May 9--When Joseph Kelly's Beechcraft Bonanza hit a tree along Warehouse Creek a few hundred yards short of the runway at Lee Airport in February, he became the latest addition to a sad statistic for the Edgewater airfield.
More fatal and serious-injury plane incidents have occurred at Lee Airport in the last 25 years than any other public general aviation airfield in Maryland, according to accident data compiled by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.
But before hysteria sets in over that statistic, know this: there are as many causes as there are mishaps, most pointing to pilot errors rather than anything to do with the 61-acre airfield itself.
After three incidents at or near the airport early this year, including the one that took Kelly's life and another that put a plane in the South River, some wondered if something about the 50-plus-year-old airport was to blame. But National Transportation Safety Board examinations of the seven fatal accidents since 1985 and other incidents suggest that is not the case.
"You can't argue with the numbers," said pilot and instructor John Sullivan, who was a safety manager for Continental Airlines. "But when you look for systemic problems here, you can't find (them)."
The Federal Aviation Administration agrees.
"Every accident is thoroughly investigated," spokesman Tim Peters said. "They look for common threads between incidents. Is it the way the airport is run? Were the pilots trained by the same person? Is there a causal relationship?"
So far no common element has been found.
Some have pointed to obstructions at both ends of the 2,500 foot runway. Retail-lined Route 2, where more than 50,000 cars pass daily, lies within 300 feet of one end, and Beards Creek, its shoreline covered with tall trees and fancy homes, sits at the other.
Add to that a shopping center now being built along Route 2 on property adjacent to the airport and some area residents wonder what the next mishap may bring.
"It's a time bomb," said retired engineer Jerry Hodges, who lives in Brookshire, a neighborhood directly across Beards Creek from the end of the runway. "It's common sense; the bottom line is probabilities. Accidents are going to happen. But it's just a matter of time."
Those factors add to the level of concentration and preparation required of all pilots, but don't render the field unsafe, pilots who use the airport say.
"You have to be right when coming into Lee," said one pilot who has flown in and out of there frequently over the years. "Those factors are something you plan for."
John Cutcher, an instructor and designated pilot examiner who issues pilot certificates out of Lee Airport, admits some of the hazards around the airport can pose a problem. He agreed that had there been a corn field between Warehouse Creek and the runway instead of stores and Route 2, Kelly would have landed in there instead of trying to put his plane into the creek.
Cutcher witnessed the wreck and believes that is what happened, but the NTSB has not finalized its report. He landed in front of Kelly and believes the pilot hit a downdraft, as he had done, and tried to put the plane in the creek when the aircraft did not respond properly.
"It limits your options, no question about it. But (flying) is all about risk management. We understand the risk and try to mitigate for it through good training and proper planning.
"Those of us who fly out of Lee are very familiar with what risks there are and know we have to manage them ... It's the transient guys that concern us the most," said Cutcher, a former Navy pilot who flew for US Airways and now flies a business jet out of Easton's airport.
Errors, the unknown
Some of the accidents have been attributed to pilots not familiar with the airpark's idiosyncrasies.
Along with pilot error, unfamiliarity with Lee Airport is a factor in many of the 25 accidents investigated by the NTSB since 1985, including two from this year.
"The pilot's failure to maintain adequate altitude-clearance from the trees. Contributing to the accident was the pilot's unfamiliarity with the geographic location and dark night conditions." That was the NTSB's conclusion investigating the crash that killed actor William Gardner Knight in 1998. He had flown in from Florida and was attempting to land his single engine Vans RV-6 just after dark. He hit trees on approach and the plane ended up in Beard's Creek.
A crash that killed a couple flying into Lee from Texas in December 2006 also was caused by failure to maintain proper clearance and altitude -- the plane struck trees on its way into Lee. The Cessna 210 also was apparently about 80 feet off course of the extended center line of the runway. The pilot, a 49-year-old man, had not previously flown into Lee.
A warning light installed in the trees that was apparently out but under repair at the time also was cited as a contributing factor.
Earlier that year, in July, a pilot failed to adjust his plane's flaps as he attempted a go-around for a second landing attempt. He had plenty of experience, more than 2,700 flight hours, but made a fatal mistake and the engine stalled, dropping the Cirrus Design SR22 to the ground. The 65-year-old pilot was seriously injured in the crash and died three weeks later.
More recently, two incidents made news following the fatal in February. A plane's landing gear collapsed as it landed March 20, but the pilot had done everything by the book. Sensing something amiss with his instruments indicating his landing gear down, he radioed pilots on the ground, who took a close look at the plane as he made a pass over the field.
"I was there and that is exactly what he should of done. We told him his gear looked locked in the down position. He came down, it was a perfect normal landing," Cutcher said.
Then about three-quarters of the way down the runway, the gear slowly retracted and the Piper Lance skidded to a stop.
