Magazine article Newsweek

Small Planes, Big Problems; Pilots Love Freedom, but More Rules Might Save Lives

Magazine article Newsweek

Small Planes, Big Problems; Pilots Love Freedom, but More Rules Might Save Lives

Article excerpt

JESSICA DUBROFF has joined a sad club. Will Rogers, Buddy Holly, Knute Rockne, Rocky Marriano and at least 10 sitting U.S. congressmen also died in tiny planes. So do more than 700 other Americans annually--far more than die in major airline crashes, even in the industry's worst years. Flying in small private planes is still safer than driving; nearly as many motorists are killed every year at railroad crossings alone. But each celebrity death raises new concerns about all those little planes jockeying for airspace with big jetliners, hang gliders, ultralights and hot-air balloons, in increasingly crowded skies.

The nation's 650,000 private pilots have far more freedom than big-jet jockeys--and far more autonomy than most passengers suspect. Commercial pilots must follow set miles for taking off in bad weather, for example, but the go decision for a small plane is the pilot's alone. Not every plane can be tracked by radar; some don't file flight plans or carry working radios. Even if there were more requirements, there's nobody to enforce them. "I never talk to controllers at all," says Mariana Gosnell, whose book "Zero Three Bravo" details her cross-country solo flight in a 1950 single-engine Luscombe Silvaire. Only about 700 of the 13,000 U.S. airfields have control towers. in the wide-open skies where most small planes fly, there's little need for controllers, even if the FAA could afford them.

Small aircraft do face restrictions around busy airports; disputes have simmered for years as FAA officials tried to keep the tiny planes' interests, schedules and flight paths from colliding--literally--with major carriers. …

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