Sunday, January 8, 2017

Skies over Central Oregon generally safe despite mishaps

As he flew his Beechcraft C90 airplane above Deschutes County about 2 p.m. Dec. 30, Robert Levy approached the Sunriver Airport and discovered he couldn’t see the runway because it was covered with snow.

Levy, a licensed commercial pilot, attempted a landing, and ended up digging into the soft snow between the runway and the taxiway on the south end of the airport.

The 69-year-old pilot from Echo was not injured, and his Beechcraft C90 came to a stop with its nose stuck in the snow.

His hard landing was the latest air crash in Central Oregon, a region that features many small airports for flying enthusiasts.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates aviation accidents and maintains a meticulous online database dating back to 1982, there have been 142 reported airplane crashes in Central Oregon, including 21 fatal crashes.

Mechanical errors, such as not having enough fuel, were the cause of 42 crashes, and pilot error was to blame in 95 crashes, but officials say the local airspace is generally safe.

“I think technology is helping with navigation and GPS,” said Bend Municipal Airport Manager Gary Judd. “Most of what we see is just minor stuff, fender benders.”

Bend Municipal Airport has the most accidents with 47, including seven fatal crashes that killed nine people, according to safety board records.

The airport is the third largest in Oregon behind Portland and Hillsboro. And while it is one of the busiest in the state, the Bend airport does not have a control tower or long runways. Pilots announce their presence when they approach the airport and coordinate their landings, behaving much like drivers merging on a freeway.

To increase safety, the airport recently changed its flight patterns. Now, all helicopters operate on the east side of the airport, and small planes stay on the west side. Before that, there was always a concern that a plane would descend on top of a helicopter, Judd said.

“It is an airport where pilots really need to see and be seen,” Judd said.

Bend’s airport has three times the air traffic of Redmond Airport, but with smaller aircraft, said Judd, who is researching virtual command towers, in which people in Portland could be watching air traffic in Bend. Judd is also discussing the possibility of adding length to the runway.

The runway in Bend is about 5,000 feet long, which is much shorter than the two 7,000-foot runways in Redmond or the longest runway at Portland Airport, which is 11,000 feet.

“We are right in the middle of looking at our mix of aircraft to decide if a runway extension is needed,” Judd said.

Mark McGlynn, an assistant chief flight instructor and charter pilot for Professional Air located at the Bend Airport, said the airport attracts a variety of aircraft, from gliders to corporate jets.

Professional Air, which offers lessons and charters, also partners with the Central Oregon Community College aviation program. “We pretty much have everything going in and out of this airport,” McGlynn said. “In general, I’m pretty amazed it runs as good as it does.”

When he teaches new pilots, McGlynn has them focus on the preflight routine.

“It’s better to find a problem on the ground, and not in the air,” he said.

Crashes recorded as pilot error by the safety board often include weather or wind as a factor. Crashes often happen when pilots get into weather conditions they are not equipped for, or have trained for, or a combination of both, McGlynn said.

“Weather wise, you never go into deteriorating conditions,” he said.

Karl Baldessari, Central Oregon Community College aviation program coordinator, said the national safety board records 80 percent of all crashes as pilot error. He thinks the safety board puts too much blame on the pilots.

“That’s the one tragedy in the world of aviation,” Baldessari said. “No matter what happens, the pilots actions are going to come into question.”

With so much emphasis put on pilots, Baldessari said, the Federal Aviation Administration requires a new training procedure. Instead of maneuver-based training, beginner pilots are taught scenario-based situations. It’s more mental, and less physical, Baldessari said.

“By training pilots that way, you train them to think for themselves from day one,” he said.

The hope is pilots will be able to avoid more crashes by recognizing dangerous situations.

The Dec. 30 mishap at Sunriver was the airport’s third in the last two years, according to safety board records. Both previous incidents, neither of which resulted in a fatality, were blamed on pilot error, according to safety board records.

On Aug. 5, 2016, the 45-year-old pilot failed to maintain control while landing in gusting wind conditions, veered off the runway and nosed over after he hit the brakes to avoid a bush.

On May 29, 2015, a 75-year-old pilot started his landing checklist but stopped when three other pilots announced that they were in the area. The front landing gear on his plane was never extended, and because the pilot wore a noise-canceling headset, he failed to hear a warning horn in the plane. The crash resulted in substantial damage to the fuselage during landing, the safety board said.

After Levy’s rough landing last month, Sunriver Police notified the safety board and the FAA. The safety board said the crash did not meet its standard to investigate since the plane was not destroyed and the pilot was not injured.

FAA spokesman Allen Kenitzer said the Sunriver crash is on the agency’s radar and it will be looking into it.

“We first look into an incident to see if it warrants an investigation,” he said. 

Central Oregon air crashes

According to the National Transportation Safety Board, there have been 142 reported airplane crashes in Central Oregon since 1982, including 21 fatal crashes.

Bend — 47 crashes, seven fatal, killing nine people

Redmond — 30 crashes, one fatal, killing one person

Prineville — 23 crashes, six fatal, killing eight people

Sunriver — 16 crashes, two fatal, killing two people

Madras — 12 crashes, three fatal, killing four people

Sisters — 12 crashes, two fatal, killing five people

La Pine — Two crashes, no fatal 


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