Aviation Safety Semantics

By Scott Spangler on February 5th, 2024

As a word merchant and an aviator, words are important. They are the foundation of communication, and in many instances they can be the difference between life and death. “Hold Short” is but one example. Equally important is our semantic understanding of the aviation lexicon, what each of the words mean.

Take “accident,” for example. Millions of words have been written and spoken about this word, its outcomes, its trends, and its persistent place in aviation. But have you ever given thought to what this word means? Here is what the 11th edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary has to say:


1a: an unforeseen and unplanned event or circumstance

b: lack of intention or necessity : CHANCE

2a: an unfortunate event resulting especially from carelessness or ignorance

As this relates to aviation, accidents are unfortunate and, for the most part, unplanned. Suicidal best describes pilots who take off intending to return to earth unsafely. Pilots who consider aviation’s unfortunate outcomes unforeseen may best be described by the second aspect of the definition: careless and ignorant.

Pilots have been choosing from the same menu of fatal outcomes for more than a century now, so how can anyone categorize them as “unforeseen?” No one is ever immune from the possibility of any of them on any flight. Regardless of our intentions we each are ultimately responsible for the consequences of our decisions.

Every student pilot learns, to some degree or another, about Five Hazardous Attitudes, their symptoms, and the consequential umbrella that covers them all:

Anti-authority: Those who do not like anyone telling them what to do.

Impulsivity: Those who feel the need to do something, anything, immediately.

Invulnerability: Those who believe that accidents happen to others.

Macho: Those who are trying to prove that they are better than anyone else. “Watch this!

Resignation: Those who do not see themselves making a difference.

Knowing about these attitudes is good, but it is just a halfway effort without balancing them with some beneficial attitudes pilots should relentlessly strive to embody. You can compile your list, but here’s one to get you started:


: careful to consider all circumstances and possible consequences : PRUDENT

Employing all that this word embodies to every aspect of aviation before acting can only improve safety. But just as we each are responsible for the consequences of decisions whether they be good or bad, we humans are not infallible, so unwanted outcomes will continue to occur with unwanted regularity. But we should stop referring to them as “accidents.” The military has a better word and definition for it:


: any unplanned, unintended event or series of events that results in death, injury, illness, or property damage.

But whatever word you use to describe it, remember to be circumspect. –Scott Spangler, Editor

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