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Roy Halladay crash: ICON CEO set new low-altitude guidelines three weeks before tragedy

By Scott Gleeson and Bart Jansen via USAToday

ICON Aircraft CEO Kirk Hawkins announced a new set of low-altitude flying guidelines in an email to customers on Oct. 17, just weeks before Cy Young-winning pitcher Roy Halladay fatally crashed his sport plane into the Gulf of Mexico.

“There is little formal training required by the (Federal Aviation Administration) or provided by traditional transportation-focused aviation training programs to adequately prepare you for low altitude flying,” Hawkins said in the email. “Given this, our goal is to take a proactive, leadership role in the flight training process and we have developed our own low altitude guidelines from lessons learned over decades of military, seaplane, and bush flying.”

The ICON guidelines said flying 300 feet above water or undeveloped ground “provides a reasonable margin for a pilot to make decisions and maneuver the aircraft away from terrain or stationary hazards.”

The FAA is investigating the crash, while the National Transportation Safety Board will determine the probable cause of the accident. Details have emerged about the safety of the plane itself (Halladay had been the proud owner for less than a month of his ICON A5, and was among the first to fly it, with only about 20 in existence). But there is also evidence to suggest low flying — over water — was an element at the cause of the crash.

Federal investigators determined that low flying was part of the problem when the man who led the plane’s design, 55-year-old Jon Murray Karkow, died while flying an A5over California’s Lake Berryessa on May 8. The NTSB blamed the crash on pilot error, saying Karkow mistakenly entered a canyon while flying too low, causing the plane to strike the canyon wall.

Stephen Pope, editor-in-chief of Flying magazine, told the Associated Press that a new pilot with little flying experience taking the plane over water at low altitude would have been highly unsafe, even though the plane was marketed as a craft that could handle that.

Halladay’s plane crashed in water. But the plane was promoted as an amphibious aircraft built to land on water. So the focus of the NTSB’s investigation will likely center on what sent the plane into water too sharply, whether a mechanical problem or pilot error.

Another A5 crashed in April, making a hard landing in the water off Key Largo, Fla., injuring the pilot and his passenger. The pilot told investigators the plane descended faster than he expected.

“They still think that that’s the way the airplane should be flown, and there are people in aviation who completely disagree with that,” Pope said. “They think you should not have a low-time pilot flying low over water. That’s a recipe for disaster.”

The FAA recommends flying at least 1,000 feet above congested areas and 500 above open people or structures on the ground or water, other than while taking off or landing.

The ICON guidelines also suggested caution in flying in mountainous terrain, to avoid box canyons where there might not be enough room to turn around. The guidelines said the plane could turn around in as little as 500 feet of lateral movement, but it would be safer to allow 1,000 feet for human error.

Halladay, the 40-year-old former Blue Jays and Phillies pitcher, had his ICON A5 go down around noon of the coast of Florida, Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco told reporters at a news conference. He was the lone known occupant, and three mayday calls were made to air traffic control.

Steve Marks, an aviation lawyer at Podhurst Orseck in Miami, said the accident rate for aircraft classified as experimental such as the ICON A5 is “staggering” because there is little FAA regulation of either their maintenance or operations.

“It’s a terrible safety risk to the people who operate these aircraft,” Marks said.

Experimental or light aircraft are marketed for people who don’t necessarily have a pilot’s license required to fly planes like Cessnas or Pipers, Marks said. That means the pilots are often less trained while operating riskier aircraft, he said.

“If anything, you need a lot more training, not less,” Marks said.  “It’s really tragic that this star baseball player unnecessarily died.”

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told a general-aviation convention on Oct. 24 that 2017 is shaping up to be the safest year yet for private pilots, with “far below” the target rate of one fatality per 100,000 flight hours.

“We’re still finalizing the numbers, but it looks like 2017 will end up being our safest year yet,” Huerta said. “This is a significant accomplishment.”

General aviation ranges from amateur-built aircraft and balloons to sophisticated turbojets. The U.S. has more than 220,000 general-aviation aircraft registered.

During the year that ended Sept. 30, the FAA said 347 people died in 209 general-aviation accidents. A pilot’s loss of control in flight, mainly through stalls — where the nose of the plane is tipped up to the point where the aircraft no longer stays aloft — accounts for the largest number of fatal accidents, according to FAA.