The crash of a sightseeing plane just off the coast of Honduras on Jan. 11 that was reported on by NBC’s Today show on Monday raised questions here at Flying that the NBC report did not address.
Andy Atkins, his wife Jenny and four-year-old son Logan, the story reported, were on an air tour of the island of Roatan near Honduras when, the story claims, “disaster struck: The engine cut out and the seaplane crashed into the water.”
The pilot, identified on the NBC video only as Mr. Brown, pulled Andy Atkins from the submerged airplane, and told Atkins, while the two bobbed in the water next to the submerged aircraft, that the floatplane had lost an engine. Brown and Atkins dove back down and were able to pull Jenny Atkins and their son from the submerged airplane. All four on board survived the crash.
The airplane shown in the NBC spot is an Air Cam, a twin-engine kit airplane that is configured typically to carry two occupants in a tandem-seating configuration. The Air Cam in the footage is outfitted with straight floats (as opposed to amphibious floats) and with a third seat. There have been a few Air Cams modified to carry three occupants inline—one that operates in the United States reportedly gives “free” rides after passengers pay for a boat ride out to the ramp.
The accident airplane was apparently a three-place modification of an Air Cam, in which the owner puts an additional seat and restraint in an area that as originally an open baggage area. Lockwood Aircraft owner Phil Lockwood told Flying that prospective customers will sometimes ask him about creating a third seat in an Air Cam and he tells them "without exception" that such a modification is not recommended, as it encourages pilots to overload the aircraft. Because the Air Cam is an amateur-built kit, however, there's nothing in the regulations to prevent customers from modifying a kit in any way that they wanted, regardless of what Lockwood says.
Reports are that the accident Air Cam was operated by Bay Island Airways, which advertises sightseeing tours in Roatan. Its two Air Cams are outfitted with three seats and three seat belts. How a fourth occupant could have been carried is not known. Bay Island Airways could not be reached for comment and its website is down.
So, why would the loss of an engine in an Air Cam cause a crash? And why would a float plane “crash” into the water in light seas to begin with? One eyewitness reported that the Air Cam was flying very low and a wing “clipped” the water, causing the crash. Whether that sequence of events, if accurately described, was related to an engine failure or not is unknown.
As outfitted normally, the Air Cam is an excellent single-engine flyer. Its engines are so close together that there’s little asymmetrical thrust. With a very heavy load, Lockwood said, the pilot would have had trouble maintaining altitude but would not have a hard time maintaining directional control, even if the craft were heavily loaded. Why the loss of an engine would necessitate anything but an uneventful water landing on the floats, remains a mystery.
Lockwood also commented that on the video one of the floats is submerged, indicated that it had been damaged. Whether that damage as a result of a hard landing (a possibility) or it had been damaged previously is yet another question in this mysterious crash that has yet to be answered.