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Aftermath: An Ambiguous Accident
So we have, both from the probable cause and from the implication that “several” witnesses heard but did not see the airplane because it was in cloud, the initial impression that the noninstrument-rated pilot flew into cloud and sooner or later lost control of the airplane, perhaps in a spin or a spiral dive. But it turns out that according to this detailed and reliable-sounding witness statement, he was not in cloud but in the clear below the clouds, and seemingly not out of control at all.
Setting aside for the moment the question of what happened between that sighting and the shotgun-like report, let us visit the accident site. Photographs show a large furrowed field upon which fragments of an airplane, few of them recognizable, lie widely scattered. From the linear arrangement of certain parts, it can be deduced that the airplane broke up in flight and that its “energy vector” — in other words, its heading — was 108 degrees at the time of impact. The ground track of the flight up to the last witness sighting would have had a bearing of about 250 degrees. It follows that during the 30 seconds or so preceding the crash, the airplane turned 140 degrees.
The conclusion drawn from the arrangement of the broken parts along the ground is that first the left wing failed upward at midspan, and then the V-tail and part of the tail cone broke away. The sequence of events is important. The notorious spate of V-tail Bonanza breakups that ended two decades ago with an AD-mandated tail modification involved the tail failing initially and the wings then breaking downward, because without balancing download on the stabilizer the airplane would pitch nose-down abruptly.
Interestingly, the balance weights from both elevators had separated and were found at a distance from them. This fact might suggest ruddervator flutter, to which V-tail Bonanzas were not immune. But if the wing failed in upward bending, prior failure of the empennage would be ruled out, and a more probable explanation might be that the disintegrating left wing struck the tail and somehow severed both balance weights.
Why did the left wing fail? The evidence suggests that the pilot, perhaps at the urging of his wife and mother or perhaps because the weather looked as if it would get worse before it got better, decided to turn back. He banked fairly steeply, to judge from the short time it took to reverse course. Possibly, if he was flying just below the clouds, he found himself heading toward a low-hanging cloud and tightened the turn to avoid it. Possibly he found himself losing altitude at some point and overcontrolled in a sudden effort to arrest the descent.
It appears that the pilot did overstress the wing. We don’t know why. Whether the airplane was still as strong as it had been in 1947 is unknowable; there is no mention in the accident report of corrosion or previous damage that could have weakened the left wing.
I think, at any rate, that the sequence of events in this accident may not have been the familiar one suggested by the probable cause. The phrase “into instrument meteorological conditions” strongly suggests that the pilot was in cloud at the time of the breakup, became disoriented, and overcontrolled. I think it is at least equally possible that he was in the clear and under control, but overcontrolled for some other reason — quite a different picture.
This article is based on the NTSB’s report of the accident and is intended to bring the issues raised to our readers’ attention. It is not intended to judge or to reach any definitive conclusions about the ability or capacity of any person, living or dead, or any aircraft or accessory.