"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.
Altogether, six crashes resulting in five deaths have occurred at Lee and Tipton since last summer. All but one remain under investigation
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