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Campaign barnstorming in small planes can be dangerous

JACKSON, Ohio—When Rep. Sherrod Brown proposed to Connie Schultz, she accepted with one condition: If the Ohio Democrat ever ran for statewide office, he must vow never to fly on small private planes.

"I said, `I'm not going to marry you and have you go down on one of those planes,'" Schultz said.

Call it the Wellstone effect. Soon after Sen. Paul Wellstone was killed in a small-plane crash while campaigning in northern Minnesota in 2002, Schultz realized that barnstorming a state in small planes is more frightening than glamorous.

It's a lesson many politicians have learned the hard way.

"Campaigning in small planes is extremely dangerous," said former Sen. Lauch Faircloth, R-N.C., who survived a crash. "Small planes are dangerous themselves. But the campaigning is extremely dangerous for the very simple reason that they push and take chances they never should take. It's push, push, push. We think we're so important and this admiring throng is waiting for us, we fly through thunderstorms and fog and whatever, thinking we can get there."

Small planes are a ubiquitous part of politics in a year such as this, when 33 Senate seats, 36 governorships and all 435 seats in the House of Representatives are up for election.

While presidents ride on Air Force One, and major presidential candidates routinely charter 757s or other big jets, candidates for lower office often depend on small planes to hop quickly around their states.

They're much less expensive to charter. They can land on backwoods runways, sometimes grass-covered ones. And politicians find them extraordinarily convenient, driving right up to the planes without going through long security lines, then taking off immediately.

Yet they're also 40 times more likely to be in accidents than commercial jetliners, according to National Transportation Safety Board statistics.

Knowledge of those odds can be unnerving in the thunderstorms of summer, and even scarier in the chill of fall, when days left to campaign are running out, consultants want the candidate rushing about to see as many voters as possible and the plane's convenience beckons despite the threat of snow or sleet.

"Statewide races are very frantic, very intense," Schultz said. "They're so rushed, and the staff takes over and nobody looks up at the sky and says this is not a good idea."

Chris Dancy, a spokesman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, conceded that small planes aren't as safe as commercial airlines. But he stressed that there "have been tremendous strides" in safety and general aviation is "quite safe."

When Faircloth was running for governor of North Carolina in 1983, he flew stop to stop on a small plane. On Aug. 22, he bounced through a bumpy landing at the hill town of Marion. After a rally, he took off that night from a poorly lit grass airstrip riddled with puddles from heavy rain.

"We were at liftoff. The plane hit a mud hole. It skewed the plane off to the right. There were no lights to guide the pilot to correct himself," Faircloth recalled. "We were knocking over trees like a bulldozer. It ripped the wings off. The plane was on fire from one end to the other. Fortunately there was a lake off to the side.

"We hit the lake and it momentarily put the fire out. But only momentarily. We got out and got away. ... Trying to swim with suit and tie on was rather difficult. ... Before we were a few feet away, the flames shot up again. I was underwater when I saw the light above us and I knew what that was. I swam underwater maybe 20-30 feet."

"By that time the flames from aviation fuel were 100 feet in the air. The fortunate thing was they lit up the area. I could see the shore, and got there." All the others aboard survived as well.

Other politicians have survived crashes as well, including Sens. Birch Bayh, D-Ind., Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and Republican Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar.

Some have died in recent years, including Democratic Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan and Sen. John Heinz, R-Pa.

Schultz wants to make sure her husband doesn't join either list.

On a recent campaign stop in Jackson, Brown kept shaking hands well into the night even though he faced what would turn into a four-hour drive home long after midnight.

Campaign aides said that Brown, like many politicians, fares better by driving because it forces him into rest stops and diners, where he meets more voters. Faircloth, who largely shunned small planes after his crash, said he, too, was a better campaigner by car. He later won a Senate seat.

Perhaps more important, Schultz said, awareness of the risk helps humble the mighty.

"It's also a reality check ... nothing is so important that we have to put ourselves or staffs at risk," Schultz said. "I don't care what people think, I get my husband home at night. ... I'm his wife and I love him."

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Some politicians who've been killed in small-plane crashes:

Oct. 25, 2002—Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., killed with his wife, daughter and five others when their plane crashed in light snow in Eveleth, Minn.

Oct. 16, 2000—Democratic Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan, killed with his son and an aide when their plane crashed in bad weather in Missouri.

April 19, 1993—Republican South Dakota Gov. George Mickelson, killed with seven others when their state-owned turboprop plane crashed in a rainstorm at Zwingle, Iowa.

April 1, 1991—Sen. John Heinz, R-Pa., killed when his plane collided with a helicopter over Lower Merion, Pa.

Aug. 13, 1989—Rep. Larkin Smith, R-Miss., killed with his pilot when their Cessna 177 crashed in Mississippi.

Aug. 7, 1989—Rep. Mickey Leland, D-Texas, killed when a twin-engine plane crashed during a tour of relief efforts in Ethiopia.

Aug. 2, 1978—Richard Obenshain, a Republican candidate for the Senate in Virginia, killed when his plane crashed near Richmond.

Aug. 3, 1976—Rep. Jerry Litton, D-Mo., killed with his wife and two children when their plane crashed at Chillicothe, Mo., en route to a victory party celebrating his Senate primary win.

Feb. 14, 1975—Rep. Jerry Pettis, R-Calif., killed when his single-engine plane crashed into a mountain near Beaumont, Calif.

Oct. 16, 1972—House Majority Leader Hale Boggs, D-La., and Rep. Nick Begich, D-Alaska, killed when their plane disappeared over Alaska.

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Some politicians who survived crashes or small-plane mishaps:

Jan. 21, 1998—Former Republican Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, on a small private plane that made an emergency landing at Richmond, Va., landed on its belly and skidded into mud. Alexander later was elected to the Senate.

May 8, 1996—Republican Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar, aboard a state-owned turboprop when a lightning strike took an 8- to 10-inch piece of the tail, shot flames briefly into a cabin vent and filled it with smoke. The pilots made an emergency landing in Peoria.

Aug. 24, 1988—Minnesota Attorney General Hubert H. Humphrey III, a Democrat, was campaigning for the Senate aboard a Beechcraft Bonanza when it developed engine trouble and made an emergency landing in a farm field. Among the passengers was aide Norm Coleman, who later was elected to the Senate as a Republican.

Feb. 25, 1987—Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., and Reps. Jack Kemp, R-N.Y., and Arthur Ravenel, R-S.C., made an emergency landing when their twin-engine plane developed engine trouble.

Aug. 22, 1983—Lauch Faircloth of North Carolina survived a crash during his campaign for governor. The plane hit trees during takeoff, burst into flames and crashed into a lake. Faircloth later was elected a Republican senator.

Dec. 4, 1978—Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, injured in a crash of a Learjet in gusty winds. His wife and five others were killed.

June 10, 1964—Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Birch Bayh, D-Ind., survived a crash of a twin-engine plane in Springfield, Mass, that killed two others. Bayh dragged Kennedy from the wreckage; Kennedy's back was broken.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Paul Wellstone, Sherrod Brown, Lauch Faircloth

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