Big Bear City Airport

Saturday, November 18, 2006
Big Bear airport logs 47 crash fatalities in 25 years
By Guy McCarthy
The Inland Valley (CA) Daily Bulletin

Big Bear City Airport, situated in the highest mountain range in Southern California, has reported 47 plane crash fatalities in the past 25 years, according to National Transportation Safety Board records. That’s more than the combined aviation deaths reported in the same time-frame at or near four airports in Redlands, Riverside, Ontario and Upland. Though the fiery crash that killed three people Tuesday on the shore of Big Bear Lake may eventually be attributed to engine failure, most aviation accidents in or near Bear Valley are due to pilot error, said Garry Dokter, the airport’s general manager.

“Big Bear City Airport is not an unsafe airport,” Dokter said Thursday. “We have an ample runway (5,850 feet long), automated weather broadcasts, excellent lighting, and clear approach and departure paths.”

But at 6,748 feet elevation in the mountains, complexities like weather, winds and “density altitude” can catch visiting pilots unprepared, Dokter said.

“Density altitude fluctuates depending on temperature and atmospheric pressure,” Dokter said. “At times density altitude here can measure as high as 10,000 feet. That can mean less oxygen for engine horsepower, and less dense air to create lift.

“Pilots from the flatlands sometimes fail to recognize what a factor density altitude can be,” Dokter said. “It catches some flatlanders off guard.”

The last fatal crash recorded by NTSB at Big Bear City Airport was Aug. 8, 2005, when a single-engine plane veered off the runway into a drainage ditch during landing. The pilot and a passenger were killed.

Including Tuesday’s fatalities, 12 people have died in crashes at or near Big Bear City Airport in the past 10 years, according to NTSB records.

Compared with the previous 10 years, when 31 people died in plane crashes at or near the airport, the past decade represents an improvement, Dokter said.

Witnesses to Tuesday’s crash of the twin-engine plane reportedly heard loud noises and saw smoke coming from the aircraft. An NTSB preliminary report is pending.

“There are cases when aircraft failure has been a factor,” Dokter said. “And this most recent one may turn out that way. It’s possible.

“But in the majority of cases, weather, wind conditions and density altitude have not been correctly assessed.”

Recent plane crashes in the Inland Empire:

Nov. 14 – Three people die when a twin-engine plane crashes and bursts into flames after take-off from Big Bear City Airport. NTSB report pending.

Nov. 12 – A single-engine plane is damaged after a forced landing after takeoff from Flabob Airport in Riverside. Pilot and passenger were not injured. NTSB preliminary report noted pilot observed loss of engine power during initial climb.

Oct. 23 – Two men seriously injured when a single-engine plane crashes at California Institution for Men after pilot reported engine trouble at takeoff from Chino Airport. NTSB preliminary report noted flight instructor observed loss of engine power during takeoff.

Oct. 8 – A two-seat helicopter is damaged when instructor and student experience throttle and engine trouble during initial ascent from Cable Airport in Upland. Neither person injured in forced landing. Touchdown was hard, and the main rotor blades severed the tail boom, NTSB preliminary report noted.

June 24 – Three people critically injured when passenger jet crashes and explodes at Cable Airport in Upland. Pilot may have overshot landing, NTSB preliminary report noted.

Sources: San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board.

Editor’s Note: Big Bear Airport elevation is 6752′.

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