Why Are So Many Private Planes Crashing in South Florida?

Why Are So Many Private Planes Crashing in South Florida?
Photo courtesy of Aleksander Markin via Wikimedia Commons

The image was hard to shake: a smoke-spewing fireball swallowing a Lake Worth trailer. As the on-the-scene footage began cycling through the news coverage this week, the worst-case scenario was confirmed: when the Piper PA-28-180 plane dropped out of the sky on Tuesday afternoon, smacking into the Mar Mak Mobile Home Park, there was a person still inside the burning building. Banny Galicia. She was 21-years-old. She was the second casualty in the crash, along with pilot Dan Shalloway, 64.

As ugly and sad as the incident is, if you spend any time with ears or eyes fixed on the headlines, Tuesday's crash may have rang a familiar note. You're not wrong. In fact, in the last three months alone, five small planes have been involved in bad-news situations in South Florida, from emergency landings on busy highways to ocean ditches to the most recent tragedy. 

That frequency got our mental gears clanking: Are plane emergencies that commonplace? Are we just missing them when they happen? Or is something happening up there in South Florida's skies? We dug in. 

First, a rundown of recent air incident. The frequency of recent plane problems is seemingly highlighted first and foremost by the fact that the Lake Worth crash came within 72 hours of another situation. On Sunday afternoon, a Cessna C172 ditched into the Atlantic Ocean 14 miles off Haulover Beach. The pilot was rescued unharmed by the U.S. Coast Guard, according to the Miami Herald. The Federal Aviation Administration later announced the ditch was due to engine problems. The Cessna had been making a trek from North Perry Airport in Pembroke Pines to Bimini. 

On September 24, a Piper PA-24 Comanche piloted by a Michigan man on a business trip ran out of gas on his approach to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. The plane was forced to land on Interstate 595 near Davie — one of Broward's most congested commuter pipelines. 

Two weeks earlier, over in Manatee County, a private plane going from St Petersburg to Sarasota was also forced to make an emergency landing in the early morning on a quiet road after encountering mechanical issues. No one was injured. Back over here on the other side of the state, on August 11, a single-engine Cessna 172 touched down on a dirt road in Coral Springs after SOSing the local U.S. Coast Guard, according to an account from the government. Two men were in the aircraft; neither were injured. 

Five air incidents marking up a three-month timeline is pretty regular to us. But is that indicative of a pattern or trend? 

Not necessarily, according to J.B. Harris, a Miami-based attorney who specializes in litigation involving aviation disasters and plane crashes. Harris points out to New Times that Florida is one of the top three states in terms of individuals with private flying licenses.

"That's primarily due to this being a great state to fly in, overall there's nice weather, and also you have a lot of people with pilot licenses who fly down for the winter," he explains. "The more planes that exist in an area, the more accidents you are going to have. That applies to the amount of traffic on the road, and I think it applies to planes." 

It's also key to point out that the recent incidents involve private planes, not commercial jetliners, a classification known official as "general aviation." Although general aviation has become less life threatening, with a 75 percent drop in fatalities related to general aviation accidents since the 1970s, the number of general aviation accidents remains the same. According to a LiveScience.com article from earlier this year that dipped into the data from the National Transportation Safety Board, " the accident rate in personal flights has increased by 20 percent in the past decade, and the fatality rate for personal flights is up 25 percent."

The most recent stats do show a slight dip, however. According to the rough count by the NTSB, through the end of June 2015, there were 547 general aviation accidents in the US, with 145 fatalities; through the same time period in 2014, the NTSB counted 586 accidents with 177 deaths. The South Florida incidents, then, aren't falling inside of a general upswing of general aviation incidents. 

"Situations involving running out of fuel shouldn't really happen at all," Harris says, mulling over private plane emergencies like what we've seen in South Florida over the last few months. "Other instances may include mechanical failures which could be due to defects. But often times private pilots don't maintain their planes the way they should, they don't pay for the best maintenance."

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