Unearthing Stories: How we did it

Why the Herald discovered more fatal crashes than the government

Deadly Express, a 9-month Miami Herald investigation built upon thousands of pages of documents, uncovered more fatal cargo crashes than government logs reflect.

To find deadly crashes, the newspaper spent hundreds of hours examining a database maintained by the National Transportation Safety Board that includes reports on crashes around the world dating back decades. Users can focus searches to spotlight specific time frames, locations, severity of injuries and types of operations involved.

By zeroing in on deadly U.S. crashes involving air cargo planes, the newspaper documented 69 fatal crashes and 85 deaths since 2000.

Tracking all fatal cargo crashes is a difficult process. When the newspaper asked the NTSB for its own roster of such cases, the safety board's list included fewer cases than The Miami Herald had found.

A big reason: When a cargo plane crashes as it is traveling to pick up cargo, or after it has finished a day ferrying freight, it is considered a "positioning" flight under Federal Aviation Administration rules. None of those cases was included on the initial NTSB roster sent to The Miami Herald, but the newspaper had found 12 among the 69.

The newspaper explained its inclusion of the cases to the NTSB: These were cargo pilots flying cargo planes on the way to pick up goods or heading home from a job. The trips are part of their workdays, bringing the same pressures as flights loaded with cargo.

"We fully recognize that ... repositioning flights are integral to cargo operations," Acting NTSB Chairman Mark V. Rosenker wrote. "But you need a valid definitional basis to construct statistics, and that is done by using the FAA regulations under which the flight was operated."

The newspaper filed Freedom of Information Act requests for FAA enforcement and inspection files; examined NTSB investigative dockets, government reports on cargo planes, lawsuits, industry memos, safety studies and news reports; and conducted interviews across the country.

Beyond tallying the industry's death toll, The Miami Herald was able to portray key trends, such as the planes that crashed most frequently, the time of fatal crashes and the ages of planes involved.

The list of 69 did not include foreign operators whose planes crashed in the United States, such as a Canadian plane that went down in Maine. The tally also did not include deadly crashes of helicopters ferrying cargo.

Two of the 69 cases involve crashes in Puerto Rico and a third case in the U.S. Virgin Islands, crashes that fall under NTSB and FAA jurisdiction.

| Reporting by Ronnie Greene | Photography by Candace Barbot | Audio Editing by Rhonda Victor Sibilia | Online Production by Stephanie Rosenblatt | (c) Miami Herald July 9, 2006 |