Death of a Pilot

Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect.   

   —Captain A. G. Lamplugh

If you live in the aviation world, death will eventually touch you. The emotional side says “He? Who is next? Me?” The technical side says “Why? How can I learn from this?” Both side can haunt or be buried.

When I think of aviation accidents and incidents personally touching me, four come to mind: 2 survived and 2 died. Of those two who died, my memory represent a biased view of reality; one was pilot error and the other was not. This is not consistent with the true ratio: approximately 85% is pilot error [1].
Aerospace engineers need to become familiar with both statistical analysis of accidents and the particulars of a range of accidents. This means reading the full NTSB reports of many accidents.  What contributed? Did the aircraft’s operating limitations or cockpit ergonomics contribute to bad decisions?
Pilots must become familiar with the particular accidents for their aircraft type and model. If you fly a Cessna 210, search and read the full NTSB reports for dozens of C-210 accidents. Do you know they most likely way to die in that type and model? You should. In particular, operating the aircraft outside the envelope is a bad idea (especially for high performance aircraft above approximately Mach 0.7 or 400 KCAS) as compressibility fundamentally changes the stability and loading of an aircraft.

There are common threads in most accidents:

  • Rule of 3. One failure is annoying. Two is dangerous. Three is fatal.
  • Failed to follow the fundamental rule of piloting: “Aviate, Navigate, and Communicate. In that order.”
  • Failure to accept reality.
  • Wrong place at the wrong time. No fault of the pilot.


The NTSB operates an incredible resource: a catalog of almost every accident over the last several decades. This is fully searchable. Full reports are a treasure trove of real-world behavior, decisions and performance. Don’t let their sacrifice be in vain.



[1] Li, et al., Factors associated with pilot error in aviation crashes, Aviation Space and Environmental Medicine, Volume 72, Issue 1, 2001, Pages 52-58.