Better pilot training and advanced technology are the key strategies of a renewed nationwide push to reduce fatal small plane crashes, an effort underscored by five aviation deaths on Long Island in less than a week.
The Federal Aviation Administration has mandated more sophisticated navigational tools and higher standards for pilot certification. General aviation experts are campaigning for pilots to make sure they are vigilant about following the rules and learning from their mistakes.
Fatalities in general aviation crashes have been on the decline for the past several years, falling from 471 in fiscal 2010 to an estimated 347 in fiscal 2017. Still, the annual general aviation rate far exceeds the rate for the commercial industry, which saw three passenger deaths in the last five years.
In 2013, an Asiana Airline jet went down in San Francisco, killing two. A woman died in April after an engine on a Southwest jet exploded and debris struck the plane.
The FAA and general aviation campaigns are a recognition that more is needed if the FAA wants to reach its goal of reducing the general aviation accident rate by 10 percent over a decade, the agency said this spring.
“Our vision is a world one day without a single general aviation accident,” said Richard McSpadden, director of the Aircraft Owners and Pilot Association’s Air Safety Institute. “In order to achieve that, we work pretty hard at gleaning lessons learned.”
The federal initiatives came in mid-April, just weeks before the start of the busy summer flying season on Long Island. Two days after Memorial Day, on May 30, a pilot in a World War II-era plane went down in a wooded area in Melville. On June 2, a twin-engine plane with four onboard crashed in the waters off Amagansett.
A chief component of the FAA’s safety plan — one that the regulatory agency is working on with the general aviation industry — is developing specific procedures to address in-flight loss of control.
The Long Island crashes are under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, which could take up to a year or longer to issue its findings. A preliminary report of the May 30 crash released by the agency Friday included an interview with an eyewitness who said the pilot, Ken Johansen, 52, didn’t appear to attempt to recover from a downward spiral.
Johansen was an experienced pilot, flying for the Navy and for a commercial airline after he left the military. He was in a North American T-6 Texan, on his way to an air show in Maryland to perform as part of the GEICO Skytypers aerial demonstration team.
In-flight loss of control, according to the FAA, accounts for the largest number of small-plane crashes. The second and third most frequent causes are terrain, which includes water, and system component failure.
The June 2 crash happened over water. This week, the search for the last victim, William Maerov, 22, was called off. Maerov was with his grandparents, East Hampton luxury developers Bernard and Bonnie Krupinski, in a Piper PA-31 Navajo flown by Jon Dollard. The other three bodies have been recovered.
So far, the FAA has put in place nearly 40 measures to improve control. The technological ones range from a navigation tool that uses GPS signals to an instrument called an angle of attack indicator, which can prevent stalls, according to the FAA. The ones related to pilot training stress risk assessment and decision-making, such as identifying the malfunctioning engine and figuring out the best way to make an emergency landing, according to an FAA white paper.
“Good pilots make mistakes, that’s almost exclusively the reason for most general aviation error,” said Peter Boody, a private flight instructor and a former senior airport attendant at East Hampton Airport. “You can be really smart and committed to aviation safety and make a mistake.”
This month, the FAA updated the certification requirements for private pilots by focusing on risk management.
After getting certified, pilots must make three takeoffs and landings within 30 days to fly with passengers. If the FAA finds out a pilot hasn’t complied, which is discovered through a random inspection, he or she faces fines and decertification.
The changes help “everyone know how knowledge, risk management and skill work together for safe operation” in the nation’s airspace, the white paper said.
Experts such as Michael Canders, the director of Farmingdale State College’s aviation center, say pilots should make it a top priority for themselves to keep their skills sharp.
“Proficiency really is a function of flying. They need to get out, they need to fly, they need to practice the things that may get them in trouble,” he said.
Canders pointed to the WINGS program, the FAA’s voluntary training that calls for pilots to fly regularly with an authorized flight instructor. Republic Airport in Farmingdale also offers monthly safety seminars, he said.
From spring 2016 to early 2017, there were 10 small plane crashes on Long Island. The high number, including a crash in a Bayport neighborhood, prompted Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to call for a broad investigation by the NTSB. The findings showed no local factors that would make general aviation more dangerous.
“A culture of safety must be our number one priority because too many crashes have unfortunately resulted in death, injuries or downright frightened entire Long Island neighborhoods, like Bayport,” Schumer said in a statement. “If we can improve safety in the skies, we can help prevent crashes and inevitably save lives, too.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of the story incorrectly stated how long the commercial airline industry went without a passenger fatality.