Early this past Saturday, a 50-year-old man was killed when the single-engine Cessna he was flying crashed behind a New Jersey day care center. The pilot, whose name has not been released, was on his way to Teterboro Airport to pick up a passenger but reported a malfunction shortly after takeoff, and nearby witnesses described hearing explosions and seeing smoke coming from the craft before it plowed into trees behind the Kiddie Academy in West Caldwell. The wreckage remained behind the building as the center opened on Monday.
The crash in New Jersey was only the first in a series of accidents for small airplanes across the country last weekend, marking a two-day stretch that had an unusually high body count. Going by the last five years’ worth of complete safety statistics, about three people could be expected to die in small plane crashes over the course of the average weekend in the U.S., but this past Saturday and Sunday saw at least seven deaths and two injuries of pilots and passengers aboard five different planes.
The most jarring came Sunday morning, when a Cessna and a corporate plane owned by BAE Systems, a defense contractor headquartered in Virginia, were both destroyed in a fiery midair collision near the border with Mexico. The planes were approaching a small municipal airport south of San Diego when they collided, killing four BAE employees and a 65-year-old pilot on a cross-country trip in the Cessna. The debris, which landed partly in the San Diego Wildlife Preserve, ignited a brush fire. There were no survivors.
Only a few hours earlier on Sunday, a Beechcraft Bonanza with two aboard crashed near Hicksville, New York, creating “just a pile of metal that was burning” on the tracks of the Long Island Railroad, according to the Hicksville Fire Department, and shutting down service between the Hicksville and Bethpage stations. The plane narrowly missed hitting a retirement community before the crash, which left a 55-year-old passenger injured, while the plane’s pilot was killed.
And in yet another accident on Sunday, a student pilot practicing approaches to Manassas Regional Airport crashed in the backyard of a house in Bristow, Virginia. Karyta Barnes, 50, who was alone in the plane, was seriously injured but is expected to survive.
The frequency of small plane crashes often renders individual accidents less than newsworthy. Statistically speaking, four or five small planes are likely to crash today, and the chances are that at least one person aboard will die. It usually takes a twist on the story, like a movie star crashing on a golf course or a teenage girl cheating death to hike out of the wilderness after a crash that killed her grandparents, to capture the public’s interest.
The Bristow crash didn’t result in loss of life, but it illustrated, through its similarities to an accident last winter, how often luck decides whether a small plane crash winds up being one of the nonfatal nonstories. On Dec. 8, 2014, a pilot attempting to land at a nearby airfield instead crashed in a yard next to the Gemmell residence on Drop Forge Lane in Gaithersburg, Maryland. All three aboard the plane were killed, as were Marie Gemmell and her two sons, 3-year-old Cole and 2-month-old Devin, who succumbed to smoke inhalation after part of the fuel-laden aircraft sent a fireball through their house.
This weekend’s crashes remain under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.