While flying remains one of the safest and most popular ways to travel, aviation accident causes can be useful to understand, particularly for frequent flyers, as well as pilots and crew. While such incidents are extremely uncommon, accidents involving aircraft are inherently life-threatening due to the nature of flight.

In other words, in the rare cases where incidents do occur, they frequently involve multiple fatalities. Let’s take a look at some recent statistics involving aircraft safety followed by some of the most common aviation accident causes.


The United States has a huge general aircraft community—the largest in the world, in fact. As of 2016, this includes over 220,000 aircraft of every shape, size, and type, including everything from made-at-home vessels to balloons, and from rotorcraft to the world’s most advanced turbojets. The sky hosts a great diversity of airborne vessels, whether commercial, private, or government.

Fatal accidents still happen with far too much regularity. According to the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) July 28, 2016 general aviation safety fact sheet, 238 general aviation fatal accidents occurred in 2015, resulting in the death of 384 individuals. While these incidents may or may not be decreasing (incident rates are decreasing but so are hours logged by pilots), it’s clear that much remains to be done to increase safety in the sky.


The most common aviation cause is very straightforward: pilot error. Human beings make mistakes, and when the stakes are high, such as in an aircraft, the consequences can be dire. This is particularly the case in small, private aircrafts that contain a single pilot and limited safety mechanisms. While the FAA continues to phase in policies regarding new safety technology and new regulations regarding its use, most fatal aircraft incidents continue to involve small, private planes.

Pilot error as a cause is followed by mechanical error. Mechanical error can occur on any plane (although small and private planes are more likely to experience mechanical than their government and commercial counterparts). This may be the case for a variety of reasons, ranging from poor maintenance, incorrect installation, or a manufacturing issue.

Inclement weather is the third most common among aviation accident causes. For example, poor visibility, lightning storms, or intense wind can damage or down aircraft, igniting fuel tanks or causing electrical failures, and reduced visibility can also mean that a pilot is unable to safely land.

Most uncommon of the four main aviation accident causes listed here, air traffic controller errors can have deadly results. Air traffic controllers have extremely stressful jobs where they oversee the movement of multiple aircraft at once. Generally speaking, controllers are well aware of the potential consequences of any misstep and are highly trained and specialized to avoid any problems. However, now and then mistakes can be made, resulting in an aircraft-to-aircraft mid-air collision, for example.