Following a fatal crash in October where a private plane smashed into DeKalb County townhomes, residents and officials dueled with accident statistics at a Nov. 18 meeting of the DeKalb-Peachtree Airport Advisory Board, debating just how safe it is to live near a facility that sees about 150,000 takeoffs and landings a year.

The stats on both sides were flawed, limited and open to wide interpretation. The big picture is that the chance of being hit by a plane from PDK is extremely low, but also not zero. And the discussion is just the latest chapter in a decades-long debate over safety and noise at the once semi-rural Clairmont Road airport surrounded by ever-booming Brookhaven and Chamblee neighborhoods.

Mario Evans, center rear, director of DeKalb-Peachtree Airport, discusses incident statistics and safety risk calculation at the Nov. 18 meeting of PDK’s Airport Advisory Board. (John Ruch)

Airport Director Mario Evans suggested that PDK should not be blamed for crashes outside its boundaries, saying most fatalities are due to pilot error. “Just because the aircraft [involved in a fatal crash] departed PDK does not make it, in my opinion, associated with it, but that’s above my pay grade,” he said.

PDK sends thousands of planes a year over metro Atlanta, including instructional flights and personal, corporate and charter aircraft. None the stats went to the core issue of planes hitting the homes of innocent people on the ground, as happened in the Oct. 30 crash into two townhomes on Peachwood Circle off I-85.

PDK has a long history of such accidents, including an infamous 1973 case where a jet crashed into a Buford Highway apartment building, killing seven people on the plane and severely injuring a resident with burning fuel. The plane crashed due to a bird strike, in turn blamed on a county-run landfill next to the airport, and triggered a legal battle over airport legal liability that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, according to media reports.

In the past 20 years, three residential properties have been hit by planes from PDK in DeKalb, Brookhaven/Chamblee and Lilburn. Other planes from PDK have wrecked in residential or commercial areas or on highways.

At the Advisory Board meeting, one resident asked how pilots are trained to make emergency landings and whether houses and roads are considered as appropriate. A pilot in the audience said that open spaces are the goal for such landings, though as board member Reuben Jones noted, it’s hard to find one in metro Atlanta. And in cases where the plane is out of control or the pilot is disoriented or can’t see through clouds, it doesn’t matter anyway, the pilot said.

Dueling stats

Evans presented stats showing that the number of fatalities and near-misses on runaways are few and low-risk in comparison to the many flights. Resident Todd Delaune, a frequent critic of PDK noise, complied Federal Aviation Administration reports that he said show PDK’s fatalities and “incidents” are nationally high.

Delaune’s stats showed that, in raw numbers, PDK is in the top 20 over the past two decades for fatalities and “incidents” among all U.S. airports, large and small, commercial and public. “Plain and simple, PDK is in the top 3% most dangerous airports in the nation and it is in a highly populated area,” he said in comments he circulated via email and the Nextdoor social network.

The townhomes on Peachwood Circle in DeKalb County that were damaged by a fatal Oct. 30 plane crash. (John Ruch)

But Evans and board members said the absolute numbers are still small, and that such a ranking is a meaningless way to measure risk, because that involves comparison with the number of flights, which varies among airports.

Board member Christopher Richard called Delaune’s stats “the epitome of apples and oranges.” But he also acknowledged that non-commercial “general aviation” airports like PDK have more built-in risks than giant, highly regulated commercial ones such as Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

“Here, you have largely general aviation pilots,” Richard said. “Generally, planes aren’t as big or [as] well-maintained.”

Fatal crashes

Meanwhile, among the stats Evans displayed were fatality numbers, showing 15 deaths among roughly 3.9 million takeoffs and landings at PDK since 1999. But his list omitted at least two fatalities that appear in National Transportation Safety Board reports. And it did not include the larger number of non-fatal injury accidents – two of which in that period have involved crashes into houses in DeKalb and on the Brookhaven/Chamblee border.

Regardless of the precise number, the fatality rate per “operations” – meaning takeoffs and landings – is low. This year’s deaths amount to fatalities in roughly 0.0015% of operations or roughly one death per 67,000 takeoffs or landings. Since 2000, the rate would be roughly one fatality per 228,000 operations.

Eight of the past 20 years have seen at least one fatal accident, including three of the past five years. There was a long stretch without fatalities in 2009 through 2014 – though there were some serious accidents that were not fatal by chance. Since then, PDK has seen seven fatalities in three separate incidents.

The PDK fatalities list presented by Airport Director Mario Evans at the Nov. 18 Airport Advisory Board meeting. The list omits some accidents. (John Ruch)

When pressed by Delaune about the significance of the sheer number of fatalities, Evans said, “I’m not trying to use somebody’s loss of life to gain something, and I don’t know what you’re trying to gain.”

Evans focused on whether PDK itself was affected by perceived to be responsible for accidents, saying that the vast majority happen outside airport boundaries due to pilot error. He claimed only one fatality in the past 21 years – a 2016 air show crash – happened within PDK, but NTSB records show that crashes there in 1999 and 2000 were fatal also.

Jones raised the question of how far out a crash can happen and still be associated with PDK. Evans said he didn’t know. His list of fatal crashes included some as far away as Gwinnett County and intown Atlanta. But NTSB records show more fatal crashes in that time period originating from PDK in such places as Forsyth and Walton counties. An infamous fatal crash on Ga. 400 in Sandy Springs in 1998 involved a pilot who rerouted to PDK in the hopes of making an emergency landing there.

Incidents on runways

In a separate set of stats, Evans discussed a type of incident called “runway incursions” that are risky and sometimes damage aircraft or property, but which fall short of full-blown accidents. The term refers to an unauthorized plane, person or vehicle on a runway. Incursions can range from minor incidents to near-misses with catastrophe.

Evans acknowledged that, while the national rate of runway incursions is falling, PDK’s is not – in fact, it is trending upward, though he noted that directly only after being pressed by audience members.

“This was a bad year here. We had 28 runway incursions,” he said of fiscal year 2018. And as of mid-2019, there had been 7 incursions, he said.

Evans said neighborhood residents should not be concerned by that rate. “Yes, it is unsafe for us here at the airport, but when you try to relate that to being unsafe for you in the community, that does not compute,” he said.

But it’s certainly a concern within the airport, which has three runways that intersect. Evans said there are “hot spots” for incursions “in what we consider to be the Devil’s triangle, right there in the middle of three runways.”

In a $1.2 million, FAA-funded project, PDK is adding more anti-incursion safety gear, including lights to better show pilots where to stop aircraft on runways, along with other light upgrades. That work should finish in early December, said Evans.

“Well, I look forward to a reduction in runway incursions,” said Advisory Board chairman Larry Scheinpflug.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.