New Jersey Plane Crash: Should Families Travel Separately?

PHOTO: Emergency crews work the scene where a plane crashed in Morris Township, N.J. lies on the ground Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2011.
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Is it irresponsible for parents to bring their children along on small-plane rides in icy winter weather? How about on a big jets? Should families split up when they fly or even when they travel by road?

These are the hard questions being asked after a tragic plane crash in New Jersey that took the lives of an entire family just a few days before the year-end holidays when millions of Americans take to the roads and the skies.

The Buckalew family, of Charlottesville, Va., were traveling from New Jersey to Georgia on Tuesday to spend the Christmas holiday with relatives, but the single-engine plane piloted by Jeffrey Buckalew became too icy before stalling and plummeting into a New Jersey highway.

"I would definitely rather be all together. I can't bear the thought of losing them, or leaving them," said Jill from New York, a Facebook user who posted in response to Tuesday's plane crash, in which the family of four, their pet dog, and a family friend were all killed.

While the Buckalews and some families insist they want to fly together, other couples insist on flying separately so that one parent will likely survive to take care of the children.

In 2009, an Air France flight that crashed over the Atlantic Ocean claimed the lives of a 34-year-old Swedish mother Christine Badre Schnabl and her 5-year-old son. The woman's husband, Fernando, and their daughter took a different flight, and arrived in France unscathed. The family said after the crash that they always split up on flights in case of tragedy.

"It's a very personal decision, and either side of this is certainly respectable," said Terry Real, a family therapist. "I don't think people that decide to fly separately are nuts, I think they're responding to a real fear."

Alison Rhodes, a national child safety expert, told ABC News that parents should have a plan for what to do if one or both parents die in a crash. Rhodes said parents need to clearly communicate with relatives about "what needs to happen" if there is an emergency when one or both parents perish in a crash.

For some couples, the ideal is traveling together for family vacations, but separately when it's a parent-only getaway. Kelly Salus, of New Jersey, said the fear of living without her husband keeps the family flying together on vacations.

"Tom travels solo with work every week, but when we fly for a vacation, (it's) all six of us together," Salus said of her family. "I don't think I could ever live without my husband."

Even some celebrities, including Kate Winslet and her former husband Sam Mendes, have said they fly separately when they travel to ensure that one parent would survive in order to care for the children.

"Where possible, Kate and Sam do prefer to travel in separate planes," a spokesman said in 2009. "It is not always possible but, for obvious reasons regarding the children, they do travel separately when they can."

Judith Myers-Walls, a child therapist and professor emerita at Purdue University, said that worrying about an unlikely tragedy is an unhealthy way to view the situations.

"Yes, accidents and disasters are possible, but they are not likely," she said. "Making decisions based only on an expectation of future disaster restricts life today."

Flying, she insists, is less dangerous than driving in a car, an assertion supported by the Federal Aviation Administration. In the past two years, there have been no fatal crashes of scheduled commercial jets--the type of flying most Americans do. By comparison, there were more than 10 million car accidents in the US in 2009, resulting in some 35,000 deaths, according to US census data.

"Airplane travel holds a lower risk of an accident than automobile travel," Myers-Walls said. "So should families never all travel in the same car?"

"The goal could be to live with a reasonable balance between expecting mortality and immortality," Myers-Walls said. "Be prepared for sudden catastrophes by keeping affairs in order, having an updated will, and not neglecting important tasks r relationships. But also be prepared for the very long term."

Families should also be aware that smaller planes, while not as dangerous at automobiles, are statistically riskier than commercial jets. While there were no fatal accidents on commercial jets in 2010, there were 267 fatal accidents among non-commercial planes. The majority of those accidents are caused by human error, according to data from the Insurance Information Institute.

In the case of Jeffrey Buckalew, the father and pilot of the plane that crashed Tuesday, the Socata TBM-700 plane hit a patch of icy air and began to ice up, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. Buckalew was an experienced pilot, but the plane began to spin out of control before falling to the ground, according to ABC affiliate WABC. The crash is still under investigation.

Killed in the accident were Buckalew and his wife Corinne, both 45, and the couple's children, 9-year-old Jackson and 6-year-old Meriwether. The family lived in Charlottesville, Va., but had an apartment in New York City, and the children were students at Saint Anne's Belfield school in Virginia. Buckalew's business partner, Rakesh Chawla, 36, was also killed, and is survived by his wife and children.

Tuesday's crash shared characteristics with other small plane accidents, including that of John F. Kennedy, Jr., who decided to pilot his own single-engine plane, a Piper Saratoga, on a night of bad weather. According to the NTSB, Kennedy reportedly turned down an offer by one of his flying instructors to accompany him on the night flight, saying he "wanted to do it alone," federal investigators say.

The NTSB reported that the likely cause of the 1999 crash was "failure to maintain control of the airplane" due to spatial disorientation of the pilot. Nothing was found to be wrong with Kennedy's plane. Kennedy's plane crashed as he was flying with his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and her sister, Lauren Bessette, from Fairfield, N.J., just outside New York City, to Martha's Vineyard on July 16, 1999. All three died.

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