The family of Gulfstream corporate jets, like the one that crashed last week killing sports-franchise mogul Lewis Katz, had an accident rate of less than half its peer group as investigators now try to determine how the plane skidded off a runway at a Massachusetts airport.
General Dynamics Corp.’s Gulfstream IV and similar models had only three fatal incidents prior to the latest crash, according to Robert Breiling, a consultant who tracks corporate-jet safety. The accident rate, including fatal and less serious crashes, was 1.7 per million flight hours from 2009 through 2013, less than half the total for all corporate aircraft.
The Gulfstream IV, which went out of production in 2002, is part of the most popular family of large business jets and competes for higher-end consumers who demand comfortable cabins and longer ranges. The accident rate for such private aircraft is comparable to the risks of flying commercial, Breiling said.
“Professionally flown business jets have accumulated an accident record equal to or better than scheduled U.S. carriers,” he said in a telephone interview.
The accident that killed Katz and six others May 31, when the plane failed to lift off and skidded across a field and into a ravine, is among the most common type of crash for jet planes, according to John Cox, chief executive officer of industry consultant Safety Operating Systems. While landings at airports are more hazardous, take-offs remain one of the riskiest phases, Cox said.
“It is the regime of flight with the third-highest number of accidents,” Cox, a consultant who has participated in accident investigations, said in a telephone interview.
The plane carrying Katz and six other people was attempting to take off in Bedford, Massachusetts, for Atlantic City, New Jersey, according to the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board. Photos show tire marks on the runway and a paved area beyond it, suggesting the pilots were trying to stop and abort the take-off.
Grass in a field after the plane struck an antenna was scorched, possibly from a fire on the plane.
Emergency workers at the scene found the airplane’s two black-box recorders, Peter Knudson, a spokesman at the NTSB, said in a Twitter post yesterday.
The Gulfstream IV that crashed had a value of $20 million, according to Breiling. The G-IV and several related models are the most popular large business aircraft, according to JetNet LLC, a Utica, New York-based aviation research company.
There are 827 of the models in service, according to JetNet. Montreal-based Bombardier Inc.’s Challenger 600 models are next with 606 in service.
Safety systems on modern aircraft, such as automated sensors that warn pilots of impending mid-air collisions or flying too low, have almost wiped out certain types of accidents and made flying on commercial or corporate aircraft safer than at any time in history, according to Thomas Haueter, the former head of the NTSB’s aviation accident division.
Among the risks that remain are the split-second decisions that pilots must make if they are faced with an emergency as they accelerate past 100 miles (161 kilometers) an hour toward takeoff, Haueter and Cox said.
Before each takeoff, pilots calculate the maximum speed at which they can safely slam on the brakes and stop without skidding off the runway. Even if an engine catches fire or another emergency occurs above that speed, pilots must take off and deal with the emergency in the air or risk crashing into the ground.
Pilots’ attempts to abort a landing as they reached high speeds just before liftoff were the leading cause of crashes off the runway during takeoff, according to a study by the Flight Safety Foundation, an Alexandria, Virginia-based non-profit organization.
Katz had flown to Bedford to attend an event at the Concord, Massachusetts, home of Richard Goodwin and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. The Gulfstream IV attempted to depart from Hanscom Field at 9:40 p.m. with four passengers, two pilots and a cabin attendant, according to Luke Schiada, a senior air safety investigator with the NTSB.
An airport employee told investigators the twin-engine plane never lifted off the ground, Schiada said at a June 1 briefing. The plane continued across a paved safety zone at the end of the runway, skidded about 2,000 feet (610 meters) through a field and ripped through a chain-link fence, he said.
Much of the plane was destroyed by burning jet fuel, he said.
The plane was carrying two crash-proof recorders, one that captured sounds in the cockpit and another that stored data on the plane’s path, engines and pilot actions, he said.
Katz, a lawyer and businessman who through the years owned the New Jersey Nets basketball team, New Jersey Devils hockey team and ran a billboard company and parking-lot operator, won control of the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper and its sister publication at a court-ordered auction four days before the crash. He was 72.
The passengers on the plane were identified yesterday by the Middlesex District Attorney’s office: Katz, Susan Asbell, 67, of Cherry Hill, New Jersey; Marcella Dalsey, 59, of Williamstown, New Jersey, and Anne Leeds of Longport, New Jersey.
One pilot, James McDowell, 51, of Georgetown, Delaware, and a flight attendant, Teresa Ann Benhoff, 48, of Easton, Maryland, were also identified. The name of the second pilot wasn’t released.
The captain, who wasn’t named, had 18,500 hours of flight experience, Schiada said in a briefing yesterday. The co-pilot had 11,200 flight hours, he said.
A General Dynamics unit built the Gulfstream IV until production ended in 2002 after more than 500 were sold, according to the company’s website. The plane is listed as being 89 feet long with a wingspan of 78 feet. A revamped version of the plane has been designated the G450.
The runway in the latest accident was 7,000 feet long, which should have been enough to stop a Gulfstream speeding toward takeoff, Haueter and Cox said.
Investigators will want to determine if there was a mechanical failure or some other reason that might have prevented the pilots from lifting off or stopping, they said.
Previous take-off accidents on business aircraft included the 2008 crash in South Carolina that killed four people and injured musicians Travis Barker and Adam “DJ AM” Goldstein.
That crash occurred after a tire exploded, according to the NTSB. It was caused by a failure to properly inflate the tires and the pilot’s decision to try to stop on the runway after reaching too high a speed, the safety board found.