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Sex and Pilots: The Plane Facts

Men and women crash planes differently, study says

WEDNESDAY, May 16 (HealthScout) -- Male pilots crash planes because they're not paying attention; female pilots crash when they make a mistake with the equipment, a new study suggests.

Take-offs and landings, however, were the great equalizers: Losing control then was the greatest risk for both sexes in crashing an airplane. In addition, the researchers say, mechanical failure, running out of fuel and landing with the landing gear up were more common factors for male pilots, while stalling was more likely with females.

"We had a unique database designed to study pilots born between 1933 and 1942," says lead author Susan Baker, a professor of health policy and management in the Bloomberg School of Public Health's Center for Injury Research and Policy at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md. "We were especially looking at the aging of pilots with regards to aviation safety."

Using the data, Baker and her colleagues explored the reasons for private airplane and helicopter crashes between 1983 and 1997, which involved 144 female and 287 male pilots between the ages of 40 and 63. "We characterized the description of the crashes as reported to the National Transportation Safety Board. We used a researcher who was also a flight instructor who had no knowledge of the gender of the pilot. She reviewed every crash and coded the circumstances of the crash," Baker says.

The majority of the crashes -- 95 percent for female pilots and 88 percent for male -- were caused by pilot error, Baker says. But the kind of pilot error was where the gender differences showed up. Mishandling the aircraft -- including incorrect use of the rudder, poor response to a bounce, inability to recover from a stall -- was the most common single error for everyone. But it was a more prevalent error for female pilots -- 81 percent of the crashes -- than for male pilots -- only 48 percent of the crashes.

The findings were published in the May issue of Aviation Space and Environmental Medicine.

Men, however, were guiltier of poor decision making, Baker explains. They were more likely to take risks, and less likely to pay attention, including misjudging weather and visibility or flying an aircraft with a known defect.

"We see the greatest gender differences when it comes to injury in the 15- to 30-year old age group" in any profession, Baker comments. "You'd expect younger males to be more reckless, more aggressive," she says. "But to see it in more mature pilots, I had not expected to see these kinds of differences."

Crashes of private aircraft claimed an average of 652 lives annually between 1995 and 1999, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. And while male pilots greatly outnumber female pilots (only 5.8 percent of all pilots are women), the percentage has increased two-fold since 1959. There's been a 30-fold increase in the number of female pilots with airline transport certificates -- 0.1 percent in 1959 compared to 2.7 in 1996, according to the Airplane Owners and Pilots Association.

Baker says she doesn't know why gender makes a difference in piloting a plane. "I don't know if it's cultural or it's genetic," she says, "and I'm not making any guess. I do think women tend to be more cautious. And I can't imagine a female pilot buzzing her boyfriend's house, but male pilots occasionally do this. So you make your own supposition."

"She's right," says Bob Dodd, an air safety consultant in private practice and a full-time flight instructor in Gabrills, Md. "When you do this kind of retrospective evaluation, you can recognize patterns, but you can't prove causation."

Dodd says his experience as a flight instructor confirms these differences in male and female pilots "You have to understand that flying an airplane is no more challenging from a physical point of view than driving a car. But it requires a lot more cognitive knowledge and judgment -- thinking and planning. And women excelled at this."

"While generalizations are dangerous, by and large, my women students were far more compliant with my instructions," Dodd continues. "They were studious and focused on the task at hand."

"My male students, for some reason, were just not as attentive to the judgment and thought process that goes along with flying. They were basically attentive to flying in the moment, rather than accepting the limitations of the flight and the machine."

What To Do

For more on learning to fly, visit the Aircraft Owners And Pilots Association . And for more on airplane safety, see the Aviation Safety Network.

And don't forget these HealthScout stories on airplanes

SOURCES: Interviews with Susan Baker, MPH, professor of health policy and management, Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health Center for Injury Research and Policy, Baltimore, Md.; and Bob Dodd, Ph.D., air safety consultant, flight instructor, Gabrills, Md.: May, 2001 Aviation Space and Environmental Medicine
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