I am always on the lookout for discussions of a novel technology’s risk profile. So I was quite happy when I recently came across a series of two articles published in Popular Mechanics back in July and August 1911, titled “The Fatalities of Flight.”
These articles argued that “much of the responsibility for aeroplane fatalities is misplaced.” The first three paragraphs of the July 1911 piece convey the flavor of the series:
Of technical matters with which he has only the slightest acquaintance the man in the street inevitably takes a most superficial view. In nothing is this better illustrated than in the popular attitude toward the fatalities of aeronautics.
At the outset came the thrills inspired by man’s first real conquest of the air–by machines capable of real dynamic flight–controlled, fairly stable, and of fast-improving safety. Then promptly followed in the popular imagination and its unfailing mirror, the yellow press, a frenzied exploitation of the horror stories that writers more clever than accurate could spin about the occasional fatalities, which naturally enough have attended the latest development in engineering and transportation. As a matter of course in this sensational exploitation little account has been taken of such ordinary human frailties as recklessness and carelessness—usually considered only in their relations to the commonplace activities and mishaps of life. Instead, every aviation accident has been regarded as a catastrophe utterly avoidable, absolutely inescapable—inherent in the very fact of human flight itself.
As a result many otherwise well-informed persons have come to view aeronautical progress as the development of a most desperate and dangerous folly, and to see in every aviator a money-mad participant in a carnival of death, and in every flying ground a shambles.
In trying to debunk the prevailing perception of airflight as inherently risky, the author notes that “according to the most reliable statistics obtainable” regarding “power-driven aeroplanes,” there have been “no more than forty-seven fatal accidents with such machines.” He also makes a keen observation regarding how people perceive risk:
Men are prone to appraise casualty by its horror rather than by its statistics, and the thought of one individual tumbling from the skies grips harder on the popular imagination than the slaughter of a few scores in a factory fire, or a million deaths from tuberculosis.
The August 1911 article is equally interesting. Its author’s introduction includes the following passage:
. . .
Aviation, considered as a sport, and wholly disregarding the prospect of its assuming vast industrial importance, is even less dangerous than football. Statistics compiled concerning this game, as played by American college teams, shows that of the membership of some 200 football elevens, totaling some 2,500 players, 60 were killed during 1909 — a mortality considerably higher than the present annual maximum of 37 men killed in aeroplane accidents from May 15, 1910, to May 15, 1911, out of a total of about 2,000 licensed and unlicensed aviators.
. . .
The main text of the article, meanwhile, begins with:
It is most manifest that very nearly all the aeroplane accidents so far have been clearly due to to careless construction or assembling, or flying under bad conditions of wind or locality, to incompetent driving, to distinctly reckless exhibition stunts, or to clumsy experimenting.
The article then presents a table detailing all known aeroplane accidents to date, along with the perceived reasons for each mishap.
Anyway, it’s a very, very intriguing series (with pictures!), at least if you are interested in prevailing perceptions of the risks associated with novel technologies.
Before closing, I should note that the author of the series, Victor Lougheed, wasn’t altogether unbiased in portraying most aeroplane accidents as the product of preventable error. Lougheed was the author of a text, “Vehicles of the Air,” which taught the reader how to “Make [Their] Own Flying Machine.” Per an advertisement for the book in the July 1911 edition of Popular Mechanics, “With the information afforded by this book any one of ordinary mechanical abilities, and with very little money, can build and operate machines of known flying capabilities.”
UPDATE: Popular Mechanics later would print several additional articles that updated the death tolls associated with early aviation. Examples can be seen here (August 1912), here (January 1913; titled “Aviation Now as Safe as Football”), here (February 1914), and here (February 1915).