QUESTION: What did the following people have in common: Mike Todd, Rocky Marciano, Audie Murphy, Otis Redding, Hale Boggs, Walter Reuther?
Answer: They were among the many who died in crashes of private planes.
The list of celebrities killed in private aircraft accidents is surprisingly long (see box on Page C2). From scanning newspaper files it would almost seem that small planes are exclusively the curse of the prominent.
They aren't, of course. But the celebrity toll does start you thinking about small plane crashes, about why you hear so little about them until a Thurman Munson of the Yankees is added to the death count or until one goes down in the middle of town. Those who bear bad tidings in our society seem to believe that deaths occurring all at once, in airline crashes with bodies strewn everywhere, are not noteworthy than those occurring one or two at a time. Immediate drama beats cumulative tragedy anytime.
But it is worth mulling over the following fact: Last year there were ten times more deaths from "general aviation" accidents than from airline crashes. Specifically, 1,690 persons perished in smaller planes, 163 in airliners.
General aviation also had a more tragic rate of fatal accidents. On the basis of hours flown last year, for example, deaths in smaller planes were 25 times greater than those in airliners. When distance flown is the measure, the smaller plane tragedies were a staggering 88 times greater than airline fatalities.
For those who may seek to minimize those stark figures, it should be acknowledged that there are some minor flukes in the statistics. For example, the 144 deaths resulting from last September's San Diego collision between a Pacific Southwest Arlines 727 and a small plane were counted in both the "general aviation" and "airline" categories. This is simply because the government feels that the mere presence of the small plane contributed to the crash, though the National Traffic Safety Board primarily blamed the 727's crew for that tragedy.
So the smaller-plane death toll last year may only have been 9 1/2 times greater than the airline deaths, which does not change the point. Even without the San Diego collision, NTSB chairman James King remarks, the smaller-plane deaths were up 7 percent from the preceding year.
It should also be noted that not only amatuers were piloting those small planes. The government's "general aviation" category also includes small craft flown by commerical pilots to transport corporate executives or dust crops or taxi passengers or haul customers on comuter lines over relatively short distances.
But of the 800,000 Americans now certified to fly some or all of the nearly 20,000 smaller planes in the country, the bulk are non-professionals holding private pilot licenses -- and it is among this group that the chief problem lies, as was made clear again by the Thurman Munson crash last month at Ohio's Akron-Canton Airport.
The NSTB'S Edward J. McAvoy, who heads the team investigating the Munson crash, reportedly has blamed the accident on errors committed by Munson himself and criticized the Federal Aviation Administration's "pathetic" practice of delegating most pilot licensing authority to outside examiners. It takes no wisdom to realize that many of those examiners have a vested interest in certifying pilots, since they work for private firms that earn their profits by successfully teaching flying.
The reported Munson crash finding only confirms the broader evidence. The General Aviation Manufacturers' Assication, made up of small plane producers, has found that while personal and pleasure flying accounts for only about 25 percent of general aviation activity, it produced more than half of all general aviation accidents. Moreover, the personal pilot was involved in two-thirds of all fatal accidents.
(When the 1978 figures came in. GAMA decided the time had come to push safety. Starting next year it will drop its "TakeOff" program, a promotional campaign aimed at increasing the number of private pilots, and use the money instead to sponsor safety seminars with the FAA.)
It is the weekend flyer who also worries experts such as L. Homer Mouden, vice president of the Flight Safety Foundation, a non-profit organization that promotes air safety.
"He flies 20 hours a year and feels he can handle anything that comes learn that the weather is deteriorating. Even though he isn't instrument rated he'll take off, figuring it's only 80 miles. The next day they'll find the wreckage three miles from his destination."
Less inclined to criticize the private pilot is the Aricraft Owners and Pilots Association, a vociferous Washington lobby. Charles Spence, AOPA vice president for public relations, says, "In any activity you're going to have people who try to stretch it a little." But he rejects the notion that the skies are filled with irresponsible people flying small planes.
AOPA also challenges statistics cited to question the safety record of small plane flying. For example, measuring accident rates on the basis of passenger miles, it says, discriminates against general aviation because of the relatively few passengers carried by a private plane.
Finally, AOPA notes that unitl last year, the fatality rate for both general aviation and the sub-category of pleasure flying had been steadily declining. Last year was a fluke, it contends, and preliminary figures for 1979 -- showing fatalities running below last year -- prove it.
To some extent, government officials support AOPA'S claims -- when they are addressed to general aviation as a whole. But FAA Administrator Langhorne Bond worries about the weekend flyer. Some advocates of pleasure flying, he says, have perhaps put too much stress on the joys of piloting your own plane and not enough on the risks of the pastime. Bond, himself a pilot, says that flying a small plane is "a lot more dangerous than sitting in an airliner." Following are some of the persons of note killed in crashes of private planes: POLITICS
Rep. Clem Miller (D-Calif.), 1962, in California.
Rep. Hale Boggs (D-La.) and Rep. Nick Begich (D-Alaska), 1972, in Alaska.
Rep. Jerry Pettis (R-Calif.), 1975, in California.
Rep. Jerry Litton (D-Mo.), the Democratic Senate nominee, 1976, in Missouri
Richard Obenshain, Virginia Republican Senate nominee, 1978, in Virginia. ATHLETICS
Ken Hubbs, baseball player, 1964, in Utah.
Tony Lema, golfer, 1966, in Indiana.
Rocky Marciano, former world heavyweight champion, 1969, in Iowa.
Lance Reventlow, racing car driver, 1972, in Colorado.
James Tallman, harness racing driver, 1977, in Connecticut.
Thurmon Munson, baseball player, 1979, in Ohio. ENTERTAINMENT
Will Rogers, humorist, and Wiley Post, aviator, 1935, in Alaska.
Robert Francis, actor, 1955, in California.
Mike Todd, movie producer, 1958, in New Mexico.
Buddy Holly, J. P. (The Big Bopper) Richardson and Ritchie Valens, rock and roll singers, 1959, in Iowa.
Patsy Cline, Grand Ole Opry star, 1963, in Tennessee.
Jim Reeves, country music singer, 1964, in Tennessee.
Otis Redding, soul singer, 1967, in Wisconsin.
Audie Murphy, movie actor and most decorated veteran of World War II, 1971, in Virginia.
Four members of rock-jazz group Chase, 1974, in Minnesota.
Three members of rock group Lynyrd Skynyrd, 1977, in Mississippi.
Bruce Geller and Stephen Gentry, TV producers, 1978, in California. OTHERS
Mr. and Mrs. George Skakel, parents of Ethel Kennedy, 1955, in Oklahoma.
Mrs. Angier Biddle Duke, wife of diplomat, 1961, in New York.
Carole Tyler, secretary to former Lyndon Johnson aide Bobby Baker, 1965, in Ocean City, Md.
George Skakel Jr., brother of Ethel Kennedy, 1966, in Idaho.
Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers, 1970, in Michigan.
Edgar T. Wolfe, publisher, Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch, 1975, in Washington, D.C.
Natalie Sinatra, mother of singer Frank Sinatra, 1977, in California.
Alexander Guterma, financier, 1977, in New York.
Mrs. Ted Stevens, wife of senator, 1978, in Alaska.