The question is often asked: What is the leading cause of death in an automobile? The answer in its most rudimentary response is simple: crashing. The leading cause of death is simply being involved in an accident. If we eliminate crashing, we virtually eliminate car related deaths. Such a statement is rather elementary, and yet substantially more time has been spent trying to counteract the result of a crash than trying to eliminate the crash all together.
Compare the history of flight to that of the automobile in terms of technology progression in an effort to improve safety. Throughout the short history of the airplane, the goal to prevent deaths was not to make crashing safer, but to improve technology in order to avoid crashing. In 1903 the Wright Brothers flew their Wright Flyer for the first documented flight in history. It thus began the race to create airplanes that could do more than float the short 12 seconds of flight that Orville took on that December day, and soon sights were set on trans-Atlantic and “around the world” flights. 1927 saw another monumental day for flying as the world celebrated Charles Lindbergh’s non-stop flight from New York to Paris, the first flight without stops over the Atlantic. During these early years the airplane was crude and very dangerous. Flying was so dangerous that the deadliest profession was an air mail pilot and the pilots aptly named themselves “The Suicide Club.” During that time the goal for all aircraft was not to survive a crash, it was to avoid a crash.
Of course, there is an inherent difference between planes and cars in terms of crashing; you simply cannot engineer airbags, crumple zones, or seatbelts to make falling from the sky, at any significant altitude, a safe event. The biggest cause of death in the early days of aviation was weather. Even today, flying into a cloud or fog without instrumentation will disorient even the best, most experienced pilots. The other causes of typical aviation crashes were simply lack of training or mechanical failure. Mechanical failures naturally improved as engine design and plane structure improved, and regulations improved making safety a forethought; however, weather continued to pose massive problems. At the time there were no instruments to gauge altitude above ground, plane orientation, or plane location, thus leading to tragic accidents. There was a massive push to rectify these problems and drastically improve safety.
Not only did those in the aviation industry work to solve the problem and find solutions, but also those within other industries. The military (Army and Navy both had Air Corps, as the Air Force had yet to be founded), aircraft manufactures, engine manufactures, and pilots themselves all collaborated to find solutions. Watch makers aided the new instrument companies with their ability to work with small precise equipment. Lastly, hotels, oil companies, and many other wealthy businesses and individuals put up significant funds to promote the advancement of technology. In 1929, just 26 years after the first flight, Jimmy Doolittle successfully completed a flight using instruments alone to guide him from takeoff to landing underneath a cloak completely blind to the outside. The instruments were crude, but they proved their effectiveness in aiding a pilot and making a flight significantly safer.
The Great Depression of the 1930s saw a pause in advancement, but World War II saw aircraft take on a new role and become essential to the war effort. The war continued the frenzy rate of advancement to the aircraft and in the 1950’s there was suddenly a drastic rise in commercial air travel. While air travel gained popularity between the 50s and 70s, it was still far from safe. Pilot error accounted for the majority of crashes, and while flying was dramatically safer than prior to WWII, it still was precarious to fly. Automation entered the game and really began to evolve and take effect during this time. Autopilots had existed in the early years to keep the planes flying level; however, taking off, landing, and navigating where all done manually. During the mid-70s into the 80s the amount of automation increased thus decreasing the number crashes caused by pilot error. Fast forward to the modern era and we have seen incredible advancements in regards to safety. In 2017 it was estimated 37 million flights occurred, and only 10 accidents (most while taxiing) resulting in a small total of only 44 deaths worldwide. In 2018, Boeing had issues with the 737 Max. This caused a spike of over 500 deaths, but in regards to the massive number of flights that took place, the death toll remained at an incredibly low percentage. Even with the sudden spike in 2018 air travel was and is the safest form of traveling.