A fatal plane crash in the Valley on Wednesday was the ninth in Arizona this year and put the state on course to again eclipse the national fatality rate for general aviation.
In only one year since 2002 has Arizona been below the national crash rate among non-commercial and non-military flights. Typically, the state’s fatal crash rate, measured by deadly crashes per 100,000 hours of flight, is well above the U.S. average.
Arizona was double the national rate in 2008, the last year for which complete data was available, at 2.76 per 100,000 flight hours.
Causes are myriad, and safety experts have no clear explanations why Arizona consistently records a higher fatal-crash rate for light aircraft than the U.S. average.
On Wednesday, a male pilot died when his single-engine plane crashed into a warehouse near Deer Valley Airport in north Phoenix. Witnesses believe he was attempting a turning maneuver when he went down. It was the 13th fatal aircraft crash there since the airport was built in 1960, National Transportation Safety Board records show.
Including Wednesday’s accident, there have been 75 general-aviation accidents in Arizona since 2005, according to an Arizona Republic analysis of NTSB data. The crashes killed 135 pilots and passengers.
The NTSB could not explain the state’s high crash rate.
“We haven’t done an assessment of Arizona’s trends, so we can’t provide a definitive reason for the amount of accidents you’re seeing,” NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway said.
The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, a national organization that promotes general aviation, suggested Arizona’s hot climate and mountainous terrain can be a treacherous combination for pilots not used to such conditions.
Bruce Landsberg, who oversees the group’s safety program as president of the AOPA Foundation, said Arizona is blessed with good flying weather but cursed by heat. The hotter air gets, the thinner it gets, meaning engines have to exert more power to get the same lift in normal conditions. Aircraft stay aloft because air molecules push on the undersides of wings or helicopter rotor blades. When the air is thinner, there are fewer molecules to push the aircraft up.
“The aircraft does not perform as well in hot weather,” Landsberg said, recommending pilots fly earlier or later in the day, times when temperatures are cooler.
Federal crash investigators identified the problem several times in recent official reports.
In February 2008, a helicopter near its maximum weight got trapped in a canyon in mountains near Tucson on an aerial-photography flight, could not climb out and crashed into the mountainside at an elevation of 6,400 feet above sea level, the NTSB report said.
The air density was equivalent to flying at 8,600 feet, investigators concluded.
Box canyons, rugged terrain and landing on mountain airstrips are all mentioned in many of the 57 reports in the last five years in which NTSB investigators pinpointed the causes of air crashes. But there is no overall pattern in those reports.
Pilots ranged in experience. One had no recorded hours or license and crashed an experimental craft. The most experienced had 28,000 hours under his belt and was a professional commercial airline pilot. Pilots’ reported ages ranged from 18 to 84.
Students piloted six of the fatal flights. In 13 cases, a fatal crash involved experimental aircraft. In almost every case, pilot error was cited. Mistakes ranged from flying fatigued to failing to pull a lever to release a life-saving parachute on a spiraling light airplane.
Landsberg and AOPA safety statisticians say there is nothing unusual in the details.
“These accidents are all over the lot. It reflects the diversity of general aviation,” Landsberg said.
Fatal Arizona crashes included helicopters, light airplanes and a sightseeing balloon that clipped a hillside near Marana in April 2005.
Accident reports run the range from tragic mishaps to avoidable blunders to just bad luck.
In 2005, an inexperienced pilot crashed and died near Heber on a dark night traveling to see a family member in intensive care.
The next year a pilot barreled down a runway at Williams in the maiden flight of a plane he had bought a week before. A sudden gust of wind knocked him off course and he mowed down a bystander.
In 2006, a pilot ran aground during an evening lightning storm at Young, southeast of Payson, after discussing her flight plan with her husband. The pair decided she could safely fly around the approaching storm. It took Arizona National Guard pilots five days to find the wreckage.
In 2007, a veteran pilot was buzzing his friend who was in a boat on Lake Pleasant. He crashed into the lake.
In 2008, a pilot crashed into a berm after an aborted landing at Bullhead City. A bartender told investigators he’d served the pilot four drinks five hours earlier. Investigators said the Federal Aviation Administration was in part to blame for issuing a license to the pilot after failing to check a national DUI database. Records showed the pilot had multiple DUI convictions stringing back to 1994. The toxicology report after the crash put his blood alcohol level at four times the legal limit for operating a car. Aviation enthusiasts point out that flying remains significantly safer than driving. Last year there were 266 fatal general aviation crashes in the United States. More than 35,000 people die in car wrecks every year, nationally.
Landsberg, of AOPA, cautions that Arizona pilots can take steps to lessen the inherent risks of flying. He advises people to brush up on mountain flying and don’t load up aircraft with unnecessary weight.
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