What is Pilot Error?

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  • Written By: A Kaminsky
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 28 March 2020
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The term “pilot error” makes the blood of pilots, private and commercial, run cold. This is the term used when a plane has some kind of accident that can be traced back to the pilot’s direct error, or failure to exercise due diligence. No pilot wants to make a mistake, or a bad decision during a flight. If something happens during a flight, having the accident attributed to pilot error may mean the pilot did not do all he or she could have done to have avoided the accident.

Because so much redundancy is built into every system of a commercial aircraft, the “pilot error” label takes on an additional layer of meaning. If a commercial flight accident is labeled “pilot error,” then the pilot must truly have made a major mistake. This is not necessarily the case, although some accidents point to nothing but pilot or crew error. The bottom line is that the pilot controls the aircraft and has the final word on all operations, so even a mistake made by another crew member can be called pilot error.


One example of this is Comair Flight 191, which crashed at the Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, Ky. on 27 August 2006. The aircraft, a Bombardier Candair Regional Jet, crashed after attempting to take off on the wrong runway. The runway used was far too short to accommodate the aircraft and 49 people were killed in the accident. The co-pilot was handling the takeoff and steered the plane on to the wrong runway. The crew did notice the absence of lights on the runway, which should have been a clue, but they chose to go ahead with the takeoff.

The National Transportation and Safety Board concluded that, even though the tower at the airport was short-staffed, and the controller did not maintain visual contact of the aircraft throughout departure, that the pilot should have cross-checked with the tower to make sure the aircraft was on the correct runway. While the tower’s negligence didn’t help matters any, had the pilot made the appropriate decisions from the beginning, the accident might not have occurred.

Private pilots are more vulnerable to the consequences of their decisions than their commercial-flying counterparts. Their aircraft are lighter and have fewer redundant systems to help avoid losing all electrical systems, for instance. In fact, one estimate says that 78 percent of all private aircraft accidents are due to pilot error. Whether this was an actual mistake on the pilot’s part or merely a decision that didn’t work out, is not specified. All are listed under the same category. Also, a pilot flying solo might be willing to take risks he or she would never take if carrying passengers.

Planes take off and land safely every day, and pilot error is uncommon. It does happen, but is certainly less frequent than driver error. Flying is universally recognized to be a safer method of transport than the automobile, which speaks well for the safety records of most pilots.


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