Pilots of private planes know danger can be lurking
By Cindy Wojdyla Cain email@example.com September 27, 2013 9:34PM
A makeshift memorial for the victims of a plane that crashed in Bolingbrook, Ill., on Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013, sits near the edge of the road next to the Chase Bank parking lot. | Frank Vaisvilas~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 30, 2013 6:52AM
More than a century after humans learned how to defy gravity, there still is something majestic and enthralling about flight, be it small prop planes or sleek airliners soaring through the sky.
Perhaps that’s why it is shocking when we see airplanes reduced to crumpled heaps of smoking metal on the ground and pilots and their passengers lose their lives.
Wednesday’s crash of a private plane on its way to Clow International Airport in Bolingbrook, which killed a Kentucky couple, recalled other plane crashes in recent years in Will County.
The plane came down in a bank parking lot on Weber Road. Passenger Jay Venguswamy died at the scene. Her husband, Dr. Narayan Venguswamy, 63, who was the pilot, was able to escape, but he was severely burned and died at a hospital the next morning.
Four similar crashes have occurred in the past decade:
December 2012: A Minnesota man was killed when his twin-engine plane plummeted to the ground in a field a half-mile from Gougar and Offner roads.
June 2011: A Darien man died after his single-engine plane struck trees and power lines in front of the St. Charles Borromeo Pastoral Center at Airport Road and Illinois 53.
September 2008: A plane hit a light pole and crashed onto Weber Road at Lily Cache Lane after it took off from Clow. The pilot, who told authorities he lost power on takeoff, and his passenger survived.
October 2004: A Missouri man was killed when his single-engine plane crashed into the Springwood subdivision in Joliet, narrowly missing two rows of townhouses and coming to rest in a crumpled heap under a streetlight.
In the 2004 crash, emergency workers said they were impressed that the pilot was able to thread his way through two townhouse buildings at the north end of the subdivision without hitting them.
That’s what pilots are trained to do, said Chris Lawson, manager of Lewis University Airport in Romeoville. Lawson, who had his solo pilot license before he got his driver’s license, said instructors force students to fly with an idle engine to see how they will react.
“(An instructor) will reach down to the throttle cable and pull it,” Lawson said. “And he says, ‘OK, what are you going to do?’ And it’s a test. He wants you to think, and he wants you thinking all of the time.”
Looking for safe places to land becomes instinctual, he said.
“You’re flying along and you’ve always got a field in your eye and you don’t even know you’re looking at it,” he said.
Keith McGill, chief of pilot training at Lewis University, said pilots in distress are taught to look for fields to land in if they can’t make it to an airport.
“Sometimes, depending on circumstances, there are no good options,” he said. “A pilot may have to choose the best of the worst options.”
Pilots who fly in and out of Will County are fortunate because there are so many farm fields, McGill said.
“We train pilots to try to pick a field that’s lined up with the wind,” he said. “We want to land into the wind as much as possible.”
They’re also taught to avoid creeks and to look for low vegetation.
“Even corn will stop you,” he said.
Pilots also are instructed to avoid roads.
“Most roads have power lines that go along with them,” McGill said. “And the wingspan of an average aircraft is 40 feet.”
Sometimes there is no runway or field. For instance, a week ago, a pilot landed on Lake Shore Drive near Buckingham Fountain in Chicago. He was lucky enough to walk away.
And there’s the legendary example of U.S. Airways Capt. C.B. “Sully” Sullenberger III landing his jumbo jet in the icy Hudson River in New York City in January 2009. Those kinds of things can’t be taught, McGill said.
“I can guarantee you never at any time in his training was there a discussion that you should land a plane in a river if you lost both engines on takeoff,” McGill said. “Every situation is different. And no pilot can be trained for all circumstances.
“As a pilot, you’re trained to deal with things as they come up. And based on the cards you’re given, you have to make the best decision even though it may be something that’s contrary to training.”
Sadly, there was no safe landing for the Kentucky couple last week. McGill said takeoffs and landings are the most dangerous times for pilots.
“Statistically, even though takeoffs and landings make up 3 percent of an entire flight, 50 percent of all aircraft accidents happen during takeoffs and landings,” he said. “The airplane is usually close to the ground so ... things happen much quicker.”
Airplane crashes are hard to take because they are rare, Lawson said.
“It hurts us all,” he said of Wednesday’s crash. “It’s a hollow feeling in your gut, and you feel sorry for the individual and his wife. My God, that was horrible.”
“It’s tragic,” McGill said. “It absolutely is, and it affects everyone. Obviously we don’t know what happened (with the Bolingbrook crash). But aviation is safe, and, hopefully, if we do our job and aircraft are maintained we avoid accidents.”
Lawson said he feels more comfortable flying in his plane than he does driving in traffic to get to work most days.
“Freedom, it’s called,” he said. “You can take your boat and go floating anytime you want. Or you can take your airplane and you can fly — and that’s what we do.”