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'Get-there-itis' can be fatal for pilots

Tampa Bay area pilots say inexperienced fliers such as John F. Kennedy Jr. are susceptible to ignoring potential trouble.

By ADAM C. SMITH and BILL ADAIR

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 20, 1999


As pilots throughout Tampa Bay contemplated lessons of John F. Kennedy Jr.'s plane crash, more than a few mentioned a potentially fatal disease that hits too many pilots.

It's called Get-there-itis.

It's the tendency of inexperienced pilots to ignore potential trouble -- say, marginal weather and poor nighttime visibility -- to get where they need to go.

"There's an old saying: If you have to be somewhere, you ought to fly commercial," said Dale Johnson, a self-described "Chicken Little" pilot from Tampa who stays on the ground when conditions look even remotely daunting.

Better training, maintenance and government rules have made flying small planes safer over the past 20 years, though small planes have a much higher crash rate than commercial planes. The accident rate for general aviation -- meaning all non-commercial and non-military flights -- is 27 times higher than for scheduled airlines.

Local pilots say the crash of Kennedy's single-engine Piper Saratoga underscores the need for pilots to know and abide by their limitations.

"If you're a novice, you can quickly find yourself over your head," said New Port Richey lawyer and veteran pilot Donald Kaltenbach, who last year gave up his sophisticated twin-engine plane because he felt he wasn't flying enough to stay adequately sharp. Now he flies a simpler plane.

"Flying an airplane is rather easy," Kaltenbach said. "It's when there's a problem that shows your expertise and ability to handle a situation."

No local pilots pointed to any single decision by Kennedy that seemed reckless, and indeed it appears nothing he did conflicted with standard safety procedures. But several pilots said the trip from New Jersey to Martha's Vineyard shows that pilots must always be wary of how combinations of factors can affect their flights.

"If you see a big thunderstorm or a puddle under the engine, you obviously say, "No, I'm not flying,' but it's the things that don't necessarily stand out to you that can pile up and really be more insidious," said Charles Parkhill, a commercial airline pilot who grew up flying small planes out of Peter O. Knight Airport in Tampa. "Especially at night, things can really pile up on you."

Darkness over the Atlantic would have posed an added challenge for Kennedy, who was on his way to a family wedding.

"When you're out over the ocean in the blackness, it's possible to have five or ten miles of visibility, but you won't see anything," said Jim Hall, a commercial pilot and air traffic controller at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport. "You have blackness whether you look straight down, to your left or your right. You have no clue if you're upright or tilted to one side or the other."

That's no problem for instrument-rated pilots because they can orient themselves by looking at their control panel. But it's harder for pilots such as Kennedy who are accustomed to looking out the window to align their wings with the horizon.

Some aircraft rental companies won't rent planes at night to pilots who aren't instrument-rated.

"Maybe this tragedy will make some people think twice about going when it's marginal conditions and you don't have the instrument training," said Mike Rankin, a St. Petersburg pilot who flies DC-10s.

Like other pilots throughout the region, Clearwater lawyer James A. Martin Jr. said the Kennedy crash would not make him rethink his passion for flying.

"It's the safest mode of transportation that I know," he said. "Every pilot must set their own personal limits, what they're comfortable with. Some of it is based on your training, your experience, and probably your tolerance for risk."

In January, Martin was flying the same type of plane as Kennedy, a Piper Saratoga, when his engine lost power and he had to make an emergency landing in Tampa Bay. He and his girlfriend were rescued from a life raft by the Coast Guard, though the plane was lost.

Today, Martin flies a twin-engine plane. While he speaks highly of the Saratoga, he switched to a twin engine in large part for safety reasons.

Other pilots, though, prefer a simpler single-engine plane.

"The feeling among most pilots is that with a twin-engine airplane, you lose one engine and the second engine is just there to take you to the scene of an accident," quipped Jack Tunstill, a flight instructor with the Albert Whitted Flying Club in St. Petersburg.

The crash rate for small planes has fallen steadily in the past two decades, from 10.9 accidents per 100,000 flight hours in 1982 to 7.12 last year.

Aviation groups attribute that decline to hundreds of small changes that have collectively improved the skills of pilots and the quality of their planes. The Federal Aviation Administration has required thousands of changes that have toughened flight rules and made safer planes. Pilots now have better training that relies on lessons from past accidents.

"There haven't been any wholesale changes in certification rules, but there has been gradual tweaks in what is required, based on accident experience," said Kevin Murphy, a spokesman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which represents general aviation pilots.

When there is a crash of a small plane, however, it's likely to be at least partly the pilot's fault.

Pilots are cited as a cause or contributing factor in 77 percent of accidents and 83 percent of fatal accidents. The environment, which includes weather and lighting, was cited in 45 percent of all accidents and 40 percent of fatal accidents. Most accidents involve more than one cause.

Accidents are most likely to occur on weekends, when there's a high percentage of private pilots in the sky. They have less experience and are more likely to make mistakes.

Tunstill echoed other pilots Monday in hoping the Kennedy crash doesn't lead to to misperceptions about the safety of flying small planes.

"It's not unsafe at all," he said, "as long as you have training, good sense, and use judgment -- just like driving a car."

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