At least eight times in the past 10 years, aircraft crashed near the South Valley Regional Airport in West Jordan. They went down in soccer fields, a few feet from an elementary school, on the New Bingham Highway — and, last Saturday, into houses.
The weekend crash was the first that killed someone on the ground — 72-year-old Maria Quintana, who was on her back deck when a plane slammed into her home. It also killed three people on the plane, injured three other passengers and damaged or destroyed three homes.
The latest crash and the history of plane accidents raise questions about how safe the areas surrounding the suburban airport are, and if something more should or could be done — especially because Salt Lake City International Airport is considering shifting more of its small-plane general aviation operations to South Valley and the Tooele Valley Airport.
“I don’t see any sign that suggests there’s something wrong about the airport, other than the fact that development has occurred around it,” said Bill Wyatt, executive director of the Salt Lake City Department of Airports, which operates the South Valley, Tooele and Salt Lake City International airports.
“That puts it in the company of hundreds, if not thousands, of other general aviation airports around the United States,” Wyatt told The Salt Lake Tribune. “They were sited in undeveloped areas to avoid conflicts of any kind,” but development eventually surrounded them.
New West Jordan Mayor Dirk Burton grew up in Kearns, just north of the airport that was built by the military during World War II and given to Salt Lake City on the condition that it always remain as an airport. He remembers that not much was near it in the 1960s and ’70s of his youth.
“I remember as a kid riding my bicycle over to that airport,” he said. “Back then, it was a [bumpy] dirt road. I tried to decide if it was easier to ride on the dirt road or on the railroad tracks to get there.”
Nearby development came years ago. “The homes where the plane crashed [Saturday, about a mile south of the airport],” Burton said, “have been there for over 30 years.”
He believes that development was kept at what officials considered a fairly safe distance from the riskiest areas north and south of the runway. “We have soccer fields to the south. To the north, there’s nothing there until you pass 6200 South,” about three-quarters of a mile from the runway.
Still, several planes from the airport have crashed near people around the airport. Wyatt said that may be, in part, because small-plane general aviation is not as safe as the big commercial jets that fly into Salt Lake City International.
“I’m always concerned about safety at general aviation airports. Pilots are not as well trained. The equipment is not up to the same standards as large commercial airplanes,” he said. “So the level of risk is going to be a little higher.”
He added that safety near smaller airports “has more to do with the airplane and pilot than the airport.” Wyatt doubts that South Valley has any specific problems endangering residents “like a misaligned runway or technology that isn’t functioning correctly.”
Still, Wyatt and Burton say they are eager to see the results from investigations into the latest crash by the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board to see if they recommend any changes to the airport and its operations.
Wyatt said the reports may help show “if there is anything that we can do to make [crashes] less likely or not likely at all. You have to keep an open mind and follow the facts.”
He added, “Airplanes are very unforgiving when they fall out of the sky. So safety is the only thing that trumps everything else.”
Burton, who is a member of the Salt Lake City Airport Advisory Board, said, “I want to work with Salt Lake City and make sure all the safety protocols are in place, and anything we can do to decrease the risk is taken into account.”
Meanwhile, Salt Lake City and West Jordan are in talks exploring whether to allow even more development near the airport — to the east of it, parallel to the runway.
“That would be fairly safe there,” Burton said, “… because that’s not where the runways go.”
But Wyatt said allowing more development near an airport “is not a simple matter. That’s why it requires the kind of time and attention that we’ll put into it.”
Meanwhile, Wyatt said that closing the airport is not a realistic option to reduce risk, although he acknowledged some people may support such a move.
Financial issues would likely prevent closure. The military deeded the land to the city on the condition that it perpetually be used as an airport. The FAA has given millions through the years to improve it. Shuttering the airport could not happen without FAA permission, Wyatt said, and the agency likely would require repayment of its investment through the years.
“I don’t think we even have the capacity to do that from airport funds,” he said.
The airport director noted that even more general aviation traffic may be coming to South Valley. While that sounds like it may increase risks, it may also bring improvements such as attracting repair and maintenance businesses that will improve the safety of aircraft using the facility.
One of three runways at Salt Lake City International Airport is now used for general aviation, but about 20% of the traffic on it is from commercial jets. That commercial traffic “will only increase over time,” Wyatt said. So the airport is exploring trying to move small propeller planes elsewhere, while keeping private jets at the big airport, to improve operations and handle expansion needs.
As more air traffic moves to South Valley, Wyatt said that may create a business opportunity to attract a “fixed base operator” to move in and offer more services such as repairs and maintenance — which South Valley currently lacks. Salt Lake City itself currently is the fixed base operator there and offers little more than selling fuel, Wyatt said.
The last outside fixed base operator left in 2016 after it said Salt Lake City was too greedy in lease negotiations. And six of the previous seven operators went bankrupt.
Following is a list of all crashes during the past 10 years as identified through newspaper archives and an NTSB database:
• July 25, 2020. Four people died — including Maria “Mary” Quintana, 72, whose house was hit — after a single-engine airplane crashed shortly after takeoff. Also killed were pilot, Lee Wyckoff, 43; his 9-month-old daughter, Coral; and passenger, Milda Shibonis, 36. Rebecca Wyckoff, 36, and 2-year-old Cody Mitchell remained in critical condition Monday. Veda Shibonis, 12, was treated at a hospital and released.
• Jan. 15, 2019. A Lehi man escaped injury when he crashed his small plane on the New Bingham Highway near the West Jordan Soccer Complex after practicing takeoffs and landings at the airport. When the plane had mechanical problems, the pilot was forced to land in the eastbound lane of the highway. It spun and ended up in the westbound lane but did not collide with any cars.
• Aug. 24, 2017. A small plane crashed and hit power lines, leaving hundreds of people without electricity and sparking a grass fire. The pilot suffered injuries that were not life threatening. The plane went down near 8600 South and 4000 West.
• Aug. 11, 2014. Three members of a family were injured after a plane crashed soon after takeoff in a soccer field near 8000 South and 4570 West. Bystanders pulled the family from the airplane before it erupted in flames.
• Oct. 4, 2011. A pilot and passenger were killed when a small plane crashed at the West Jordan Soccer Complex, near 7900 South and 4340 West, just after takeoff from the airport. No one was hurt on the ground.
• Sept. 15, 2011. A pilot and his dog died when a small plane went down within feet of the city’s Columbia Elementary School at 3505 W. 7800 South. No students were injured, but several witnessed the crash from the school’s playground.
• April 6, 2011. A student pilot was injured when a helicopter made a hard landing at the airport after losing power. The instructor was able to maneuver the helicopter away from landing in a schoolyard with children present.
• June 28, 2010. A pilot was killed when his small plane crashed at the airport after aborting an attempt to carry a banner advertising that night’s Salt Lake Bees baseball game.