No Links Found in Six Plane Crashes

May 23, 2007
Altogether, six crashes resulting in five deaths have occurred at Lee and Tipton since last summer. All but one remain under investigation

The number of plane crashes at two local airports has risen sharply since last summer, but aviation experts say there's nothing to suggest a common link between the accidents or a looming danger in the skies.

At Tipton Airport in west county, the number of plane crashes since last fall equals the number of accidents in the previous decade. Since last summer, Lee Airport in Edgewater has been the site of two fatal crashes, equaling the number of fatal crashes there from 1996 to 2006.

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

Officials are looking into external circumstances in two of the fatal crashes. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating whether a tree-mounted hazard indicator was working properly when a plane went down in an early December accident at Lee.

In a deadly accident at Tipton, a strict federal rule governing flights near Washington prompted a pilot to turn around. He and his passenger were killed when they crashed while trying to land.

Nationally, the rate of fatal general aviation plane crashes has been steady in the past 10 years. In 2005 there were 1.37 fatal accidents for every 100,000 hours flown, the same as in 1997, according to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

But general aviation is much more dangerous than flying commercially. In 2006 there were 0.132 accidents per 100,000 hours of scheduled commercial flights, according to the NTSB. The accident rate for general aviation was 6.64 per 100,000 flight hours. A total of 698 people died in those accidents.

NTSB records show that three crashes, none fatal, occurred at Tipton between July 25, 2001 and Dec. 18, 2002. There are no other crashes on record from 1996 through September 2006. Between Oct. 19 of last year and May of this year there have been three, including one that killed two people.

Eight accidents resulting in three deaths happened at Lee between 1997 and June 2006. Since last July, the airport has had three accidents and three fatalities.

Chris Dancy, an AOPA spokesman, described the rash of local accidents as a "statistical anomaly."

NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway agreed. "We're not looking into a specific trend," he said.

Most accidents can be traced to some type of pilot error, Mr. Dancy said, noting that there's little room for mistakes in the air.

"There's no shoulder you can pull over onto," he said.

"Aviation's very unforgiving. It's not like jumping in a golf cart," said Daniel Rose, an attorney with Kreindler & Kriendler in New York, a law firm specializing in aviation.

Pilots and plane crash experts describe flying as a juggling act.

Besides manning the controls, pilots must keep track of the weather, speed, altitude and nearby aircraft. They must know the right approach to the runway. Small airports typically lack control towers, so pilots must share a common radio frequency with other aircraft.

To top it off, some pilots may not have a lot of air time, or may not be familiar with the airport they are flying into.

"Flying is something you have to do religiously," said Don Maciejewski, a pilot and aviation attorney based in Florida. "If you don't fly a lot, you're going to make mistakes."

To prevent another Sept. 11, the federal government added another ball to the juggling act: the Air Defense Identification Zone or ADIZ.

Looking like Mickey Mouse on a map, the zone extends in a circle beyond BWI, Dulles and Reagan airports. It reaches from the Eastern Shore in the east to Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains in the west. Lee and Tipton are in the ADIZ, which encompasses 19 airports.

Pilots traveling through the ADIZ have to get clearance from an air traffic controller. They also must file a flight plan and get a special transponder code so they can be tracked from the ground.

Aircraft in violation of the ADIZ risk seeing the business end of a fighter jet. ADIZ-breaching pilots could be fined and have their flight certificates suspended or revoked.

The ADIZ can intimidate pilots who aren't familiar with it, said Vince Massimimi, a pilot with nearly 40 years experience who splits his time between Kent Island and Virginia.

"If you screw up, there's no tolerance for error," he said.

Scared pilot?

The ADIZ hasn't been blamed for any crashes, but it might have been a factor in a fatal accident on Oct. 19 at Tipton.

Daniel L. Eberhardt of Illinois took off from the former Army airfield. A Virginia-based air traffic controller told the 57-year-old he was violating the ADIZ and to land at Tipton immediately.

Mr. Eberhardt's plane came around, lost altitude, clipped a tree and crashed about a half-mile from the runway, killing him and his female passenger.

The NTSB investigator noted the ADIZ violation in his preliminary report. No official cause has been disclosed for the crash.

But Arthur Wolk, an aviation attorney from Philadelphia, had harsh words for the air traffic controller after reading the NTSB report.

"They scared the (expletive) out of him," Mr. Wolk said. "They decided to scare him instead of helping him out."

Mr. Rose, the New York aviation attorney, found more fault with the pilot for flying too aggressively. "The No. 1 rule in aviation is always fly the plane," he said, "because that's what kills the pilot."

Mike Wassel, Tipton airport manager, declined to comment on the accident.

The ADIZ wasn't mentioned in a report on a fatal crash at Lee Airport on Dec. 9 that killed two people from Texas. The preliminary report indicated that the pilot, Timothy Kramer, was offline in his early evening approach to the runway.

The investigator also took note of a hazard-warning light affixed to a pole attached to a tree near the crash site. The plane hit trees on the way down.

Citing testimony from airport workers, the report said the light "occasionally did not work for an undetermined reason." On Nov. 28, an electrician determined that voltage was going to the light, and on the day of the crash, the electrician examined the light to determine what equipment was needed to fix it.

Lee Airport's attorney, David Simison, noted that voltage was going to the light on the night of the crash and that the light was found to be out only after the accident.

'I love it'

Van Lee, manager at Tipton, said the airport has upgraded equipment to improve safety. Lee now has a system transmitting airport conditions, and Mr. Simison said Lee will have a light system to show pilots the correct approach at night.

A couple of experts said Lee's 2,500-foot runway is on the short side. "It's a short field," Mr. Lee said. "But for the type of plane based here, it's more than long enough."

Mr. Wassel of Tipton said he always takes a step back after every accident to review safety and emergency procedures. He said he's found no need for revising procedures after the most recent crashes.

To make life easier for pilots, Mike Ashford, an Air Force veteran from Annapolis who flew airliners, said the ADIZ should be done away with.

"(The White House) is probably as well-defended as an aircraft carrier," he said. "I don't think (the ADIZ) is necessary. It's just one more thing to deal with."

Despite the recent crashes, Mr. Massimimi, a former Marine pilot with nearly 40 years of flying experience, has no plans to stay on the ground.

"I love it," he said. "I'm not going to quit flying."

Neither will Mr. Ashford, who compared flying an airplane to playing a large church organ.

"It feels very good to a pilot," he said. "It's a physical as well as a mental ballet."

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