JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Cracked airplane cockpit windows, smoke in the cabin, and engine failures. These are some of the emergency situations involved in more than 100 landings at Jacksonville International Airport in commercial, military and general aviation aircraft.
The I-TEAM discovered that since 2014 there have been 131 emergency landings at JAX. One common denominator: The majority of the airplanes involved were old -- some more than 30 years old.
One of those in-flight emergencies that led to a commercial airline being diverted to JAX took place in February. American Airlines Flight #608 -- carrying 136 people -- left Orlando heading for Charlotte, North Carolina, when smoke could be smelled in the cabin and cockpit.
"You could smell a little bit of an electrical burn. Other than that, the pilot and the flight attendants did a great job," one passenger told News4Jax.
Passengers described the smell as burning plastic. Everyone got off the flight safely.
Of the 131 total emergency landings, 115 were what the Aviation Authority considers an "Alert 2," which could include anything from engine failure to faulty landing gear to loss of cabin pressure.
According to aviation guidelines, an Alert 1 is a minor problem that is not expected to prevent a safe landing. An Alert 2 is a more serious problem, which could result in a crash. An Alert 3 designates an actual crash or similar incident.
Pilot and aviation attorney Ed Booth examined the list of 131 emergency landings and found the most troubled aircraft was the McDonnell Douglas MD-80 -- a plane flown by American, Delta and Allegiant Airlines in Jacksonville. He said most of these planes are several decades old.
"The airplanes involved were older equipment being operated by the airlines that are old enough to start having reliability problems," explained Booth. "I want to carefully distinguish that from safety problems. I'm not suggesting they are unsafe, but as they age, they are flying some equipment that is 20, 25 years old -- sometimes as old as 30 years."
The average age of a U.S. commercial plane is about 14 years, according to the Airline Monitor. It's also important to mention that while an actual plane may be decades old, it's constantly serviced and its engines and other major systems could have been recently manufactured or upgraded.
So what's the average age of the airline that you fly? According to Airfleets.net:
- JetBlue planes: 8.7 years old
- American Airlines: 10.9 years old.
- Southwest Airlines: 12.3 years old
- United Airlines: 13.8 years old
- Delta Air Lines: 17 years old
- Allegiant Airlines: 21.6 years old
Booth said cheaper tickets offered by some airlines could be connected to the age of the planes they fly.
"And we all know they make their money off the last-minute business traveler," Booth said.
Booth took the I-TEAM for a flight in his 4-seater Piper Arrow Aircraft to show us additional reasons why Jacksonville's airport is one of the best in the region for pilots faced with an in-flight emergency.
He pointed out from the air that JAX has no obstructions and is completely clear for miles around the airport.
"If you're going to have to put an airplane, a crippled airplane in, that's a wonderful place to do it, and there's nothing like it nearby," Booth said.
Booth said in addition to clear approaches, JAX has extremely long runways, a world-class rescue department, and Air National Guard stationed on site -- providing pilots with all the support they could need.
He said pilots experiencing issues near Jacksonville's airport might be glad they're over JAX.
"It's a 10,000-foot runway (with) good crash fire rescue services, (and) we now have a hospital down the street that's opening soon," Booth said. "So you've got everything you would ever need for an emergency. We even have U.S. Customs here."
Statistics do not show there is a connection to the age of the aircraft and the number of emergency landings nationally, but according to Booth, a pilot will be more likely to make an emergency landing in an older plane versus an aircraft that is brand new.
I-TEAM investigators also found a number of Air National Guard F-15 pilots landing with an emergency in Jacksonville. Out of the 131 emergency landings at JAX, 34 involved F-15s. F-15 pilots reported problems like fire in the cockpit, flight control issues, and hydraulic and brake issues.
According to Brigadier General Jim Eifert, Commander of the Air National Guard, the first F-15 flight was in 1972, so that aircraft is aging as well, and may soon be phased out.
"The F-15s behind me here are 35 years old, on average, and so, how long they will last, and how long the Air Force is willing to sustain the weapons system is really unknown at this point," Eifert said.
There are 23 F-15s currently assigned to the 125th Fighter Wing in Jacksonville.
"All told, those planes fly approximately 2,600 sorties a year, so 31 flight diversions over a three-year period represents a small percentage of flights," said. Maj. M. Caitlin Brown, director of public affairs for the Florida Air National Guard. "To that end, there have been no noted ongoing safety concerns or maintenance issues -- in fact, our F-15s are at a historic high for being rated mission capable."
The Florida National Guard is now making a push to Jacksonville's political and business leaders to bring a new advanced fighter jet -- the F-35 -- to Jacksonville. If that happens, it could result in the phase out of the F-15.