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"How safe is it to pilot an airplane?"



Sunday, August 1, 2004

How safe is it to pilot an airplane? 
BY GINA ZOTTI
The Chester (PA) Daily Local
 
 
As far as modes of transportation go, flying is statistically the
safest, officials say. 

And so, only days after two fatal plane crashes less than 25 miles apart
that took a total of six people's lives, questions still remain with
answers coming few and far between at this early stage in the
investigations.
 
The National Transportation Safety Board did, however, issue its
preliminary report for Sunday's accident which killed two men and two
children at New Garden Aviation.

No exact cause was given in that report as to why the plane veered off
the runway and into parked cars and a hangar. 

The plane burst into flames and injuries sustained during the fire led
to the death of all four occupants, Garry Megson, 38, and his son,
Peter, 8, of New Garden, and Stephen Aspden, 45, and his son, Jack, 12,
of the United Kingdom.

The report said that the pilot, Garry Megson, held a private pilot
certificate with an airplane single-engine land rating, issued on the
basis of a United Kingdom private pilot's license. On an insurance form
completed the day of the accident, Megson said that he had already
accumulated 140 hours of flight time, the report said.

The plane was a rented Piper Warrior, a four-seat, single-engine
aircraft. Megson was reportedly practicing touch-and-go landings,
described as a flying maneuver in which a plane touches down on the
runway and immediately takes off again.

Witnesses told investigators that they saw the plane "fishtailing" in
the grass and narrowly miss a group of fuel pumps before it ultimately
hit the hangar. The distance from where wheel tracks veered off the
runway to the final location of the wreckage was about 1,100 feet.

Investigators said that, except for the left wing and a portion of the
left cabin area, the airframe was consumed by fire.

The report said there were no catastrophic failures in the engine.

A preliminary report has not yet been issued by the NTSB on the Tuesday
crash of a plane in a residential area of West Whiteland.

Another single-engine plane, this one a Piper Archer 2, had just taken
off at Chester County Airport in Valley. It plunged into an unoccupied
home on Grand View Drive around 9:30 a.m. Both occupants of the plane,
Thomas McKinnis, 53, and his wife, Cynthia Merritt, 48, both of
Illinois, were killed as debris scattered across at least two properties
in the cul-de-sac.

John Taylor, airport manager at Brandywine Airport in West Goshen, said
that he was shocked to hear about the crashes, but thought that two
occurrences so close together in both proximity and time were purely
coincidental, as each accident was completely different in nature.

Taylor, who's been flying since 1973, said that the Piper Warrior, a
four-seat aircraft typically used for training, is a good, stable
beginner airplane for "low-time pilots."

"It's a very forgiving, docile airplane which is why it's used for
training," said Taylor, "which raises the question, 'Why did it get away
from that pilot in New Garden?'"

He called the Tuesday flight which resulted in the crash a "terrible,
terrible decision" because of the weather conditions at the time.

"The weather was too bad for anyone to take off or land here (at
Brandywine Airport) and we're not that far from Chester County
(Airport)," he said.

However, he added that the airports do not tell pilots whether to leave
or stay. That decision is ultimately up to each pilot.

He did stress all of the safety precautions that the airports insist
pilots take, including following a checklist before every takeoff and
after every landing.

The Federal Aviation Administration governs the flying regulations set
for pilots, according to FAA spokeswoman Arlene Salac.

To obtain a private pilot certificate, a person must be 17 years old and
have a minimum of 35 to 40 flight hours, depending on the type of school
attended. Pilots must also pass a 60-question, multiple-choice,
FAA-written examination and a "checkride" with an FAA examiner.

As a private pilot, a person is allowed to fly alone or with passengers.
Special weather requirements pertaining to visibility and cloud
conditions must be met. A medical exam must be passed every two years as
well. Those pilots are not allowed to be paid for their services.

Instrument-rated pilots are allowed to fly when visibility is poor and
clouds are low in the sky. Those pilots are required to have a total of
125 hours of pilot experience and 40 hours of instrument instruction, in
addition to passing a written test and a "checkride."

According to a study done by the Delaware Valley Planning Commission,
during a one-year period, about 44,400 total planes took off or landed
at Brandywine Airport between 2001 and 2002.

About 48,200 total planes took off or landed at Chester County Airport
during a one-year period between 2002 and 2003.

About 26,400 total planes took off or landed at New Garden Aviation
during a one-year period between 2001 and 2002.

The study is conducted by counting the number of takeoffs and landings
in two-week sessions during each of the four seasons of the year. That
eight-week sample is used to extrapolate an approximation for the total
year.

Roger Moog, manager of the office of aviation planning at the DVRPC,
said that he's noticed a trend that since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist
attacks, recreational flying -- known as general aviation -- traffic at
smaller airports such as the ones in Chester County has gone down
because of the costs of flying.

But don't tell the neighbors of the county's airports who hear the noise
everyday that there's fewer flights.

Taylor said he gets more calls complaining about the planes' noise than
neighbors who are afraid of any crashes.

"On occasion, I have looked up and wondered if they were going to make
it," said Donna White, a resident of Hillside Drive near Brandywine
Airport for 28 years. "Sometimes the engines sound like they're slowing
down and it makes you look up."

Others who live near the airport, like Roland Woodward of Greystone
Drive, have no problems with their neighbor, even taking into account
the recent tragedies.

"The planes go in and out here all the time. We certainly see them, but
I don't find them either annoying or threatening," said Woodward, who
has lived in his home for 16 years.

Even Laura Pappard, who lives next door to the home that sustained the
most damage in the Tuesday plane crash, said that the accident has not
caused her to worry every time an airplane flies over.

"I don't think I will look at (the planes overhead) any differently,"
said the Grand View Road resident. "I don't believe this is something
that will happen on a regular basis."


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