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Since 2014, 73 people have died in helicopter and airplane crashes in Colorado.

The aircraft they were piloting or were passengers in went down for an array of reasons, from alcohol intoxication to mechanical malfunctions to human error. None of the crashes happened during a commercial flight.

Most of the crashes happened in the high country, where aviators face a host of challenges unique to Colorado.

Between 2014 and 2017, Colorado had the fifth highest number — at 32 — of helicopter or airplane crashes in the U.S. in which someone died, following California, Texas, Florida and Alaska.

This year, fatal aircraft crashes are significantly down — three, resulting in four deaths — compared with 34 deaths in 2014 and 18 in 2015.

Flying remains far safer than driving in Colorado. By comparison, there were more than 2,100 fatal car crashes that left nearly 2,300 dead in Colorado between 2014 and 2017, according to Colorado Department of Transportation data.

The Colorado Sun analyzed data from plane crashes over the past five years to see any patterns and learn why helicopters and airplanes crash in Colorado.

Here are some takeaways:

Colorado’s challenges for pilots

Colorado’s landscape makes the state a difficult place fly. Changing weather, high elevation and mountains all can be major obstacles for pilots and smaller aircraft.

“The biggest issue I see with our general aviation pilots … is it is a very challenging environment,” said Greg Feith, a Colorado-based former NTSB investigator. “I don’t think either the pilots who live here, or definitely transiting through the area, give it the respect that they should.”

There have been many fatal plane crashes in Colorado over the past several years linked to weather events, altitude and terrain. In fact, the majority of the state’s fatal crashes since 2014 have happened either in the high country or in the foothills.

Three people from Ohio died when the single-engine propeller plane they were riding in crashed at Loveland Ski Area as it approached the Continental Divide. Federal air crash investigators ruled that the probable cause was the aircraft’s inability to climb in high-altitude conditions and the pilot’s decision to fly in mountainous terrain.

In another crash, two people were killed when their plane went down as they attempted to cross over a mountain pass. The NTSB ruled in that case that the crash’s likely cause was the “pilot’s decision to attempt the flight in mountainous terrain and to enter the pass in such a way that an escape maneuver was not possible.”

“You don’t have a lot of opportunity and room to turn the aircraft around if you are trying to retreat,” Feith said of flying in mountains. “A lot of these smaller aircraft might not have the operational power to climb over terrain.”

General aviation in Colorado

Colorado might not be among the most populous states in the U.S., but it has among the highest number of active aviators.

Federal Aviation Administration data from 2017 showed the state had an estimated 18,097 active pilots and flight instructors. California had the most, with about 59,929 aviators; followed by Florida at 59,568; Texas at 52,014; Washington with 20,080; Arizona at 19,543; and Georgia 18,510.

Colorado also was among the top states with estimated active pilots and flight instructors who are women, with just over 1,500.

Crashes near airports

Several of the 37 fatal crashes in Colorado since 2014 have happened near airports, including Centennial Airport south of Denver which is in a fast-growing, heavily populated area.

One of the crashes near Centennial Airport, the busiest general aviation airport in the nation, was May 2018 wreck of a single-engine Cirrus SR22 that went down during takeoff.

The plane’s engine became embedded in a Parker home before the craft went down in an open space area.

There have been three fatal crashes near the Erie Municipal Airport since 2014.

Five people were killed near the airfield when a single-engine Piper went down while trying to land after avoiding a mid-air collision. Two more died when the helicopter they were riding in broke apart because of a mechanical issue in January 2015.

Earlier this month, two men died when the plane they were traveling in crashed while trying to land at Erie’s airport.

MORE: Witnesses saw low-flying plane bank sharply before Broomfield crash that killed two, NTSB says

Federal Aviation Administration officials have cited noise and safety conflicts as they pushed back on growth near airports in Colorado, including near Centennial Airport and Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport in Broomfield.

“The FAA discourages residential and some commercial developments near airports,” agency spokesman Allen Kennitzer said. “However, we cannot prohibit them unless the development proposed for use is land that the sponsor of an obligated airport owns.”

Flying under the influence

A 1.75-liter bottle of whiskey was found in the wreckage of a single-engine airplane that crashed in Aurora in March 2014.

When authorities completed an autopsy on the pilot, they found his blood alcohol level was six times higher than the 0.04 legal limit for aviators set by the FAA. The National Transportation Safety Board ruled that the pilot’s intoxication was the probable cause of the crash.

Other airplane crashes in Colorado have been linked to pilots flying under the influence.

They include the May 2016 wreck of a Cessna near the town of Sheridan Lake where the pilot was said to be drunk, and the July 4, 2014 crash of a historic P-51 Mustang fighter plane was blamed on the pilot’s marijuana use.

When it comes to cannabis, Feith says the impacts on pilots remain unresearched.

“In our state, like several other states, you can smoke marijuana recreationally,” he said. “We don’t know what the adverse effects are, really, in flying. What we don’t have is a good data base on how it impacts a pilot’s decision making as you go up in altitude.”

Other crash causes

In May 2014, two people were killed when the Cessna 150 they were traveling in fell out of the sky near Front Range Airport in Adams County.

The NTSB ruled that the crash was likely caused by selfies.

“Various passengers were taking self-photographs with their cell phones and, during the night flight, using the camera’s flash function during the takeoff roll, initial climb, and flight in the traffic pattern,” the agency wrote in its final report on the crash. “A post-accident examination of the airplane did not reveal any pre-impact anomalies.”

In September 2015, four people were killed when the twin-engine Cessna 310 they were traveling in crashed into mountainous terrain near Silverton.

The NTSB discovered that the aircraft’s pilot, Harold Raggio, lacked the proper ratings to be flying the plane he was operating and was supposed to be heading to an airport in Texas from California when the aircraft went down.

The NTSB ruled the crash’s probable cause to be, “the non instrument-rated pilot’s improper judgment and his failure to maintain situational awareness, which resulted in the flight’s encounter with instrument meteorological conditions and controlled flight into terrain during cruise flight.”

The map in this story will be updated.


Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....