Saturday, September 24, 2011

Florida: Crash a reminder of dangers near small neighborhood airports. Those who live and work near smaller airports are at the highest risk of a plane crashing on top of them.

Plane crashes in South Florida regional airports.  A look at past accidents involving aircrafts from local airports

A Lear Jet lands at the Boca Raton Airport (KBCT), Florida.
Photo Credit:  MARK RANDALL, Sun Sentinel
September 24, 2011

When an experimental plane smashed through a fence after a botched takeoff at North Perry Airport in Pembroke Pines a few weeks ago, some nearby homeowners asked themselves a familiar question: Are we safe here?

"I hear the engines stop sometimes in the sky, in mid-flight, and I'm afraid they're going to crash," said Ernesto De Leon, who has for 17 years lived just a few hundred yards from the chain-link fence that encloses North Perry. "I do worry about it."

Every year there are anywhere from two or three to more than a dozen wrecks of planes taking off from or landing at the small, general aviation airports in Broward and south Palm Beach County – North Perry Airport, Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport, Boca Raton Airport and Pompano Beach Air Park.

There's no way to stop all crashes, officials said. Airports already do "as much as possible" to keep those nearby safe, said FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen.
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Pilots have to keep their planes and themselves flight-worthy, and if a random inspection or accident investigation shows they didn't they can be fined or their license can be revoked or suspended. License renewal requires a medical checkup. Airports are required to maintain runway lights and markings, runway widths and to keep a certain amount of land around the runway empty.

Still, accidents happen.

"I don't know if there's anything you can do about ensuring nothing is going to happen, because you have a house in close proximity to an airport," said Boca Raton Airport spokeswoman Kim Singer. "There's risk inherent in flying, period. Any time you get in an airplane, there is risk."

There are about 1,800 crashes of general aviation aircraft — private planes, student piloted aircraft, experimental planes, banner-ad planes, news helicopters — for every one commercial plane crash in the U.S., according to National Transportation Safety Board statistics.

That's because pilots of commercial planes undergo more rigorous training, Bergen said, because they will be responsible for so many passengers.

And most crashes happen during or near takeoff and landing, according to the FAA.

That means residents living near general aviation airports are at the highest risk of having a plane smash through their roof.

Barbara Pearce and her daughter Cindy live near North Perry. For them, crashes are a part of life. They can tell a dozen stories off the tops of their heads.

"There was one landed on the church, but that was years ago," said Cindy Pearce, who has grown up across the street from North Perry and is now raising her son there.

She's seen the smoking wreckage of three crashes in her lifetime, all within walking distance of home. And once, she saw a crash — while playing volleyball as a child, she watched a plane do three cartwheels just inside the airport fence, both pilot and copilot jumping out of the careening propeller plane.

Nationally, the rate of wrecks has been the same for ten years. In South Florida, some years are great, with just a few crashes, and other years see many more wrecks.

The exceptions are Boca Raton and Pompano Beach, where there haven't been more than two wrecks a year in a decade and a half. Those airports have fewer takeoffs and landings than the others in South Florida.

North Perry and Executive both do between 150,000 and 175,000 takeoffs and landings a year, about twice as many as Pompano does and four times the number at Boca.

Airport and federal aircraft safety officials said there still aren't that many crashes, though.

Over the last twenty years, said Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport spokesman Chaz Adams, there have been more than 4.7 million takeoffs and landings at that airport, and only 33 crashes.

That "equates to approximately one accident for every 142,000 operations," Adams said.

South Florida's crash history has some scary moments, though.

An experimental plane piloted by an 80-year-old man fell from the sky onto Oscar Nolasco's Oakland Park home after taking off from Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport in 2009. It exploded. Neighbors a block away felt the windows rattle.

Luckily, no one was home. Nolasco's 17-year-old nephew had left a few minutes earlier. The house was destroyed. It's an empty lot now. Nolasco moved away.

Nolasco's next-door neighbor, Troy Pierce, still lives in the same house. He said he doesn't worry about getting hit, even though he sometimes sees planes "tangled in the power lines" on Powerline Road near his home.

"The chances of it happening here again are so low," he said.

The recent incident at Pembroke Pines' North Perry brought to mind a horror story from 1986, when a small jet failed to take off properly and tore through the airport fence to skid across a city baseball diamond — where a little league game had ended just minutes before.

"The nose landed on home plate," Cindy Pearce said. "That made you think, because there would've been kids there not much earlier."

Of course, Bergen added, there weren't people living next door when these airports were built. In every case in South Florida, the houses crept up to the airport, not the other way around.

"It's no different than buying a home on a busy street where cars are going up and down in front of your house every day," said Boca Raton Airport's Singer. "You hope no one is going to run into your house."

That hasn't kept some from fretting. Those living near Perry periodically begged for the airport to be shut down permanently throughout the 1990s. Elected officials from Pembroke Pines and Miramar supported the effort. But the movement fizzled because that just would've meant more planes at other nearby airports.

Airports don't need to close for people nearby to be safe, officials said.

The FAA's safety regulations are rigorous, Bergen said, but they're not the only thing shoring up safety. The agency analyzes crash data to identify risk areas and educate pilots and airport workers on how to avoid them.

Individual airports are encouraged to do something similar. At North Perry, for example, a group of pilots and airport employees meet once a month to discuss "close calls" and possible safety "hot spots," said spokesman Greg Meyer.

Maybe that's why some folks don't worry, even if they can hear the planes passing overhead every few hours.

"The odds of it hitting me are low," said John Frost, who also lives across from North Perry. "I trust the air-traffic controllers and the pilots."
 
http://www.sun-sentinel.com

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