The last incident under investigation by NTSB occurred March 25 when a very experienced pilot, taking off to fly across the Chesapeake for an inspection, purposefully put his plane in the South River after engine trouble.
Part of the public's perception of Lee is that the creeks at either end of the runway and the South River are hazards for pilots. To the contrary, Cutcher said.
"We see the creeks as safety features, not impediments," Cutcher said. "They allow us to avoid people, places or things on the ground. They are like a runway for us."
All those sorts of incidents, and others, have contributed to the statistics that paint Lee Airport as problematic to the general public.
Seven of the 41 fatal accidents in the state have happened at or were related to Lee. That is 17 percent of the state's fatal crashes at the Edgewater facility, one of 35 public general aviation airports in the state. Nine people have died in Lee's seven incidents.
Lee is a moderately busy airport. In the year ending in April 2009, Lee had 31,638 "operations" or landings and takeoffs. By comparison, Bay Bridge Airport on Kent Island had 67,100 and Tipton Airport at Fort George G. Meade had 49,225.
Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Lee has lost volume. It still sits in a restricted air zone around Washington, D.C., that requires pilots to file a flight plan and register for a special transponder their plane must ping constantly during flight.
The airfields at Bay Bridge and Tipton are not included in those restrictions.
Narrowing the chances for a mishap is basically a two-pronged effort -- making safety improvements at the airport combined with properly training and preparing pilots.
"My job is to make the airport as safe as possible. To make sure people are doing what they are supposed to do," said Van Lee, the airport manager whose family owns the airport and surrounding fields along Route 2.
He said the facility is pretty much self-policing, with senior pilots keeping an eye on things.
"They are not shy about telling somebody, 'Hey, I don't like what you did out there.' "
Improvements at the airport, some still in the works, have been aimed at reducing risks and better informing pilots not accustomed to Lee. The runway has been repaved, reducing its slippery-when-wet reputation.
A new information system, Super AWOS, allows pilots to get wind speed and direction, altimeter and other data by clicking on their cockpit microphone. Previously they would get weather conditions from BWI or other locations, not a precise report of local conditions at Lee. "That's better than the old windsock. They don't have to pass over the airport to find out, and don't have to pass over houses, too," Lee said.
The airport also is in the process of installing a PAPI, Precision Approach Path Indicator, a visual aid system that provides guidance information to help a pilot acquire and maintain the correct angle of approach and direction when landing.
With the help of Cutcher and others, a new visual touch-down system has been installed on the runway.
Large yellow triangles painted one third of the way down the runway tell pilots that if they don't have wheels down by that point, they need to do a go-around and try again.
"Through this initiative started at Lee we are trying to get the FAA to standardize it for all small airports," Cutcher said. "No matter where a pilot goes he will see the same touch-down marker."
He was headed to Long Island this weekend to push the notion to pilots and airports there.
With the Internet adding capabilities every day, informing pilots unfamiliar with Lee is getting easier.
Pilots are supposed to thoroughly research destination airports before setting out on any flight, especially if they have not landed there previously.
Lee Airport is in the process of beefing up the information available to pilots, though what is currently posted should suffice for a careful pilot.
Cutcher says he encourages pilots to use Google Earth.
"I can go to an unfamiliar airport, see the surroundings, look at the hazards. I can even do a simulating landing, so when I come out of the clouds it's as if I've been there before."
Lee Airport, with the assistance of the Maryland Aviation Administration, had a hazard survey done of the airport four years ago.
Since then some trees have been removed from the end of the runway. A pit of soft gravel was installed at the Route 2 end to stop planes that might roll too far, much like a runaway truck lane off a steep grade on the highway.
Earlier improvements came out of a 1987 agreement with surrounding neighborhoods. That document also set the total number of planes that can be stored at Lee, including transients, at 140. And it restricted the hours of operation, most notably closing at 10 p.m.
Pilots can activate runway lights by clicking their microphone five times, and can make them brighter or dimmer by continuing to click.
But after 10, that's it. Lee said he does make some exceptions, say for a half hour or so if he knows a particular pilot is running late.
Regulations also keep pilots and their planes in order.
A pilot must get a fairly grueling physical every two years, every three for those under age 40. They must fly a certain numbers of hours to keep their certificates and ratings current.
The aircraft have to undergo an annual inspection, and be reinspected if any major work is done to them.
In addition to serving general aviation pilots, The Annapolis Squadron of the Civil Air Patrol is headquartered at Lee Airport.
And the Naval Academy sends midshipmen considering flight school to Lee, as well as other local airports, for their first flight training. It's where some of the world's best pilots got their first flying lessons, where future Top Gun jockeys first take to the skies.
The academy has sent about 150 midshipmen to the Annapolis Flight Center at Lee since 2003, and has not had any safety or other issues at the airport.
Van Lee is so confident in the safety operations at the airport that he just finished building his family's house off the end of the runway along Beards Creek.
"I'll die on Route 97 or somewhere on the road long before something with an airplane," he said.