Deadly Private-Plane Crashes Prompt U.S. Call for Basics

The last fatal airline crash killed 50 people when a Colgan Air flight slammed into a neighborhood near Buffalo, New York, in February 2009. Private-plane wrecks since then have killed 30 times as many.

The crash rate on private-pilot flights -- up 20 percent since 2000 -- contrasts with a roughly 85 percent drop in accidents on commercial jetliners, according to data from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board. The disparity is a dark spot on decades of aviation-safety improvements, and the board is weighing how to make non-commercial flying less hazardous in a two-day forum that began today.

Many so-called general aviation accidents have resulted from pilots’ inattention to basics, according to research by a group run jointly by industry and the federal government. Pilots have overloaded planes, failed to check weather reports, and made flying mistakes that caused planes to lose lift or go out of control.

“In spite of the advances we have made in both commercial and corporate aviation-safety records, the GA accident rate is stubbornly stuck,” NTSB Chairman Debbie Hersman said at the hearing. “GA pilots are not learning from the deadly mistakes made by their brethren.”

Since the 1990s, commercial-airline crashes due to icing, inadvertently hitting the ground, mid-air collisions, wind shear and other causes have been almost wiped out with improved technology and pilot training, according to NTSB accident statistics.

Weather Report

By contrast, the types of accidents in non-commercial flying recur even as the safety board has often called for improvement, Hersman said.

In 2005, the board issued a study focusing on the role of weather as a common cause of small-plane accidents, she said.

Hersman pointed to a May 20, 2011, crash in Taos, New Mexico, after a Beechcraft Bonanza flew into a cloud and slammed into a mountainside. Investigators found that the pilot, who died, hadn’t checked weather reports for the route he flew.

“Our investigators see crashes resulting from the same causes over and over again,” Hersman said.

The accident rates for general aviation, including corporate and instructional flights, have changed little since 2000, according to safety board data.

12 Times

The accident rate for all general aviation was about seven per 100,000 flying hours from 2007 through 2010. By comparison, accidents involving private pilots in their own or rented planes, mostly small, single-engine aircraft, averaged about 12 per 100,000 flight hours during the same period, according to Jill Demko, an NTSB investigator who spoke at the forum.

Those numbers were broken out from the broader general-aviation statistics. Private-flight crashes were 12 times higher than the average rate for other types of general-aviation flying, Demko said.

The rate of deadly wrecks in such private flying has grown faster than accidents as a whole, up 25 percent since 2000, Earl Weener, an NTSB board member, said in an interview before the forum. About 1,500 people have died on general-aviation flights since the crash by Pinnacle Airlines Corp.’s Colgan, Weener said.

“That’s part of the reason for the focus” of the NTSB’s inquiry, Weener said. The board, which has no regulatory power, recommends safety improvements to government agencies and industry.

Losing Control

Seeking ways to stem the fatalities, industry groups and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates private flying and sets safety standards, last year used the General Aviation Joint Steering Committee to study accidents.

The group found that the largest category of accidents are those in which pilots lose control during flight, said Bruce Landsberg, head of the safety arm of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, an advocacy group based in Frederick, Maryland.

Landsberg, co-chairman of the steering committee, said the panel endorses working with the FAA to make it cheaper for small planes to install a device that warns pilots when wings are in danger of losing lift. Such devices are standard on commercial airliners.

Other frequent crash causes are inadvertently flying into the ground, loss of power and weather-related issues, Landsberg said.

Airfield Buzzed

Human error underlies the majority of personal flight crashes, Landsberg and Weener said.

An accident cited on Landsberg’s AOPA Air Safety Institute’s website highlights how pilot miscalculations can be deadly.

On Feb. 15, 2010, a Cessna T337G twin-engine plane crashed near Monmouth County Executive Airport in Farmingdale, New Jersey, as family members of those on board watched. The three adults and two children on the plane died.

After buzzing the airfield at high speed, the plane pulled into a climb and a section of the right wing came off, according to the NTSB’s findings. The plane was overloaded and flying too fast for such a maneuver, the agency found.

Education and training programs by Landsberg’s group and flying clubs haven’t reached all pilots, Jonathan Greenway, president of HCC Insurance Holdings Inc.’s Avemco Insurance Co. unit, told the forum. The firm insures aircraft owners.

“We’re not getting the dog food to the right dogs,” Greenway said.

Technical Solution

The number of accidents in which pilots in poor visibility fly into the ground appears to be decreasing, Tony Fazio, chief of the FAA’s Office of Accident Investigation and Prevention, told the forum.

The drop has coincided with increased use of handheld devices that alert pilots when they get too close to mountains or other obstructions, Fazio said.

Fazio, who helps lead the steering committee with Landsberg, said safety may not improve as much in private flying as it has with airlines. Private flying is less regulated and the planes typically have fewer safety systems, he said.

Landsberg said the general-aviation community doesn’t see a need for additional regulations.

“I don’t think you can crash an airplane unless you have broken one and possibly two regulations,” Landsberg said. “If everyone flew to the private-pilot practical test standards, we would have a pretty good system.”

He also pointed to the fact that, however tragic, the numbers of fatalities in plane crashes are far outstripped by those in accidents on the nation’s highways -- 32,885 in 2010, compared with 450 in general aviation.

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