How safe are helicopter flights?

| Feb 11, 2020 | Aviation Accidents |

For many, the recent death of Kobe Bryant felt like a personal tragedy. He wasn’t just a basketball player. He was the rare superstar athlete who transcended his sport and became a household name. And when he and his daughter died in a helicopter crash, the world reacted. As countless people across the globe saw things, a light had just gone dark.

Then the light flicked back on: As a spotlight directed at the fallen helicopter and its pilot. And as people sought to understand how this could happen, the light reached further out, probing the general safety of helicopters and private flights.

Private flights are more dangerous than commercial flights

When NPR explored the topic of helicopter safety, it noted—like nearly everyone else—that there’s a significant difference between commercial flights and private flights. Commercial flights have become incredibly safe. The recent Boeing 737 crashes stand as a glaring exception to the rule, and NPR noted that in many years, the U.S. saw no—zero—deaths from commercial flights.

Private flights are a different matter. While NPR claims that helicopter rides are significantly more dangerous than flights aboard commercial airlines, it notes that the greatest difference in safety is whether the flight is commercial or private. In short:

  • Helicopters are more dangerous than commercial planes
  • Private planes are more dangerous than helicopters
  • Private flights by either plane or helicopter are far more likely to result in fatalities

Why is this the case? The Week answered that question by noting private planes and helicopters aren’t bound by the same restrictions as commercial airlines. There are three levels of government oversight for flights within the United States, and those for private flights—or general aviation—are the most relaxed. Each corresponds to one part of the Federal Aviation Regulations:

  • Part 121 covers commercial airlines
  • Part 135 covers on-demand charter flights, with guidelines for pilot rest and training
  • Part 91 covers general, private flights and has the loosest regulations and the lowest standards for pilot training

To no one’s surprise, The Week points out Part 91 flights are more dangerous than others. They account for 94% of all fatal air crashes. And private helicopters make an outsized contribution. They represent just 3% of all flight hours, yet they lead to more than one-quarter of all fatal air crashes.

Fly safely and hold wrongdoers accountable

Of course, the fact the government relaxes the rules private flights only explains so much. It doesn’t explain what went wrong with Kobe’s flight or the flights of those who crash on the way to Louisiana’s oil rigs. It can be hard to unocver the truth, but it’s necessary to find justice.