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Florida airport has no beacon for night landings. Was that a factor in crash?

Tracey McManus, Tampa Bay Times on

Published in News & Features

TAMPA, Fla. — Before a single-engine plane crashed into a mobile home park, killing three after dark on Feb. 1, radio transmissions make clear that the pilot couldn’t find where he was supposed to land — the runway at Clearwater Airpark.

Shortly after 7 p.m., nearly an hour after sunset, Jemin G. Patel flew northwest across Clearwater and passed to the west of the airpark before looping around in an attempt to land at an airport to the southeast, according to flight path data and radio transmissions.

“Coming to Albert Whitted,” he said on the radio, a reference to St. Petersburg’s downtown airport. “I can’t see the other airport.”

He would never make it.

Seconds later, Patel, 54, said he was “losing engine” and crashed into a mobile home on the eastern edge of Clearwater, killing him and two women inside the home.

It was a clear night with ideal flying conditions of cool air and light wind. So why couldn’t he see the runway?


While federal aviation officials are investigating the crash, eight local pilots interviewed by the Tampa Bay Times said that Clearwater Airpark is unusually dark and difficult to find at night in a sea of city lights. Like many general aviation airports, its runway lights are off until approaching pilots activate them by tapping the button they use to talk on the radio frequency.

But Clearwater is unlike most other public general aviation airports in that it doesn’t have a rotating beacon, a common feature that serves as a kind of lighthouse for planes at night. Fixed atop a tower, it can help pilots detect a runway from as far as 20 miles out.

Clearwater officials discussed installing a beacon as early as 2017, according to video of city meetings. Four years ago, a consultant recommended installing one before the end of 2020. It hasn’t happened.

Of the 24 general aviation airports open to the public in eight West Central Florida counties, Clearwater Airpark is one of only five without a beacon, according to aeronautical charts that pilots use to assess airports’ capabilities.


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