Pilot as a Dangerous Profession

Q: Last fall, a story on CNN/Money ranked commercial piloting as the third most dangerous profession according the Department of Labor. What gives?

Commercial pilots, per se, encompass a pretty big vocational sphere — anything from crop dusters to banner-towers to airline pilots. Even still, I’m surprised, but the underlying lesson here, maybe, is there simply aren’t that many on-the-job deaths in any profession. One or two fatalities really skew the data. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, lumbermen have the worst mortality rate of anybody, with 118 deaths per 100,000 workers. For pilots it’s 70 kills per 100,000. Alaskan bush pilots, included in the commercial pilot grouping, have an astounding one-in-eight chance of death over the course of a 30-year career.

There’s a nomenclature issue here. Officially, a pilot needs fewer than 300 total hours to qualify for the FAA’s commercial certificate, which entitles you to nothing more than a generic, fly-for-hire waiver. I was barely 20 when I had mine, with virtually all of my experience in single-engine, four-seat Pipers and Cessnas. With this in mind, it’s sometimes a good idea to be skeptical of media stories citing this or that “commercial pilot” as a witness or source. (As we know, “erstwhile airline pilot” is the more appropriate badge of expertise.)

Most airline pilots, whose logbook totals average in the thousands of hours, hold the somewhat more restrictive Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate.


This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.