On the day pilots Richard Poch and Joseph Deal were killed when their small plane plunged to the ground near West Chester, an airplane of the same model also crashed, killing its pilot, just 200 miles south, in Orange, Va.

By numbers alone, the crashes - just two of six accidents involving small planes in the United States that March 29 - could have been enough to spook casual observers.

But they didn't rattle local airport officials.

"That's like saying two Nissan Sentras crashed yesterday," said Jeff Suveg, assistant manager of Brandywine Airport in West Chester, from which Deal and Poch departed.

"Thousands of planes and cars are out there every day. People only pay attention when it's a plane falling from the sky."

Instead, local pilots say, crashes contribute to a larger issue. Many community airports are struggling. And the stigma surrounding crashes, they worry, is exacerbating problems that include dwindling airport profits and a shrinking number of pilots.

Community airports outnumber major hubs such as Philadelphia International Airport nearly eightfold.

In the five-county Philadelphia area in Pennsylvania, 14 airports are open for general aviation, categorized as all civilian flights excluding passenger airlines, such as small private planes or larger business jets.

In South Jersey, Burlington County has four public-use community airports. Gloucester County has three, and Camden County has one.

Crash statistics for such airports indicate that accidents happen less frequently than is often perceived, pilots said.

Since 1982, 12 of the 14 Pennsylvania airports have reported accidents: 142 in total, 21 fatal, according to data from the National Transportation Safety Board, the federal agency that investigates all accidents and some small incidents.

Thirty-five deaths are reported for that 33-year period, about one fatality per year in the region.

In South Jersey, 78 accidents have been reported at the eight local airports since 1982. Nine of those have been fatal, resulting in 14 deaths

"There is a disconnect between people's perceptions of the risks and what the realities are," said George Perry, senior vice president of the Air Safety Institute, a Frederick, Md.-based organization that provides pilot safety education.

The March 29 deaths of Poch and Deal are the only two fatalities reported for 2015 in the five counties. Montgomery County has five of the airports; Bucks County, four; Chester County, three; and Delaware County and Philadelphia have one each.

Federal officials are investigating the March 29 crash, which occurred seconds into a routine flight review testing Deal's skills. The plane was found a half-mile away, consumed by flames, in a residential backyard.

Officials said they were inspecting the fuel supply system of the one-engine plane - a Piper PA 28-140 - and investigating who last maintained the plane.

Some experts worry about human error more than anything else.

"People get on those planes believing that a pilot is a pilot," said Damian Fowler, who studied small-plane crashes for three years while writing Falling Through Clouds, a true story of a plane crash.

"Not every pilot is the same, and those with lower airtime will get into more problems."

But local pilots such as John Kassab, manager at Brandywine Airport, said they often feel safer flying than driving. In 2013, there were 32,719 highway fatalities in the United States, according to the NTSB.

General aviation, by contrast, reported 387 deaths from 1,222 crashes.

"This isn't just 'girls and boys and their toys,' " Kassab said. "Flying a plane is something we take very seriously."

Brandywine Airport, like many in the area, is not elaborate: a runway, a small terminal, and about 75 hangars. A black Labrador lazily roams the property.

But the airport has more than 60,000 annual flights, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, contributing $9.4 million to the economy.

The department estimates all state airports generate $23.6 billion.

Brandywine, in addition to being a hub for private flights, offers landing space for medical, military, police, and business planes. But Kassab said the airport was only breaking even - and continuing to experience revenue declines.

Brandywine is one of six privately owned area airports open for public use, drawing revenue from hangar rentals, fuel sales, and other sources. The remaining eight are publicly owned. Most community airports are eligible for government grants.

But privately owned airports are feeling a tighter squeeze from property taxes: Brandywine pays $60,000 yearly, Kassab said.

Though some taxes can be reimbursed through grant programs, many publicly owned airports in the area are exempt from property taxes, said John Mininger, chairman of the Bucks County Airport Authority.

The pinch is forcing community airports to close at a rate of nearly one per month, according to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA). Some shut down when profits shrink. Others are enticed by developers willing to pay for flat land.

"Running an airport is a lifestyle," Mininger said. "If the interest isn't there, [owners] may sell."

The trend has trickled down to private pilots, too. From 2001 to 2011, the number of FAA certifications declined nearly 20 percent, according to AOPA data.

For Kassab, 60, the declines are upsetting. He remembers an era when flying was romanticized. Today, he said, aviation expenses and time burdens have subdued that.

"Kids used to come by the airport and say, 'Hey, mister, if I watch your plane fly, will you give me a ride?' " he said. "That barely happens anymore."



Economic output by Northeast Phila. Airport, largest amount in the five local Pa. counties.


Economic output by Butter Valley Golfport, smallest amount in the five local Pa. counties.


People employed by all Pa. airports.

Sources: Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association EndText

cmccabe@philly.com 610-313-8113 @mccabe_caitlin