Danbury-area plane crashes spark debate over aviation safety

DANBURY — After two fatal plane crashes in as many weeks this summer, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal called on the federal government to tighten regulations regarding private aviation.

Blumenthal wrote Michael Huerta, head of the Federal Aviation Administration, asking whether deadly crashes would be less common if the agency regulated private piloting as rigorously as it does commercial aviation.

“I write with grave concerns about this matter, demanding to know what actions you are taking to stem the tide of aviation fatalities and crashes,” Blumenthal wrote in a letter dated Aug. 25.

But pilots and experts in the Danbury area, which saw fatal crashes on July 30 and Aug. 11, aren’t sure that more regulation is the answer.

True, Connecticut has had more fatal accidents so far this year — four — than in any of the previous 10 years, but that’s not necessarily evidence of a trend, they said.

“It’s an unfortunate and tragic spike, not necessarily a trend,” said Mike Safranek, assistant administrator of Danbury Municipal Airport. “I don’t think there are more or less if you go back statistically, but when it comes in a spike it may look like more.”

Trend or not, Blumenthal said in an interview Friday, the recent crashes are “clearly a problem that can be addressed by correcting failings in the current system.”

“Increasing safety as a goal doesn’t require a trend,” he added. “This year is unprecedented.”

In the letter, Blumenthal points out several areas where the FAA could do better in private aviation, including better training, more medical vetting and stricter airplane maintenance.

“We’re going to try to reduce the number to zero,” Blumenthal said.

He noted in his letter that as of Aug. 24, the NTSB had made 12 recommendations to the FAA concerning general aviation safety that had yet to be addressed.

Les Abend, a pilot with three decades of aviation experience and an aviation analyst for CNN, said regulating private pilots more strictly isn’t the answer.

Abend said Blumenthal’s letter “almost made it sound like general aviation pilots are reckless, but it’s still a very regulated environment.”

“Aviation is so well regulated, more regulation is not going to help,” Abend said.

Basic FAA regulations, which include a tiered certification system requiring increasing levels of flying time and other training, are adequate, Abend said.

Safrenek agreed. Private pilots must spend many hours with an instructor, then pass written and flying tests, all overseen by watchful FAA officials, before they can get even basic certification, he said.

“No pilot can get a private pilot certificate until signed off on by the FAA,” he said.

In Blumenthal’s letter, he suggested more training should be required to obtain a license.

“Is the current, requisite level of training sufficient to ensure private and recreational pilots can fly safely and properly?” he asked. “Are flight schools sufficiently addressing the challenges that recreational and private pilots can encounter – from takeoff to landing?”

Abend said pilots have enough training; it’s what they do with that training that is important.

“You can’t regulate somebody’s habits, and I think that’s where you run into difficulties,” he said.

Safranek said pilots are highly safety-conscious and that preflight checklists, which are oftenmore than 35-points long, are “drilled into your head” — not to mention laminated and put in the cockpit — long before pilots leave the runway.

“Pilots are very anal about that stuff, and understandably — it’s life or death,” he said.

NTSB reports show that poor performance in preflight checks or insufficient annual inspections were factors in three of the 10 aircraft accidents or incidents in the Danbury over the last decade.

The three incidents included the crash of a small plane after running out of fuel in Danbury in 2013; the forced landing of a helicopter in Redding in 2011, owing to a worn bolt; and the crash-landing of an amateur-built plane in Danbury in 2007.

blytton@hearstmediact.com; 203-731-3411; @bglytton


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

five × five =