An explosion jolted John Patterson awake in his DeKalb County townhome on Oct. 30. As he and his dog Max fled the damaged building, he assumed a gas line had burst because so little was left of the real cause: a private airplane that crashed into his home shortly after takeoff from DeKalb-Peachtree Airport.

“I said, ‘Where’s the plane?’” Patterson recalled asking firefighters and other first responders. “They said, ‘We’re looking.’”

The violent crash at 2421 Peachwood Circle near I-85 killed the pilot and a passenger. Debris smashed a huge hole in the roof of Patterson’s spare bedroom and fell through the floor into the kitchen below. Patterson and his neighbor, whose unit was badly damaged as well, were left temporarily homeless.

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

That day, they joined the unlucky few who, despite only tiny risks, have had homes or cars hit by planes falling out of the sky as they leave or approach PDK. The accident has revived safety fears for some residents in the increasingly dense neighborhoods of Chamblee and Brookhaven around the county-run public airport on Clairmont Road.

When a plane does hit a home, those on the ground face another form of risk and chance: Who pays for the cleanup and compensation? There is no federal requirement for private aircraft owners or operators to have liability insurance, and only 11 states – not including Georgia – mandate some form of financial guarantees in case of accidents. Total lack of insurance is rare, but insufficient insurance is a significant issue in crashes that often cause major injuries and property damage.

Patterson was surprised to learn about the lack of a federal insurance mandate.

“I thought, ‘I’ve been hit from behind in my car and I got compensated,’” he said. “You can get into a missile full of fuel [without insurance]?”

Nearly a month after the accident, Patterson said his attorney was in talks with the pilot’s insurance company and had a hitch. The insurance company, he said, raised a question of whether the pilot was covered for the type of flying he may have been doing, primarily using instruments rather than by sight.

Safety stats debate

Following the fatal crash in October, 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.

PDK has a long history of accidents, including an infamous 1973 case where a jet crashed into a Buford Highway apartment building in what is now Brookhaven, 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. A total of 17 people have been killed in accidents in that time period, all pilots or passengers. Other planes from PDK have wrecked in residential or commercial areas or on highways. For an extensive list, click here.

But that does not equate with significant or unusual risk to surrounding neighbors, said Edward Coleman, a professor and chair of the Robertson Safety Institute, an aviation and industry specialty organization at the Arizona campus of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

“Statistically speaking, there isn’t much of a risk,” said Coleman about the odds of private planes hitting homes near airports. Such crashes are few and, when fatal, typically kill people in the plane, not on the ground, he said. “Most accidents happen on or near the airport,” he said.

For neighbors wanting to lessen the risk further, Coleman said, “I would look for where the flight patterns are and try to avoid living directly in the flight path,” which is where accidents are more likely to happen.

The debris of a plane that crashed in the front yard of a house on Chamblee-Dunwoody in 2008, in a photo from a National Transportation Safety Board report.

PDK is one of roughly 3,000 “general aviation” airports around the country, meaning it serves civilian pilots rather than commercial or military aircraft. PDK’s services include personal, instructional, corporate, medical and charter flights.

Commercial airports and airlines are under heavy federal regulation in terms of operations and training, while general aviation airports have fewer rules and are open to private pilots with widely varying levels of experience. According to National Transportation Safety Board statistics, general aviation aircraft are responsible for the vast majority – regularly over 95% — of all U.S. accidents and fatalities.

But the absolute numbers of fatalities are relatively small and trending downward nationally. According to the NTSB’s most recent compilations, there were 217 general aviation accident fatalities in the U.S. in 2018, and 207 so far this year. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association estimates there are more than 500,000 general aviation pilots licensed in the U.S. and about 220,000 aircraft.

At the PDK Advisory Board meeting, the statistics presented by residents and officials were incomplete and open to interpretation. 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. But incidents aren’t accidents, board members said, and Coleman later said that PDK’s fatality numbers don’t sound unusual.

Airport Director Mario Evans presented incomplete fatality statistics, emphasizing that the number is low compared to the roughly 3.9 million takeoffs and landings at PDK since 1999. 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. He said 2018 was a “bad year here,” with 28 runway incursions, and 7 as of mid-2019. But, he said, those incidents are dangers at the airport, not in the surrounding neighborhoods.

