Air travel is very safe, despite recent tragedies

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

helicopter
The artist and scientist Leonardo da Vinci helped pioneer aircraft designs in the 16th century, including drawings for helicopters!

This year has been tragic for passengers aboard Malaysia-based airlines. In March, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 mysteriously vanished, and has yet to be found. Then, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crashed near a Ukraine war zone in July, when it was taken down by Russia-backed rebels. On December 28, AirAsia Flight 8501 went missing over the Java Sea near Malaysia, and its wreckage was found two days later. Because of these terrible accidents, it’s easy to feel like air travel is unsafe. However, modern airplane technology is so advanced, you’re more likely to be struck by lightning than be in a plane crash.

According to experts at Boeing, one of the biggest aircraft manufacturers in the world, deadly airplane accidents back in the 1950s and 1960s happened about once every 200,000 flights. Now, according to the USA’s Department of Transportation, your odds of not surviving an airplane flight are 1 in 11 million. How does that compare to being struck down by lightning? According to the Harvard School of Public Health, your chances of getting zapped by lightning are 1 in 3 million! Not impressed? Some statistics show you’re more likely to become President of the United States (a 1 in 10 million chance) than not reach your destination safely in a plane.

Why are planes so incredibly safe? Well, they’ve come a very long way over the centuries. Back in 400 BC in Greece, a man named Archytas was said to have created the first self-propelled flying device. Then, the first ever recorded glider attempts were carried out by 9th-century Spanish poet Abbas Ibn Firnas and 11th-century English monk Eilmer of Malmesbury. As time went on, artist and scientific genius Leonardo da Vinci wrote his Codex on the Flight of Birds in 1502, in which he uses birds as inspiration for designing a man-powered aircraft. He even illustrated helicopter designs! Dozens of other brilliant minds and daring experimenters contributed to manmade flight ever since, including the famous Wright Brothers, Orville and Wilbur, who are credited with inventing and building the world’s first successful airplane.

air traffic control tower
Air traffic control towers use sophisticated technology and highly trained professionals to ensure that planes don’t crash into each other and reach their destinations safely.

Now, airplanes are evolving at lightspeed, as engineers have access to massive streams of detailed electronic information about flight performance. Even the role of a pilot in the cockpit has advanced, as they spend more time managing information and making slight adjustments to highly automated instruments, rather than actually physically piloting the plane.

Basically, computers run most of the important tasks. Still, pilots matter, which is why they’re incredibly well-trained and require hundreds of hours of flying time before they can even apply to become commercial airline pilots.

Also, the people on the ground in air traffic control make sure that planes don’t crash into each other, by using cutting-edge Global Positioning System (GPS) technology that monitors the world via space-based satellites. Planes often follow pre-programmed routes and adjustments can be made instantaneously as computers run thousands of calculations in seconds.

With over 28 million flight departures in 2013 and 4 million people flying each day, you can rest easy that tragic crashes like the Malaysia-based airlines flights are ultra-rare. That doesn’t make it any less sad when accidents occur, but at least you won’t be as fearful the next time you board a plane.

Featured image courtesy of Christian Junker on Flickr. Image of air traffic control tower courtesy of Mattes on Wikipedia.