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Crash Sparks Safety Debate

Leaders in the general aviation industry say they now expect a lot of safety soul searching and new debate on requirements for nighttime ocean flying, reports CBS News Correspondent Phil Jones.

Elmer Dyre, 75, has flown 16,000 hours over the past 60 years. He also examines pilots for the Federal Aviation Administration in Virginia, and believes the planes themselves are very safe and are not the cause of most crashes.

"It's either 90 percent fatigue or making the decision to go into weather they can't handle," he says.

Although the number of small plane crashes was actually down last year, there was still an average of almost one fatal accident a day, reports CBS News Correspondent Sandra Hughes. But there was only one fatal commercial airline crash all year. The reason, say some, is the experience and decision-making of the pilot.

Flight instructor Brian Korney says, "If you look at the averages, generally speaking, airline pilots have a lot more experience before they are released into their 747 than a private pilot may have before they are released into a smaller aircraft."

It's not easy to become a pilot of any kind. To fly a single-engine plane takes a minimum of 40 hours of training. Then a pilot must pass a number of tests given by the FAA. Still, more than half of all small plane crashes are caused by pilot error.

"We have built into the system ways of trying to catch our mistakes," says Korney. "However, human error is still possible, and it is left up to the decision of the pilot whether it's a safe day to fly. " [For more information about flight conditions the night of the crash, click here.]

Fueled in part by the strong economy, new pilots are flocking to the skies. Last year alone, the number of licenses issued to private pilots increased by 22 percent, filling the runways with new pilots with varying degrees of experience.

Phil Boyer of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association says, "A good pilot is always learning. I wouldn't consider any flight not to be a learning experience."

Though it's becoming more popular for average Americans to fly, John F. Kennedy Jr.'s crash puts the focus back on the inherent dangers of piloting small planes.[For more information about Kennedy's Piper Saratoga, click here.]

At the Florida academy where the wealthy and well-known train, classmates and instructors say Kennedy had logged the hours to be a skilled, though inexperienced, pilot.

Licensed for nearly two years, Kennedy was trained at the Flight Safety Academy in Vero Beach, Fla., considered one of the premiere schools of its kind in the world, CBS News Correspondent Byron Pitts reports.

"It's dedicated to the training of professional pilots - airline pilots. On rare occasions they take on special cases like Mr. Kennedy," said Justin Allison, who attended the Flight Safey Academy with Kennedy.

Allison says JFK Jr. would have known how to fly over water at night.

"Being right on the coast, we do train over water as part of our training at night and at day," Allison said.

According to his classmates, JFK Jr. was at the academy just last month for what's called recurring training, a refresher course to sharpen his skills. [For more information about Kennedy's last flight, click here.]

As the nation watched the Kennedy crash recovery, in Minnesota a new parachute system that can be built into the frames of general aviation planes made its debut.

It is designed for deployment when a pilot has lost control of a plane.

"It does give you a little extra measure of psychological comfort knowing that there's a parachute in the plane," says Walt Conley, who was the first customer to buy the chute.