Long Island’s seven plane crashes and other aircraft accidents so far this year are the most the area has seen in one year since 2012.
The crashes — two of them fatal — are on pace to be the most on the Island in a single year in more than a decade.
In 2012 there were eight incidents investigated on Long Island, according to the National Transportation Safety Board’s database, and in 2010 there were 11, the most in any year since at least 2000.
Final reports on the cause of the incidents have not been filed by the NTSB, but preliminary reports suggest the causes were varied.
“We’re looking into all of them, but nothing has jumped out at our investigators as a common theme,” said John DeLisi, director of the Office of Aviation Safety at the NTSB. “Springtime, a mild winter perhaps, a nice spring that allows some flying to occur — we do see more accidents when the weather is not in the middle of December. So statistically we’re not concerned about any trend or common theme that is at all related to Long Island.”
While crashes are up on Long Island, general aviation nationwide — which encompasses about 220,000 aircraft, a large number of uses and pilots of varying age and experience — is becoming safer each year for the last three, said flight safety advocates and the Federal Aviation Administration.
The rate of private plane crash deaths is down 12 percent since 2009, to 1.03 fatalities per 100,000 flight hours in 2015, according to the FAA.
The number of fatal general aviation crashes each year has reached a plateau and significantly moving the needle on general aviation safety recently has been difficult, DeLisi said.
From Jan. 27 to May 3, all but one of the Long Island incidents under investigation by the NTSB involved a single-engine plane, with the exception of a helicopter. In most cases, the pilot and their passengers walked away unscathed.
But two of those incidents — when a Beechcraft Bonanza broke apart midflight over Syosset this month and a Piper landed in Setauket Harbor in February — resulted in the deaths of four people.
Two more people were seriously hurt when another Piper plane crashed in Bayport in April shortly after takeoff.
“With plane crashes up in Long Island, we should to do more than just scratch our heads or assume bad luck,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). “We should investigate to find out if there is a common theme we can address.”
General aviation safety experts and advocates say this rash of Long Island incidents is most likely an anomaly, but some local aviators say there is cause for concern.
“As a pilot I’m concerned and I want to know what the findings are in the NTSB report,” said Joseph Loccisano, president of the Long Island Business Aviation Association. “I would be curious to find out if these are recurrent issues or possible new problems. I agree that we do have more than our fair share of airplane accidents over the last year or two — conversely, I remember a long period where we didn’t have any accidents on Long Island.”
Aviation experts said multiple factors can add up to culminate in a crash.
“The usual accident scenario is a series of issues which, combined, produce the conditions that cause an accident,” said Robert Mann, a former airline executive and president of aviation consulting group R.W. Mann & Co. “It’s usually a bunch of things — no one thing — which individually wouldn’t necessarily be an accident cause, but under the circumstances, combine to create an accident scenario, so it’s like a block of Swiss cheese where the holes all line up.”
Despite improvements in technology, experts say private pilots who fly infrequently, even if they have years of experience, can be a safety concern.
“As safe as aviation is, accidents do still occur,” Mann said. “The more you go in the direction of small aircraft flown by infrequent fliers, the higher the accident rates, so the unfortunate fact is that we’ve done a very good job of establishing safety in larger aircraft operations.
“But we’ve still got a long way to go in smaller aircraft operations, and some of that is difficult to solve because it is also a coincidence where a lot of these accidents are with low-time pilots or very experienced but infrequent pilots.”
Although many pilots who die in crashes have thousands of hours of experience, that flight time could have been accrued over decades, with gaps in between. Flight skills dull with time, aviation experts said.
Mann said he hasn’t flown in 20 years because he wouldn’t fly regularly enough to be safe.
“At some point you realize if you don’t have a reason to fly regularly, you aren’t safe doing it, and why put the general public who may be underneath your flight path at risk?” he said.
The leading cause of fatal general aviation crashes is loss of control of the airplane, the FAA and NTSB said. The second leading cause is controlled flight into terrain, such as a mountain, and the third is system failure.
