Flying a small plane takes hours of training - WALB.com, Albany News, Weather, Sports

Flying a small plane takes hours of training

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May 5, 2008

Albany--  How safe are you if you go up in a small plane? Three men from Alabama were killed over the weekend in Sumter County when their plane crashed on takeoff from Souther Field.  It's the latest in several recent Georgia crashes.

It seems commercial flying has never been safer but right now federal investigators are looking into hundreds of private plane crashes.

Last year there were more than 1,600 small plane accidents and nearly 500 fatalities. Compare that to 24 large aircraft accidents and zero deaths. It has a lot to do with everything from altitudes to experience and something very important--training.

The sounds of the plane propeller caught Clay Bigelow's attention early. "Since I was about 15," said Bigelow.

Now some years later, he's taking the necessary lessons to make a childhood dream a reality. "It's something I've always wanted to do," said Bigelow.

The Cessna 172 he's learning to fly is a far cry from the flight simulator he played with as a teenager. "It's a little more difficult than I thought it would be," said Bigelow. Sights like the mangled wreckage left from a deadly Sumter County crash over the weekend show just how difficult real flying can be.

"It bothers me anytime something like that happens," said pilot and flight instructor Scott Gatlin.

Unfortunately, it's happened several times lately. "Spring time," said Gatlin, "more people are flying."

That's why Gatlin makes sure future pilots have what it takes to take to the skies. "By the time they get to the point where they can become a pilot in command and can actually haul passengers, they have to have between 40 and 60 hours of comprehensive training," said Gatlin. Pilots are taught that a lot of the safety begins with them.

"95 percent of the time when a small plane crashes, it's due to pilot error," said Gatlin.

Before pilots take off, they have to make sure everything on the plane is on the up and up. "Anything that man makes can break," said Gatlin.

Bigelow takes several minutes to inspect attachment points, check fuel levels and look for any damage as part of a required pre-flight inspection. Taking timeout can make a big difference.  Bigelow isn't very worried though.

"If I follow the procedures I'm getting taught then I'll be fine," said Bigelow.

It won't be long until the long-awaited day. "Hopefully not too much longer," said Bigelow. That's when he'll be solo in the skies.

Already on just the 5th day of May, there were 4 small plane crashes nationwide. Two of those have been here in Georgia. Scott Gatlin says plane crashes are always going to be shocking because they happen less often than motor vehicle accidents.

The aviation industry says contrary to what some may think, it's safer to fly than drive. The number of general aviation accidents rose last year by more than 100 but the number of fatalities went down by 30-percent.  

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