Winning: Fly The Friendlier Skies


July 22, 2012: While many Russians are still bitter about losing the Cold War (1947-91), in one respect they were big winners. That's because since 1991, Western flight safety equipment and procedures flooded into Russia and the death rates for military pilots and civilian airliner passengers plummeted.

While U.S. airlines have suffered over 650 crashes (with fatalities) since 1945, and Russian only 273, there have been far more flights in the United States. As a result, during the Cold War, Russian airline passengers were ten times more likely to die in an aircraft accident than their Western counterparts. Soviet pilots were even worse off. Since 1991, Russian death rates for commercial aviation passengers have fallen to just a little above those in the West. The top Russian airlines are about as safe as their Western rivals. The difference was better technology and safety procedures. That involved getting rid of most of the Soviet era airliners.  

Over the last few decades, it's been getting a lot safer to operate a warplane as well. That trend has been linked with growing safety in commercial air travel. Military aircraft have more accidents but fewer deaths than commercial planes. In a trend that's been pretty constant since World War II, civilian and military flight safety tends to improve at about the same rate. Russian flight safety has gone up sharply since the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, and shoddy Soviet military and civilian aircraft rapidly went out of service. One problem the Russians have had a harder time dealing with is pilot error. American military pilots who have worked with their Russian counterparts, in aircraft or even on the International Space Station, note that, while the Russians are quite competent, they are more fearless or, as some American pilots put it, "a little crazy." These attitudes are not unique to Russian pilots, and that is one reason why commercial and military aircraft have more and more safety features built in to try and cope with "human error" (which currently is responsible for about 90 percent of military and commercial flight accidents).

Commercial air travel safety is measured in many ways but the military prefers to express safety in terms of how many serious accidents there are per 100,000 hours the aircraft are flying. For example, American made F-15s and F-16s have an accident rate of 3-4 per 100,000 flight hours. India, using mostly Russian aircraft, has an accident rate of 6-7 per 100,000 hours flown (compared to 4-5 for all NATO air forces). During the Cold War, Russian combat aircraft had an accident rate of about 100 per 100,000 flight hours. This was kept secret by the Russians, at least until the Cold War was over. It was known that Russian airliners were more dangerous to fly in than their Western counterparts, even though the Soviets sought to keep secret airliner crashes that did not kill any foreigners.

Combat aircraft have, for decades, been getting more reliable, even as they became more complex. For example, in the early 1950s, the U.S. F-89 fighter had 383 accidents per 100,000 flying hours. A decade later the rate was in the 20s for a new generation of aircraft. In the late 1960s the F-4, which served into the 1990s, had a rate of under 5 per 100,000 hours.

Combat aircraft, along with their civilian counterparts, have gotten more reliable and easier to maintain, despite growing complexity, for the same reason automobiles have. Better engineering and more sensors built into the equipment makes it easier for the user and maintenance personnel to detect potential problems. Aircraft used the computerized maintenance systems, currently common on new aircraft, long before automobiles got them. Unless you have a much older car that still runs, or a real good memory, you don't notice the enormous increase in automobile reliability. But older pilots remember because such changes are a matter of life and death if you make your living driving an aircraft. And commanders know that safer aircraft means more aircraft to use in combat and more aircraft that can survive combat damage and keep fighting.

Another factor in lower military aviation losses is the domination (of the air) by American warplanes for the last 70 years. The U.S. continues to lead the world in developing military aircraft technology, and this means no one has been willing, or able, to engage the U.S. in a major, and bloody, air war during that time. Thus, for the last few decades American (and Western) aircrew have gone into battle at little risk to themselves, at least compared to World War II and before. During that conflict, you were more likely to get killed flying in a heavy bomber over Germany than if you were infantry fighting on the ground. That has gradually changed over the last seven decades. While American ground forces have reduced their loss rates by about two-thirds, the aircrew casualties have declined by over 95 percent.




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