Human error is a causal factor in about 75 percent of aviation crashes across all categories — from commercial jetliner flights down to small planes, said George Perry, senior vice president of the Air Safety Institute at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.
About 42 percent of general aviation crashes are caused by the pilot losing control of the plane, said Jens Hennig, vice president of operations for the General Aviation Manufacturers Association.
Loss of control can happen in a variety of scenarios. For instance, the pilot could be “flying the aircraft under a set of different circumstances and the airplane stalls out and crashes and kills people aboard,” Hennig said. If the airplane doesn’t maintain the angle of attack needed to keep it flying, it can stall and fall down to earth.
To prevent loss-of-control accidents, angle of attack indicators — which tell the pilot when the angle of the wing may be close to a stall position — are becoming a standard feature on small planes, experts said.
In February, the FAA streamlined its approval process for adding angle of attack indicators to existing planes to “provide the pilot with a visual aid to prevent loss of control of the aircraft in the critical phases of flight,” the agency said.
In four of the latest Long Island incidents, the pilot reported that the aircraft lost power, according to preliminary NTSB reports. In the case of the fatal February crash, the flight instructor ditched the airplane in Setauket Harbor, according to the initial NTSB report. Later, investigators found that there was no fuel in the Piper plane.
In the midflight breakup of the Beechcraft Bonanza over Syosset, the pilot flying in cloudy conditions reported losing the use of several of his instruments, which he would need to navigate safely in the weather that day.
In that situation, the pilot could easily become disoriented and lose control of the plane, aviation experts said, and DeLisi of the NTSB said that crash had “earmarks” of a loss of control.
Despite the seven incidents on Long Island so far this year, the statistics don’t support the notion of a trend, Perry said.
“Things will just happen, and people try to derive some sort of meaning or some sort of trend, and a lot of times it just isn’t there,” he said. “I think the vast majority of Americans know very little about general aviation, and so when these accidents do happen it captures their attention and there’s interest.”
The FAA holds monthly local seminars on flying in challenging conditions to teach pilots about risk and to help keep their skills sharp, said Michael Canders, director of the Aviation Center at Farmingdale State College. But ultimately, he said, it’s up to pilots to maintain their skills.
Flying “does require a lot of practice, a lot of proficiency, and I think a lot of general aviation pilots are unable to give it the requisite time to really be proficient, to really be safe,” Canders said.
Mann said it’s more difficult to reduce the rate of crashes in such a broad category of flying.
General aviation includes more aircraft and more varying scenarios involving pilots who are often private fliers, not professionals.
“When you’re talking general aviation pilots it’s everybody else, and it’s all those aircraft, everything from home-builts to vintage aircraft to everything in between,” Mann said. “No particular type of airplane, no particular sort of pilot, everything from students to octogenarians to student octogenarians. It’s just a tougher problem to solve — there’s no close correlation there.”
New airman certification standards to be issued in June will include an amplified focus on risk management.
And a national safety outreach campaign to inform pilots of the danger of flying in bad weather reached 4.5 million people in 2014, the FAA said, and continues to be a focus of the General Aviation Joint Steering Committee.
That committee, on which Perry sits, has come up with more than two dozen suggested safety enhancements to cut down on loss of control accidents.
“Flying an aircraft is safe,’’ Hennig said, “but there are certain risks.”
2016 fixed-wing airplane crashes on Long Island
- Feb. 12: A Cessna 152 caught fire after landing at Calabro Airport in Shirley. No one was injured.
- Feb. 20: A Piper Archer crashed into Setauket Harbor. One passenger was killed.
- March 5: A Cirrus SF22 crash landed in a Hauppauge industrial park. No one was injured.
- March 11: A Cessna 152 made an emergency landing on a Kings Park beach. No injuries were reported.
- April 10: A Piper Cherokee crashed and caught fire on a Bayport residential street. The pilot and passenger were injured.
- April 30: A 1947 Stinson made an emergency landing in Riverhead. No injuries were reported.
- May 3: Debris from a Beechcraft V35B Bonanza was strewn across a Syosset community. Nassau police reported three deaths.