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Why Do Small Planes Crash?


In the wake of last week’s tragic private jet crash near Montgomery County Airpark in Maryland that left six people dead, many are wondering how these incidents happen. Despite commercial aviation becoming safer, there are still so many things that can go wrong in general aviation. Why?

Small planes crash for a wide variety of reasons. For starters, amateur pilots are not subject to the same rules as commercial airline pilots, and don’t have to log as many hours in the cockpit to be certified to fly. According to the Washington Post, a vast majority of general aviation crashes reported in 2011 happened because of pilots losing control of the aircraft. Other common causes included pilots not seeing the ground or terrain, like a mountain, until it’s too late. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association say that small planes run out of fuel roughly twice a week, leading to a crash. The most common cause of a nonfatal crashes is a bad landing.

Aside from pilots, the aircrafts themselves are responsible for many crashes that get blamed on pilot error. According to a USA Today special report, many crashes throughout the years have been caused by aircraft malfunctions or defects not found by the National Transportation Safety Board. The report also found many instances in which aviation companies covered up or lied to the the Federal Aviation Administration regarding known safety defects. Some examples include:

  • Pilot seats malfunction, sliding backward and causing the pilot to lose control of the plane.
  • Aircraft exhaust systems leak exhaust gas, resulting in engine fires.
  • Rigid fuel tanks in helicopters rupture, leaking fuel and causing deaths from fuel-fed fires.
  • Ice protection systems fail, resulting in pilots not knowing when ice buildup occurs on wings.
  • Engine carburetor malfunctions result in the engine either flooding or starving. This issue has caused engine failures since the 1960’s.

As for Monday’s crash in Maryland, we’ll have to wait and see how the investigation unfolds. The NTSB should issue a preliminary report on the crash within the next two weeks.



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