"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." Aviation safety has progressed a significant amount since the first powered flight by the Wright Brothers on December 13, 1903. The first powered airplane fatality in history occurred in 1908 when Lt. Thomas Selfridge was killed in this plane piloted by Orville Wright. The accident was caused by propeller separation. Orville Wright suffered broken ribs, pelvis and a leg.
Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company and Museum of Pioneer Aviation (picture available in full paper).
During the early stages of powered flight, many of the accidents that occurred were attributed to both mechanical failures and or pilot-induced error. It was not unusual for early aircraft engines to have recommended time between overhauls of as little as twenty hours. As time progressed, aircraft and their propulsion systems became significantly more reliable while the issue of human error-induced accidents remained fairly consistent for many years.
The purpose of this paper is to outline several of the key methods and practices by which the aviation industry has achieved some fairly notable safety milestones. For instance, in 2002 there were no fatal US domestic Part 121 airline accidents. While during this period of time, there were approximately 10 million takeoffs accomplished and more importantly, 10 million safe landings. There is an old aviation antidote, takeoffs are optional, but landings are always mandatory. A good safety objective is when the number of landings equal the number of takeoffs. In 2004, the NTSB reported only one fatal accident in over 10 million scheduled departures. In the three years spanning 2002–2004 there were three fatal accidents in 31 million scheduled departures. DuringM that time, US airlines carried nearly 1.9 billion passengers and recorded 34 fatalities.
This surpasses the objective of six sigma with an error rate objective of less than of 3.4 defects per million. As noted above, this was not always the case in commercial aviation. The following chart illustrates how the trend in fatal commercial accidents has achieved a significant decline in the past 56 years.
Graph (available in full paper).
So how did the aviation industry achieve these dramatic safety improvements as well as increasing the level of service to the flying public? A combination of mechanical and technological improvements as well as flight standardization processes all had a positive effect on the accident trend rates. This paper will review several of the methods employed by the airlines or required by regulatory agencies to achieve consistent results while still having error prone human beings actively involved in the process.