safety Board concluded that, despite the fact that the tower at the airport was understaffed, and the controller did not maintain visual contact with the aircraft during departure, the pilot should have checked with the tower to ensure that the aircraft was on the correct runway. While the tower’s negligence didn’t help matters, had the pilot made the appropriate decisions early on, the accident might not have happened.

Private pilots are more vulnerable to the consequences of their decisions than their commercial counterparts. Its planes are lighter and have fewer redundant systems to help avoid losing all electrical systems, for example. In fact, one estimate says that 78 percent of all private jet accidents are due to pilot error. It is not specified if this was an actual error on the part of the pilot or simply a decision that did not work. They are all listed in the same category. Also, a solo pilot might be willing to take risks that he or she would never take if carrying passengers.

Planes take off and land safely every day, and pilot error is rare. It does happen, but it’s certainly less frequent than the driver error. Flying is universally recognized as a safer method of transportation than driving, which speaks well for the safety records of most pilots.

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