November 20, 2012

Fatal Maine plane crash raises new questions on safety

Small airport operations are run by the employees and pilots themselves. Most of the time, the system works.

By Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The collision between a plane and a pickup truck that killed three men Friday at Knox County Regional Airport has sparked discussion among pilots and aviation experts about safety procedures at small airports.

At the regional airport in Owls Head, there is no tower or air traffic controller to tell pilots when to land or take off. Radio communication between people in aircraft and other vehicles is encouraged, but not required. The only real regulation of airport operations is by the pilots and airport employees themselves.

So, why aren't there more crashes or close calls at small airports?

"That's a good question," said Phil Csoros, a Maine native who is a commercial pilot based in Texas. "As the pilot in command, it's your responsibility to ensure that the runway is clear before you land or take off. But if any other vehicle is on the runway, they need to stop and look. There is still a lot about this (crash) we don't know."

Maine pilots and aviation experts were reluctant to speculate Monday about exactly what happened or who might have been at fault.

What is known is that late Friday afternoon, a Cessna 172 piloted by 24-year-old William "B.J." Hannigan III of Portland hit a pickup truck on the runway during takeoff. The plane got airborne briefly but crashed into trees near the airport and burst into flames.

Hannigan and his two passengers -- David Cheney, 22, of Beverly, Mass., and Marcelo Rugini, 24, of Brazil -- were killed.

Hannigan and Cheney were fraternity brothers at the University of Maine along with Rugini, who was an exchange student at the university.

The driver of the truck, Stephen Turner, 62, of Camden, was not injured. Turner is a pilot and an employee of Penobscot Island Air, which is based at Knox County Regional Airport.

The crash was the 16th at the airport in the last 40 years and the fourth fatal crash, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. The deadliest plane crash in state history happened at the airport in 1979, when a passenger plane from Boston went down and 17 people died.

By comparison, Bar Harbor-Trenton Regional Airport, which is similar in size and accommodates both general aviation and commercial flights, has had 11 crashes in the last 40 years, two of them fatal.

The Augusta State Airport, which is slightly larger and busier than Knox County Regional Airport, has had 39 crashes since 1962, four of them fatal.

The NTSB is investigating Friday's crash, but it will likely be at least six months before its report is released.

Jeff Northgraves, director of Knox County Regional Airport, said it's not uncommon for vehicles to be on the runway, and Turner had clearance to be there.

People in vehicles on the ground are supposed to communicate with planes and vice versa, but that doesn't always happen. Turner had a radio in his truck, Northgraves said, but it's not clear if it was turned on. It's also not clear if Hannigan's plane had a radio or if the pilot used it.

The crash occurred around 4:40 p.m., after sunset. Northgraves said the truck did not appear to have what is known as a beacon light, which is usually standard on airport ground vehicles.

Conditions at Knox County Regional Airport are similar to those at almost every other small airport in the country, experts said.

When tragedies happen there is a tendency to blame procedures, Csoros said, but most of the time they work.

"We all drive vehicles, but few of us fly," he said. "If you are going to operate an aircraft or a vehicle to cross a runway, you have training. Just because it's not controlled by an air traffic controller doesn't mean it's not safe.

(Continued on page 2)

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Dave Cheney

  


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