Living off the end of Runways

February 24, 2010 by Bruce Landsberg

FogLast week’s Cessna 310 crash in Palo Alto follows a rare but unfortunately high visibility path. The aircraft went down shortly after takeoff in heavy fog. At this point no one has any idea what happened, yet there are already concerns about what an airport was doing in the middle of a housing development.

The airport likely preceded residential development by a considerable margin but to the public and politicians that is often of small concern. As usual, when dealing with low probability, high consequence events facts and emotion often get mashed in together.

In the vast majority of cases, the occupants of the aircraft fare far worse than the people on the ground, but that doesn’t change the facts that every so often non-participants suffer in accidents. This is why there are runway safety zones and, hopefully, local zoning ordinances that avoid putting residential and other high value targets in areas where it is unlikely, but not unforeseen either, that an aircraft might drop in.  Disclaimer: At this writing I don’t have enough detail to know exactly where the Cessna hit relative to the runway so there may be mitigating circumstances.

Here are some facts over the past several years relative to off airport injuries and fatalities:

In the last ten years for which we have complete data (1999-2008), there were a total of 25 GA accidents that killed or seriously injured off-airport bystanders, an average of about one every six months.  A total of 21 people were killed and 43 more were seriously hurt.  2008 was the worst year, with five accidents that caused eight deaths and five serious injuries; 2001 had four, killing one and seriously injuring nine.  No other year in the period had more than three.

ASF maintains this information and provides it to media,  AOPA Airports division and government officials provide more light than heat for the discussion.

As pilots, we should be well armed with factual data on these incidents and get involved in helping local official make the right choices regarding development or re-location for the right reasons.

I am much happier when flying into airports in more sparsely populated areas than where buildings crowd up to the airport fence. It improves the odds, small as they may be, that there will be an unhappy outcome.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Palo Alto Pilot


    As a pilot I am also uncomfortable with airport that have little buffer between them and surrounding buildings. As a pilot who flies out of Palo Alto, however, I don’t understand the “airport in the middle of a neighborhood” statement. Palo Alto is in fact surrounded by open water, wildlife refuges, and a golf course. The google map referenc below will give you a good view.,-121.811514&sspn=0.02491,0.050125&g=east+palo+alto&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=East+Palo+Alto,+San+Mateo,+California&ll=37.455851,-122.110891&spn=0.049738,0.10025&t=h&z=14

    I have followed all of the local media reports and not heard the concern about an airport in the middle of a neighborhood. In fact I thought for once most of the local reporting was mostly accurate and factual. Is AOPA getting calls from local government?

    Love your blog, thanks

  • http://eJournal Marv Kausch

    Bruce Landsberg has no clue as to the situation at Palo Alto Airport. It’s a totally un-informed piece of eJournalism. Bruce, next time, check out Google Earth so you can see how close homes are to the runway. Many other airports are completely surrounded by homes. Palo Alto has far less homes near it. Do your homework, man! Otherwise you embarrass those pilots who actually know the neighborhood.

  • Tim Heyboer

    Bruce, the previous commenters are right – you need to do your homework. I’ve flown out of Palo Alto for 20 years, and there is no reason a plane should ever take off and stray over or into the East Palo Alto neighborhood. Our noise abatement procedures send us out over the Bay, away from East Palo Alto.

    This accident is squarely a pilot error problem – he should NEVER have turned left and into that neighborhood. Left crosswind departures are NEVER granted by the tower for that very reason! The pilot was reputed to be very experienced and professional, so we are all mystified by what could have gotten him so off course. But in this case, the pilot community has egg on its face, and we need our best PR, humility, and aplogies to the folks in East Palo Alto. And we definitely CANNOT blame community encroachment for this one – and your doing so will not help the PR situation!

  • Mike Dunlap

    Ditto all of the above comments. Are you planning a move to FOX Bruce? If you are going to speculate then why not speculate like a pilot and suggest that the ground track might indicate loss of critical engine on a 310?
    A left turn, failure to establish/maintain positive rate of climb, let’s express some support for the deceased having to possibly fight a machine that failed rather than add to the fodder of those wishing to close yet another airport.

  • Rich Greenawald

    Palo Alto is not in the middle of the neighborhood per the above comments.
    I heard the shotspotter recording of the crash and I thought I only heard
    one engine running.
    The most important aspect of this crash is why did he attempt T/O
    in zero/zero conditions?
    Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should…………..

  • Carl Hensler

    While we are speculating, other possible causes of the sharp left turn after takeoff are AI gyro failure or leaving it caged. With luck, the NTSB will sort it all out.

    In any case, taking off from a short runway in a light twin with two passengers in those conditions was probably poor judgment.

  • Bruce Landsberg

    After the fact, I did check out Google Earth and you’re right! There is no way Palo Alto could be considered in the midst of a housing development. Thank you for keeping me mostly honest!

    As with flying aircraft – a little humility is always good for the soul.

  • Alan Marcum

    One other thing about this accident. The IFR departure clearance out of PAO from runway 31 (in use that day) will be, “Turn right heading 060 within one mile of the airport, radar vectors _____.” Why the pilot–someone who’d flown IFR from PAO for years–turned left is still unknown, and is one of the big questions, especially for those of us who fly from PAO, and those who knew the pilot.

  • Daniel Seidel

    Very poor and incorrect statements re: “airport…. in the middle of a housing development”. “Living Off the End of the Runway” What you have here is a lot of complicating factors being sorted out by the NTSB. First I suggest you Google the Palo Alto Airport to see where there is housing; then I suggest you look at the Traffic Pattern established by the County of Santa Clara (Operator) which includes Noise Abatement procedures designed to minimize overflight of residences and prevent nuisance and complaints. Statements like yours are incorrect and “add fuel to the fire” that makes keeping the airport open very difficult. You should know better!

    Dan Seidel CFI and member Palo Alto Airort Association.