BOISE -- Small plane crashes can be devastating, particularly in the mountains of Idaho. KTVB's news partners at USA TODAY have done extensive research about the true cause of those crashes and the reasons small planes often have out-of-date safety features.

KTVB has collected records showing at least 35 people have died in Idaho since the beginning of 2010, in a total of 135 crashes.

Over the past five decades nationwide, nearly 45,000 people have been killed in private planes and helicopters (referred to as general aviation). That's roughly nine times the number of people who died in commercial crashes.

In its reports, the National Transportation Safety Board blames 86 percent of private plane and helicopter crashes on some form of pilot error; however, a series of lawsuits have contradicted the NTSB findings. The lawsuits blame aircraft design flaws and part malfunctions instead.

USATODAYhas identified at least 21 verdicts that have totaled $1 billion against manufacturers the NTSB had exonerated.

Very frequently the investigations done by private parties in litigation is more substantial than what was done by NTSB. And we often find what really happened, said Thomas Byrne, an aviation attorney that represents manufacturers.

For example, in July 2008, a Skagit County, Washington plane crash killed the woman flying, her daughter and another man.

The NTSB initially said the pilot was responsible, but a family attorney keyed in on something else in the report: The carburetor was completely filled with fuel.

That's where our work began in that case, and we uncovered a whole history of similar failures, said family attorney Robert Hendrick.

So why do the government's own air safety experts miss these safety problems?

They often don't even go to the accident scene and they rely upon first responders, said Byrne.

The NTSB admits its resources are stretched thin.

They are not going to be able to do a deep dive on every single accident, because the average investigator is doing 30 to 40 accidents, as far as their case load every year, said Deborah Hersman, former NTSB chairman.

The NTSB says it does do special reports looking for trends in accident data to find recurrences of safety problems.

We are a very transparent agency, all of the work that we do we make available to the public, and hopefully they will use it to prevent future accidents, said Hersman.

If you continually blame the pilots, these institutional defects in the aircraft, in the engine, go on unrepaired unfixed and continue to cause additional accidents in the future, said Bruce Lampert, aviation attorney.

KTVB looked at more than 100 individual crash reports from the NTSB for Idaho since January 2010. Of more than 100 crashes investigated where probable cause has been listed, 83 percent in Idaho were blamed on pilot error.

USA TODAY also explores aircraft safety requirements in depth. According to the report, manufacturers only have to abide by safety rules from when the plane was designed, not when it was actually made. That means a new aircraft rolling off the assembly lines may legally still have decades-old safety features.

To read USA TODAY's complete report, click here.

Read or Share this story: