Experts say plane is generally safe: Aircraft involved in deadly Chapel Hill crash was a Cirrus SR20


July 16--CHAPEL HILL -- Aviators familiar with the single-engine Cirrus SR20 that crashed Monday at the Horace Williams Airport killing the pilot and injuring two passengers say the high-performance aircraft is safe but demands respect from even the most skilled pilots.

Over the years, Cirrus planes have gained a somewhat controversial safety reputation because of crashes such as the one in 2006 that left Yankee pitcher Cory Lidle and his flight instructor dead after the SR20 they were flying slammed into a Manhattan high rise.

Officials with Duluth, Minn.-based Cirrus Design Corp., the plane's manufacturer, told The Chapel Hill Herald earlier this week that their planes' safety record is on par with similar aircraft.

And the planes' defenders say pilot error is more often than not the cause of a plane crash.

"You can't jump to conclusions, but 97 percent of the time, that's what it is," said Don Weaver, manager and chief instructor for Optimal Aircraft Shares, a company that offers equity and lease options for Cirrus SR22s at Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

Weaver and others who spoke to The Chapel Hill Herald about the plane, the airport and the crash for this story, made it clear that they were speaking in generalities and do not presume to know what happened to cause the crash on Monday.

An investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), who wrapped up his on-site examination on Thursday, ruled out mechanical failure as a probable cause of the crash. A final report into the cause of the crash will take anywhere from 12 to 18 months.

Cirrus defenders say the planes, the more powerful SR22 in particular, is like the Porsche of small aircraft. As a result, it attracts people who might have more money than the time and patience needed to become a skilled pilot.

Pilots flying above their capability might explain why Cirrus planes have gotten an unfair reputation for being a safety risk, they say.

Between Jan. 15, 2005, and July 5 there have been 50 accidents involving the Cirrus SR20 and the SR22 that have resulted in 98 fatalities, according to the NTSB website.

"It's a high-performance airplane," said Lee Herring, the owner of a Cirrus SR22 Turbo who lives in North Wilkesboro. "You may have people buying it with high disposable income. It's kind of like a sports car and you have to respect it."

Weaver, who has more than 3,000 hours in the Cirrus SR22 and Cirrus SR20, expressed a similar sentiment.

"The problem is sometimes people have more money than brains and they don't properly train," said Weaver.

Optimal Aircraft has two SR22s at RDU that are shared by nine people.

Weaver said none of the pilots who share the plane have been involved in an accident, and that they are trained up and beyond what is required by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

"What we try to do is encourage people and sometimes require them to do proficiency training that individual owners might not do," Weaver said. "A lot of it is insurance driven."

Both Herring and Weaver have flown into the Horace Williams Airport and said it should not pose any particular problem for experienced pilots.

"It's a flat approach," said Herring, noting that the runway is long enough for planes the size of a Cirrus. "The trees are a little closer than usual, but there is nothing particularly unusual or unusually risky at Horace Williams Airport."

Herring has seven years of flying experience, six of them in the Cirrus, and often flies into Horace Williams Airport to attend football games at UNC or to visit a sister who lives in Durham.

"The plane in and of itself is safe," Herring said. "Accidents are caused by pilots. There are exceptions. We'll just have to see."

The crash Monday killed Thomas Pitts, 65, the owner and pilot of the single-engine plane. Jim Donahue, a close friend of Pitts, was injured and listed in critical condition.

Also injured was Kyle Henn, the brother of Nate Henn, a Raleigh man killed Sunday in bombing attacks in Uganda that struck crowds watching the World Cup soccer finals.

Pitts was flying Kyle Henn to the Triangle to be with his grieving family. Kyle Henn was released from the hospital Wednesday.