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Valley Perspective

Pilot in Fatal Crash Was the Exception

Tragedy points out the need to extend the hours of the Van Nuys Airport tower.

July 05, 1998|GEORGE JEROME | George Jerome, who chairs the Van Nuys Airport Citizens Advisory Council, is an instrument-rated pilot. He earned his pilot's certificate in 1968 and has more than 2,500 hours of flight experience

Pilots in the San Fernando Valley area have been shocked and dismayed by the actions of the late Reiner Bey, the pilot whose plane crashed into a Van Nuys home last month, killing Bey and his wife.

As with any tragedy, we should try to learn lessons about what can be done to prevent a similar incident. Instead of making knee-jerk conclusions about general aviation, we should examine the facts about the regulations all pilots must follow. Bey became the exception when he ignored these rules. In addition, we should consider that this incident very likely could have been avoided had the tower at Van Nuys Airport been open when this pilot made the decision to take off.

You have probably heard that Bey was not "instrument-rated." Instrument-rated pilots have extensive training beyond basic pilot instruction to learn to fly while referring only to the airplane's navigation instruments and with air traffic controllers as guides. In instrument flying, pilots are in constant contact with controllers. When the sky is overcast or when the cloud ceiling is lower than 1,000 feet, and when visibility is less than 3 miles, regulations require that a pilot fly by instrument rules.

The weather June 16 met that description. Bey had no business taking off in dark, overcast conditions. He must have known this. No pilot without an instrument rating is qualified to fly under those conditions, and not one with whom I have discussed this would have deliberately broken the rules and departed Van Nuys without communicating with air traffic controllers. When the tower at Van Nuys is closed (10:45 p.m. to 6 a.m.) and weather is below minimums, pilots must receive a clearance to depart the airport and must be in communication with air traffic controllers, who watch them on radar screens.

I belong to a Southern California-based flying club that places supreme importance on safety. We meet regularly to discuss aviation safety issues, and we require that potential members attend these meetings before joining our group. Most pilots have a habit of getting together to engage in "hangar flying" to learn safety-related lessons from other pilots' experiences.

The Federal Aviation Administration requires that all pilots take a flight test every two years, far more frequently than the state Department of Motor Vehicles requires drivers to renew their drivers' licenses. And many times more people die on our roads every year than in general aviation airplane accidents.

Do not judge all pilots by the actions of Reiner Bey. He did not represent the ideals of the vast majority, for whom safety and adherence to regulations are priorities. Make no mistake: Pilots who disregard the rules face severe FAA proceedings and loss of license. The FAA does not give second chances.

There have been only a handful of accidents at Van Nuys Airport in the last decade and no fatalities to those on the ground because safety regulations are tight and the vast majority of pilots have sound judgment.

Rather than reacting to this incident with hysteria, we should respond by making common-sense changes, such as extending the hours of the Van Nuys tower, to prevent further tragedies.

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