Oct. 17--Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport, the corporate aviation hub nestled amid businesses and residences, holds one of the nation's most troubling safety records.
In the past 40 months, eight people have died in crashes shortly after takeoff from the city-run airport, and several close calls barely averted catastrophe on the ground.
The most recent: a 43-year-old cargo plane that crashed near Interstate 95 and Cypress Creek Road on Sept. 21, stunning Friday afternoon commuters and leaving the bloodied pilot a miracle survivor.
Since 2003, 29 planes have crashed either flying from or to FXE, as it is known, a Miami Herald review of National Transportation Safety Board records found.
Yet it is lapses on the ground that consistently rank the airport among the nation's most dangerous, federal records show.
Fort Lauderdale Executive had more runway incursions -- planes coming too close to each other or a ground vehicle -- than any other airport in the country from 2001 to 2004, Federal Aviation Administration records show. Even with recent improvements, it still ranks in the top 10 nationally.
In that time, it also led the United States in "surface incidents" -- cases that don't typically involve an aircraft in potential conflict, but include unauthorized aircraft crossing an empty runway, for instance. FXE had 67 such incidents -- more than triple the combined number at airports in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, Pembroke Pines and Opa-locka.
While none of the runway mishaps resulted in death, experts liken them to running a red light: You may go unharmed this time, but maybe not next time. Reducing the risks of runway incursions and collisions nationwide is a top FAA priority.
TOWER BLIND SPOT
Compounding matters: FXE's control tower is 15 years past its 20-year design life, and still some six years from being replaced, as the FAA has only recently made it a top priority.
The tower -- on the airport's southern side, tucked between hangars and operations buildings -- is only a few stories tall and can barely be seen over adjacent buildings. It operates with a blind spot that likely was a factor in the high rate of ground problems.
"It's very difficult for the tower to see the aircraft moving on the taxiway on the southeast corner of the airport," said Paul Kramer, a pilot and flight instructor who has been a tenant since 1971.
Airport manager Clara Bennett declined to be interviewed. Asked about the recent accidents and long-standing runway problems, Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jim Naugle said: "I knew nothing about this."
The FAA and pilots like Kramer say the aviation community has put a major focus on reducing the number of runway incidents.
"It's not that there is a problem and they are not addressing it," said Kramer, who uses the airport almost every day. "There is a problem and they are aware of it, and they are trying to stop it."
The FAA said the reform effort -- including training for pilots, controllers and airport drivers; annual safety assessments; and new signage and lighting -- has paid off. Runway incursions dropped from 15 in 2001 to two in 2005.
"Our success is clear," FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen wrote to The Miami Herald.
Yet the number rose to three last year and five so far this year, prompting the FAA to focus, again, on curtailing the problem. Many airports report zero yearly incursions.
Ted Lawson, a city spokesman, said FXE is presently ranked ninth in the number of runway incursions, tying it with 12 other airports.
Meanwhile, problems in the air continue.
Of the 29 accidents since 2003 in which planes had departed from or were en route to FXE, nine occurred within 20 minutes of takeoff, killing eight and seriously injuring six. Though a handful of the 29 crashes occurred hundreds of miles away, Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport has had more than its share of close calls.
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