The underlying issue is ever increasing development around PDK, which started as a semi-rural military airport. Coleman said that mirrors national trends, where airports built in once-remote areas to mitigate safety and noise concerns are now attracting development on their boundaries. That increases the actual risk of crashes, Coleman said, as well as the phenomenon of residents moving nearby and starting to perceive safety and noise issues.

On the other hand, Coleman said, general aviation aircraft are becoming safer in design and maintenance. In the 1950s, the era when PDK switched to civilian use, crashes “were way more routine,” Coleman said. “I don’t think [nearby development] is as a big a risk as it might have been” in that era.

Flying low on insurance

Low-risk is not no-risk, and some planes inevitably crash somewhere. People who suffer injuries or property damage may be stuck with bills. In a 2013 case that drew national media attention, a Florida woman was shocked to discover the pilot who crashed a plane into her house, burning it up, had no liability insurance and was not required to.

Commercial airlines in the U.S. have had mandatory insurance coverage rules since the 1980s, but general aviation still does not. Many other countries mandate coverage, including Canada, Australia and the European Union’s member states. According to a 2015 U.S. Government Accountability Office report about a possible federal mandate, even the handful of states that require insurance coverage largely lack review or enforcement processes, so compliance is unknown.

However, according to the report, total lack of insurance is rare. Under-insurance that fails to fully cover medical bills and damage is a more common problem, it said.

Alan Armstrong, an aviation attorney based in DeKalb about 1.5 miles from PDK, is representing Patterson in seeking compensation for the Oct. 30 accident. Armstrong said he has turned down cases involving uninsured pilots, but agreed that under-insurance is a bigger issue. He said that some beginner pilots can get only $100,000 in liability coverage, and that standard $1 million policies don’t always pay out the way that sounds.

John Patterson stands next to the hole an airplane made in the spare bedroom of his DeKalb County home in an Oct. 30 crash. (John Ruch)

“From a liability standpoint, liability’s not an issue. An airplane crashed in a guy’s house,” Armstrong said of this type of case. “It’s a fairly simple case once you figure out insurance.”

Total lack of insurance is “not common,” Armstrong said, but in such cases, he advises potential clients to give up seeking compensation. “You’re going to spend years in court. You’re not going to get anything,” he said.

One reason for the lack of a federal mandate is that many airports require liability insurance for aircraft based there. PDK, for example, requires a minimum of $1 million in liability coverage, according to DeKalb County spokesperson Leslie Agee. But that does not apply to aircraft visiting the airport – the pilot in the Oct. 30 crash was from North Carolina, according to county officials – and there may be devils in the details of the policies.

According to the GAO, there are two common types of $1 million policies in general aviation. One, often fulfilled by renters insurance, is $1 million per accident, but with a “sublimit” of $100,000 in compensation to any one person. The other is a so-called “smooth policy” that will pay the full $1 million to any claimant.

A $100,000 sublimit often does not cover aircraft-level injuries and damage, and attorneys may not even take the case due to the small amount of money left over, according to the report. And even $1 million can disappear quickly in crashes involving multiple people and damage to a home.

Armstrong said the lack of a federal insurance mandate is largely because there has been no “national dilemma” – a major incident where under-insurance caused a problem.

For those waiting out the insurance tangles at Peachwood Circle, it’s a problem enough. Lan Weber, who owns the townhomes rented by Patterson and his neighbor, declined to comment pending a resolution. But Marco Almaraz, a property maintenance worker, said he cleaned up much of the wreck and “picked up a lot of pieces of the plane.” He’s just starting the process of repairing the townhomes.

Patterson and his neighbor, who did not respond to an interview request, are out of their homes for now at their own expense. Patterson said he’s renting his sister’s basement and he believes his neighbor is staying in a hotel. The Red Cross helped them out with debit cards, water and Rice Krispies treats. But nearly a month later, Patterson was wondering why the insurance issue was so complicated and where it would land.

“It is kind of weird,” he said. “You need [insurance] to drive a car.”

John Ruch

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