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.