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Tragedy stirs new look at small planes

As number of private pilots grows, J.F.K. Jr. crash focuses attentionon training and safety.

Private pilots call it "get-there-itis" - the urge to go, no matter what. It's an impulse pilots are trained to overcome, putting safety first. But training doesn't always win out.

While it is too early to speculate on the cause of the crash of John Kennedy Jr.'s plane off Martha's Vineyard, the circumstances surrounding it are spurring a harder look at the popularity and safety of small aircraft in the United States.

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From business executives to weekend hobbyists, a growing number of Americans are turning to small private planes to get around in an era of increased emphasis on mobility.

But behind the new civil-aviation boom, driven in part by a vibrant economy and changes in federal laws, are parallel concerns about the training and safety regimen of part-time pilots.

"We know that when there is a high-profile accident there is an immediate reaction that we have to do something," says Warren Morningstar of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) in Frederick, Md. "And we know that the appearance of doing something is often more important than doing the right thing. But when you look through the cool, hard light of rationality, general aviation is safe and safety is improving."

The number of overall aviation accidents has dropped 20 percent in the past 10 years. The number of fatal accidents involving small private planes, known as general aviation, has dropped 22 percent, from 460 in 1988 to 361 in 1998. The decrease occurred even though the number of hours flown has increased.

But aviation experts note that it's still far riskier to fly in private planes than on a commercial flight, for a variety of reasons.

For one thing, small planes don't have as many backup systems built into them. They often fly into small airports that don't have the same high-tech equipment as larger airports. It's also not unusual for a small plane to land even when the air traffic control tower isn't open. Finally, pilots' experience and skill levels vary widely.

"You have all sorts of gradations [of safety] within general aviation," says Richard Golaszewski of GRA Consulting, a transportation consulting company outside of Philadelphia. "Corporate jets are as safe or even safer than the airlines, while the crop dusters, small single-engine planes that fly close to the ground, are far riskier. They're the polar extremes in general aviation."

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Most general-aviation pilots, like Mr. Kennedy, fly for recreation or work. In 1998, the FAA issued some 616,000 pilot certificates. That's down from a peak of 722,000 licenses in 1984, but a 13 percent increase over last year. General-aviation traffic in the United States is up 20 percent since 1993.

Experts credit the increase to the strong economy and a 1995 change in liability law that put an 18-year cap on the ability to sue airplane manufacturers. That's helped bring down the price of private planes. Currently, 192,000 private planes are certified to fly in the US.

The community of private pilots is small and close-knit, bound in part by the freedom and sense of discipline involved in flying. "Everyone is dedicated and disciplined," says New Yorker Victor Antonini, who flies a twin-engine Cessna. "They have to be. It's too dangerous otherwise."

Many pilots see the crash of the Kennedy plane as a tragic event, one that will heighten their awareness of safety but, notably, not deter them from flying.

For his part, Kennedy was a fairly new pilot. He had his license only 15 months and reportedly logged between 100 and 200 hours of time in the air. He was certified for what's called "visual flight rules," or VFR. That means, during the day, visibility must be at least five miles. At night, a pilot must be able to see three miles. Conditions were near that limit when he flew.

He was also piloting a new, high-performance plane, the Piper Saratoga. "That's a nice, forgiving, easy airplane to fly. Its handling characteristics are good," says Mr. Morningstar.

Kennedy was supposed to have left during the day with his wife, Carolyn, and her sister, Lauren Bessette. But between traffic jams and other factors, they left later than expected. It was 8:30 p.m. by the time they took off, dark and hazy.

Kennedy had just purchased the plane in April. He was stepping up from a less powerful Cessna 182. That raises questions in pilot Antonini's mind.

"In an emergency situation, instinct is what saves you, habit is what saves you," he says. "In a new aircraft, it can be more difficult."

According to the NTSB, 71 percent of all accidents are a result of pilot error, or misjudgments. That can include everything from not checking an unusual rattle in the engine, to deciding to go ahead and trying to land despite a sudden change in weather.

When Kennedy left Friday night, the haze was starting to set in. It was reportedly quite thick over Martha's Vineyard. "Being out over the water in haze is even difficult for experienced pilots," says Mr. Golaszewski. Pilots with little time in the air "tend not to exercise the same degree of judgment as more experienced ones."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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