Two Small Planes Crashed in Alaska. Why Few Experts Were Surprised.

ImageCoast Guard members searched for survivors from one of the downed aircraft near Ketchikan, Alaska, on Monday. CreditReuters
When two propeller planes crashed in southeast Alaska on Monday, killing at least four people, aviation experts said they were saddened, but not surprised. The accident, which also left 10 injured and two missing, was among many involving small planes in the United States in recent months. This alarming frequency has raised questions about the level of regulation applied to planes operated by private pilots and smaller companies, which is less stringent than that for large commercial aircraft. Earlier this month two people were injured when a small plane crashed near the Gulf Coast of Alabama. A week before, two people aboard another small aircraft departing La Center, Wash., were killed when the plane crashed. That same week, two others died when a small plane crashed in Madera California. “It is really disconcerting to learn about all the prior accidents with these planes,” said Jack Hickey, a maritime lawyer. “There are a lot of these accidents involving private aviation and after National Transportation Security Board completes its investigation, there should be more talk about more regulation.”

Both planes in the Alaska tragedy carried passengers from a Princess Cruises ship. One plane, a de Havilland Otter seaplane operated by Taquan Air, had 10 passengers and a pilot onboard, and was returning from an excursion organized and sold through the cruise line. Four cruise passengers and a pilot were on the other plane, a de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver, on an independent tour. The Taquan Air flight was a commercial flight, while the smaller plane was what is known as a “general aviation” flight, which is how the F.A.A. categorizes flights that are not on commercial airlines. Commuter and charter flights both fall into this category, which is known as “part 135.” Private planes owned by individuals belong to “part 91” and regional and major airlines belong in “part 121.” The “parts” refer to different parts of the Federal Aviation Regulations, and the categories help to determine the level of training required for pilots. And although general aviation is safer now than it has been historically, it is still more dangerous than commercial air travel.

Pilots on commercial planes, or part 121 aircraft, have more stringent training and flight-readiness requirements. “Training elements are more robust for 121’s,” said John Goglia, a former N.T.S.B member. Commercial pilots, he said, are required to attend training each year.

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