Despite a few high-profile incidents, helicopters are generally safe to fly — as long as proper safety procedures are followed


In the wake of the helicopter crash that killed nine people near Los Angeles, including basketball legend Kobe Bryant, on Sunday, people may be wondering about helicopter safety.

It seems like there are frequent reports of helicopter crashes in the US and around the world, especially tourism helicopters. In 2018, five people were killed when a helicopter operating an “open-door” tour over New York City crashed into the East River. A pilot died after he crashed into a building in Manhattan in 2019, and sightseeing helicopter crashes in recent years have resulted in deaths at the Grand Canyon and in Hawaii.

Despite high-profile incidents, helicopter crashes are rare

Even as the crash of Kobe Bryant’s helicopter draws attention to the risks of flying in one, helicopter crashes remain relatively rare – and are steadily decreasing.

According to the International Helicopter Safety Team (IHST), crashes in Europe have been on a steady decline in Europe, with 103 accidents in 2013, of which 25 were fatal, to a total of 43 accidents in 2017, of which 11 had fatalities.

US helicopter fatal accident rate 2016 2019Shayanne Gal/Business Insider

Accidents in the United States have generally trended toward a decline, despite a slight increase from 2016 to 2017 and a spike in 2018, according to data from the US Helicopter Safety Team (USHST).

According to USHST, there are more than 12,000 helicopters registered in the United States.

The trend was replicated worldwide, at least among the 49 reporting countries. “Total civil helicopter accidents in 2017 were down 6 per cent compared to the prior year and fatal accidents were reduced by 17 per cent year-over-year. Comparing 2017 to 2013, total accidents decreased by 32 per cent and fatal accidents were cut by 44 per cent.”

Safety is key

Like with any other mode of transportation, from driving a car to flying on a commercial jumbo jet, the safety of helicopter flights depends on the safety practices of the owner and operator.

In the New York City crash that killed five people, the helicopter company, FlyNYON, was accused of ignoring pilots’ safety concerns just months before the crash, The New York Times reported.

Papillon Airways, the company that operated a helicopter involved in the 2018 Grand Canyon crash, was also involved in a 2001 crash that killed six when the pilot made an error, National Transportation Safety Board officials said at the time, according to CNN.

In the crash involving Kobe Bryant, heavy fog grounded other flights, leading Bryant’s pilot to seek special permission from air traffic control to continue flying despite the poor visibility.

General aviation accident rates chartShayanne Gal/Business Insider

According to the US Helicopter Safety Team, accident rates in general aviation – the type of flight performed by a private individual or company including private charters, as opposed to a common carrier like an airline or some larger charter companies – show that helicopters are actually involved in slightly fewer accidents than fixed-wing aircraft.

Looking at all aviation types – including commercial – there’s a slightly higher rate of fatal accident for helicopters than aviation overall, according to FAA data cited by the Telegraph. The data show 0.84 fatal accidents per 100,000 flight hours across all types of aviation in the US, versus 1.02 for helicopters.

The fatal accident rate for helicopters is also significantly lower than for cars.

Ultimately, the risk is low – an estimated 800,000 fly over the Grand Canyon each year, and accidents are exceedingly rare. The decision to fly in a helicopter, and whether they feel safe with a particular pilot or operator, is up to each individual.

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