Acknowledgements: Australian Transport Safety Bureau (


This frequently asked question infers that safety and experience are synonymous. Yet sadly, this is not always the case. Occasionally, experienced pilots are involved in accidents. We are familiar with well-publicised events of (commercial) aircrew who, as a result of their experience and exceptional airmanship, avoided what could have been a disaster and a tragic loss of life: 

·       Captain ‘Al’ Haynes, in command of a DC-10 which had the fan wheel of its centre engine disintegrate, causing a loss of all three of its hydraulic control systems - an unprecedented problem that made the aircraft nearly impossible to fly or land. The crew figured out how to gain some control of the plane and were eventually able to get it to the Sioux City airport, where they crash-landed .... a remarkable 185 people survived the crash

·       Captain Chesley Sullenberger, who together with his co-pilot, successfully ditched their A320 in the Hudson River after both its engines lost power following multiple bird ingestion on take-off from New York in January 2009. All the passengers and crew were rescued from the floating aircraft without injury

·       Captain Richard de Crespigny and his crew after the A380 they were flying experienced an uncontained engine failure just after departing Singapore in November 2010. They guided the heavily damaged aircraft back to a safe landing, averting what could have been a major catastrophe. 

 There have been many other individual acts of outstanding airmanship where ‘experience’ clearly played a part in the safe outcome. At the same time, a closer analysis of events suggests that things other than experience alone had a hand in the outcome. Good trainingfocused preparation, a readiness for the unexpected and good crew interaction also had a significant part to play. Unfortunately, those other factors go mostly unreported in our media, and in those other tragic cases where the outcome was a fatal accident, many factors other than experience were also in play. 

An experienced pilot is considered to be an expert, characterised by a combination of knowledge, skill and proficiency. One who displays good airmanship and discipline; and applies those attributes safely and effectively to their flying. In his book “Flight Discipline”, Tony Kern describes expert aviators as “those who understand (and accept) the capabilities and limitations of themselves, their team, their aircraft, the physical, regulatory and organisational environment, and the multiple risks associated with the flight”. The introduction above mentioned just a few examples of how experience, teamwork and a thorough understanding of the aircraft, its systems and the environment in which it operates, can be invaluable in an emergency. 

However, experienced pilots who accept higher risks may not be as safe as a pilot with much less experience flying comfortably within the limits of his or her competency. Very human shortcomings such as complacency, distraction, misjudgement and oversight are sometimes apparent. Rarely, if ever, are accidents just plain bad luck. An understanding of the circumstances leading to those accidents will benefit any pilot who might think that experience alone will afford protection from ever having an accident. 

Even experienced pilots are vulnerable to mid-air collisions and it could be argued that the more time spent in the air increases one’s chances of being involved in such an event. Flying, even as a single-pilot, requires a dependence on others, many of whom may have considerably less experience, but who share the same airspace and ground facilities. Although the chance of encountering another aircraft may seem very unlikely at times, there is always a possibility that other aircraft may be about. If you can fly there, so can someone else. Communicate your intentions to others and try not to rely on just one method of traffic avoidance. Alerted ‘see and avoid’ can be achieved by means other than use of radio broadcasts. 

 A Pilot’s view

“As a young and inexperienced pilot, the aircraft accidents that left the greatest impression on me were the ones that occurred to ‘experienced’ pilots with many more hours in their log book than myself. I rationalised that there would be a period in my early flying career where I would be exposed to greater danger because I was less skilled and less confident of handling a situation than an experienced pilot. Despite my training, I was aware that should an emergency occur, I could be easily overwhelmed, unlike I imagined an experienced pilot would be. I was constantly worried about making wrong decisions, especially under stress. 

 I really believed that once I had gained experience, I would be far less vulnerable because I would possess greater skills and knowledge that could be used to avoid accidents. Certainly, as I gained experience and qualifications, I was able to dispel many anxieties that I had harboured about accidents. 

 However, the accidents that happened to experienced pilots stripped away that illusion of protection that I believed an experienced pilot possessed and left me with a nagging doubt that perhaps it was fate and not experience or ability that determined a pilot’s vulnerability. As I read the accident reports and articles about aviation safety, I developed a better understanding of the causal factors that led pilots, both experienced and inexperienced, to accidents. 

 Then, later in my career there came a new approach to understanding those issues. It was termed Human Factors. I first read about this in ‘The Human Factors in Aircraft Accidents’ by a British author and then current international airline pilot, Captain David Beatty. It was written by a pilot, for pilots. Reading that book was like a revelation and I was able to understand the reason for the seeming paradox of why some experienced pilots also had accidents. About 80% of aircraft accidents, some of which involve very experienced pilots, remain attributable to human factors. 

 Armed with the ‘wisdom of years’ and a better knowledge and understanding of accident causation, I now realise that experience alone will not guarantee me from becoming involved in an accident. That each and every flight should be approached, not with the anxiety that I had when still very inexperienced, but with a similar level of respect for the risks and hazards present”.


‘Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.’ 

 Experience, used wisely, can be extremely useful for avoiding accidents and invaluable in an emergency. Experience also allows a pilot in normal operation to anticipate events, allowing more time to review and monitor a flight. However, experience does not give a pilot immunity from an accident, and less-experienced pilots can learn to avoid the pitfalls that can develop with their increasing experience. 

 Experience alone can never be a substitute for sound risk management. Safety rules and guidance are written for all pilots. It is a fallacy to think that experience compensates for operating outside the constraints of well-established safety parameters. A pilot, no matter what level of experience, should never be beyond learning from the experiences of others. 


Tony Birth