Posted by Steve Felmingham | November 08, 2012
Flying in the face of risk
I was talking with Flora recently about my investments and my overall “risk profile” which suggests that I have quite a welcoming approach to risk. I fully understand the mantra of “investments may fall as well as rise” etc, and I realise that in order to expose myself to the chance of big gains, I have to equally expose myself to the risk of significant losses.
Knowing that I regularly fly light aircraft and the occasional helicopter, Flora suggested that this fitted with the profile of a “risk taker”. I felt compelled to point out that – to my mind at least – that is an altogether different scenario. Very few pilots would describe themselves as risk takers; quite the reverse in fact. Flying an aircraft isn’t inherently dangerous, but it is remarkably unforgiving of carelessness, inattention and poor technique. It is a heavily regulated world; pilots must go through lengthy (and costly) training to gain their licence and then – usually every two years, but in certain circumstances even more frequently – they must fly with an instructor again to ensure they are still up to the job. If they have gone more than 90 days without a certain number of flights they are forbidden from carrying passengers. They have medicals (including an ECG) with increasing frequency until they are 50, after that it’s every year. They get tested, poked, prodded and relieved of vast sums of money with such vigour that a few decide it’s all too much, and take up something easier, like brain surgery or designing rockets.
Compare this if you will to the car driver. How many drivers on the road today have had any professional instruction or observation of their driving since they passed their test? How many passed their test on a small, low-powered vehicle with simple systems but now drive fast, heavy and complex cars with no additional training? How many understand exactly what happens when they depress the clutch pedal? Do they consider themselves risk-takers? Probably not. The light aircraft pilot has to undergo additional training every time he changes to a different aircraft, and before even getting his first licence has to demonstrate a level of theoretical knowledge sufficient to strip his aircraft down and rebuild it without having any parts left over at the end. That’s before we get into the 8 other exams covering weather, navigation, aviation law and how to look good in sunglasses.
You might also want to consider the situation when you get into your car before you even start the engine. Did you check the tyres? Oil level? Brake pads? Did you even give it a cursory look around before jumping in? When you do start the engine to drive off, how do you know the brakes work? (clue: you don’t unless you do a rolling brake test – and how many of you do one of those?). No, what you almost certainly do (along with 99.99% of the motoring population) is you make an assumption that it will probably all be alright – and statistically you’re right – it probably will. You assume (as is human nature) that it won’t happen to you.
This is a very different mindset from that of the pilot. The pilot works on the assumption that everything that could possibly go wrong; drop off; stop working; break or fall apart will do. They assume that the nice lady on Granada Weather is lying and they will consequently spend hours looking at weather radars and studying the shape of clouds. Their aircraft will get stripped down and checked by men with spanners and mountains of certificates after every 50 hours of use, and anything which is even faintly dusty gets replaced with a bill for several thousand pounds.
Meanwhile, as you hit the road in your car, you will be doing upwards of 70 mph (come on, you’re among friends here) just a few feet from literally hundreds of other cars doing the same thing in the opposite direction. That’s a closing speed of 140mph if you’re all sticking to the limit, and you won’t be. Some drivers (I’m sure not you) will be doing this whilst texting their friends or sending a tweet (phoning is just so 2009 darling..). Possibly, between a couple of not-otherwise-engaged fingers, will be a cigarette. Let’s just put this in perspective, around 2,000 people per WEEK die from smoking, and roughly 35 people per week die on our roads. Driving is not generally thought of as a high-risk exercise, but take a driver with a 40-a day habit and I’m surprised they even get out of bed.
Then there are the timescales. When I fly from say Liverpool to Surrey, it takes me around an hour each way and I rarely see another aircraft. If you do the same journey in a car (occasionally I have to – perhaps as a result of those men with spanners finding a particularly worrying looking spider in the glovebox) it takes me around 4-hours each way. In the air I will have spent about 2 hours at risk of bumping into, well, hardly anyone really, whilst the car driver will have spent 8 hours just a few feet away from all of those loosely trained and distracted drivers. An exposure to risk 4 times greater even by my appalling maths.
During those 8 hours, statistically around 6 people will have died on the roads so far that day. In the air, accidents do happen – more often than not down to poor decision making on behalf of the pilot, but occasionally something else will go wrong. It’s very sad, but it happens. There were 8 deaths in light aircraft in UK airspace in total last year, and the aviation world feels that is 8 too many. Every accident gets investigated in forensic detail, and lessons are learned from every single incident.
It’s only fair to point out however that there are far fewer people in the air than on the roads at any given time, so comparing the two is slightly disingenuous. In order to compare the two you must look at the number of accidents per hour of activity, and then the playing field gets levelled significantly. Statistically flying light aircraft is about on a par with horse riding for fatalities per year, and slightly better than riding a motorcycle. If high risk activity is your thing then Base Jumping, Scuba Diving and even running with the bulls have much to recommend them, if you fancy a break in intensive-care.
Ultimately it comes down to conscious risk awareness. This is the science of weighing up the risks and deciding if the rewards are worth it. I understand (and enjoy) the thrill of riding a high powered motorcycle at speeds which would turn a magistrate purple, and for many the risk is outweighed by the reward. I guess Scuba Divers and Base Jumpers think the same way. I don’t get any thrill from taking off half-prepared on a flight across mountainous terrain in a badly serviced aircraft in grotty weather, in fact, it terrifies me, so I don’t do it. Driving (and to some extent, flying) is a necessity for the purposes of transport so I do whatever I can to mitigate the risk. I am an experienced motorist with a modern, well-maintained car, I have a string of advanced driving qualifications, but I know enough to know that (despite what my mum thinks) I’m far from perfect. A moment’s loss in concentration and someone will be claiming on my life insurance. I look at what’s to be gained, and that’s how I assess what might be an acceptable risk. That’s probably why I like being a bit reckless with my investments, and it’s certainly the reason why I don’t smoke.