By David Wren
January 23, 2011
NORTH MYRTLE BEACH –A federal database shows there have been more general aviation aircraft accidents at Grand Strand Airport over the past five years than any other S.C. airport, but experts say that does not mean the facility is more dangerous than any other.
“It’s a quality airport – more so than the average because it has an ILS (instrument landing system) approach and a control tower,” said Paul Werts, executive director of the S.C. Aeronautics Commission.
Although some called for the airport’s closure following a fatal accident last week – and factors such as tricky crosswinds and less-experienced pilots could play a role in other accidents there – Werts said Grand Strand Airport has more modern facilities than many smaller airports that have logged fewer fatalities.
“There’s nothing about Grand Strand Airport that would cause problems,” he said.
The National Transportation Safety Board’s accident database shows there have been seven accidents involving manufacturer-made general aviation aircraft at Grand Strand Airport since 2006.
Three of those accidents involved fatalities, including one last week in which 62-year-old pilot Kenneth Charles Thode was killed when he crashed his plane into Briarcliffe RV Resort while practicing a takeoff maneuver. The accident also killed vacationer Eva Sullivan, 70, who was in a camper at the park when the plane hit.
Two airports – Charleston Executive and Berkeley County – have had three accidents apiece during the same period, the second-most among S.C. general aviation airports.
The NTSB has not determined the cause of the two most recent accidents at Grand Strand Airport.
Kathleen Bergen, spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration, said the airport was not cited as a factor in any of the other accidents since 2006.
“Many airports are located along the coastlines,” Bergen said. “Operations are conducted safely at coastal airports as they are at inland airports.”
The NTSB has cited pilot error in four of the five accidents where a cause has been determined, including a fatal accident on Feb. 3, 2006.
The other accident occurred when a banner being towed by one plane separated and collided with the propeller of a second plane.
Crosswind conditions also contributed to one of the accidents that was blamed on pilot error, according to the NTSB.
Pete Winters, former Horry County Airports director, said crosswinds at Grand Strand Airport can be “very tricky” and pose a “troublesome approach.”
Winters said the crosswinds are a factor there because the runway is parallel to the beach and more susceptible to winds blowing to and from the ocean. The runway at Myrtle Beach International Airport, by comparison, runs perpendicular to the beach.
Winters said pilot experience also could play a role in accidents because of the tricky wind conditions.
That sentiment is echoed by Werts, who said there is a greater diversity of experience levels for pilots flying to and from Grand Strand Airport than many other general aviation facilities statewide.
“You have some that probably don’t fly as much as they should, and others who need to be more diligent in their training,” Werts said.
One reason Grand Strand Airport might have more accidents, experts say, is that there simply are more flights there than at most S.C. facilities.
Grand Strand Airport is the sixth-busiest general aviation airport in the state, with about 45,000 flights each year, according to an FAA database. The Jim Hamilton-L.B. Owens Airport in Columbia is the state’s busiest, with about 51,500 flights each year.