WASHINGTON - The last fatal airline crash killed 50 people when a Colgan Air flight slammed into a neighborhood near Buffalo in February 2009. Private-plane wrecks since then have killed 30 times as many.
The crash rate on private-pilot flights - up 20 percent since 2000 - contrasts with a roughly 85 percent drop in accidents on commercial jetliners, according to data from the National Transportation Safety Board. The disparity is a dark spot on decades of aviation-safety improvements, and the board is weighing how to make noncommercial flying less hazardous in a two-day forum that began Tuesday.
Many of these accidents have resulted from pilots’ inattention to basics, according to research by a group created by industry and the federal government last year. Pilots have overloaded planes, failed to check weather reports, and made flying mistakes that caused planes to lose lift or go out of control.
“In spite of the advances we have made in both commercial and corporate aviation-safety records, the GA accident rate is stubbornly stuck,’’ safety board chairwoman Debbie Hersman said at the hearing, referring to “general aviation’’ accidents. “GA pilots are not learning from the deadly mistakes made by their brethren.’’
Since the 1990s, commercial-airline crashes due to icing, inadvertently hitting the ground, midair collisions, wind shear, and other causes have been almost eliminated with improved technology and pilot training, according to accident statistics.
By contrast, the types of accidents in noncommercial flying recur even as the safety board has often called for improvement, Hersman said.
In 2005, the board issued a study focusing on the role of weather as a common cause of small-plane accidents, she said.
Hersman pointed to a May 20, 2011, crash in Taos, N.M., after a Beechcraft Bonanza flew into a cloud and slammed into a mountainside. Investigators found that the pilot, who died, hadn’t checked weather reports for the route he flew.
“Our investigators see crashes resulting from the same causes over and over again,’’ Hersman said.
The accident rates for general aviation, including corporate and instructional flights, have changed little since 2000, according to safety board data.
The accident rate for all general aviation has been about 7 per 100,000 flying hours from 2007 through 2010. By comparison, accidents involving private pilots in their own or rented planes, mostly small, single-engine aircraft, averaged about 12 per 100,000 flight hours during the same period, according to Jill Demko, an investigator for the safety board who spoke at the forum.
Those numbers were broken out from the broader general-aviation statistics. Private-flight crashes were 12 times higher than the average rate for other types of general aviation flying, Demko said.
Seeking ways to stem the fatalities, industry groups and the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates private flying and sets safety standards, last year created the General Aviation Joint Steering Committee.
The group found that the largest category of accidents are those in which pilots lose control during flight, said Bruce Landsberg, head of the safety arm of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, an advocacy group based in Frederick, Md.
Landsberg, cochairman of the steering committee, said the panel endorses working with the FAA to make it cheaper for small planes to install a device that warns pilots when wings are in danger of losing lift. Such devices are standard on commercial airliners.
Other frequent crash causes are inadvertently flying into the ground, loss of power, and weather-related issues, Landsberg said.