Another witness of the same flight the previous afternoon related that “the pilot would fly directly into the wind and then hold the plane completely still in the wind; it looked like a helicopter at times. ... He would then point the nose of the plane straight up so that the plane was at an almost 90-degree angle to the ground. ... He would hold that position for a second or two and then roll the plane aggressively over to the right or left, heading straight for the ground. He would then swoop up, circle the air park and perform the same maneuver again.”
An International Aerobatic Club-trained judge with 1,200 hours of aerobatic experience reported seeing the pilot “doing departure stalls at approximately 200 feet agl. Some of the stalls were downwind, after doing downwind takeoffs on Runway 22 (sic). The nose was in excess of 45 degrees nose up. The wind conditions were very gusty. I considered this to be extremely careless and reckless.”
A fourth pilot, using remarkably similar language and a similarly indignant tone, reported seeing the pilot the previous day “doing downwind departure stalls at 200 [feet].”
A departure stall is one performed while climbing at takeoff power. It may not be clear why a downwind departure stall would be any different from an upwind or crosswind one — when instructors and students perform these maneuvers at 3,000 feet agl, they pay no attention to the wind direction — but things are different close to the surface.
Because of friction with the ground, wind speed typically increases rapidly with altitude between zero and, say, 1,000 feet. A steady change in speed is called a “wind gradient,” while a marked shift in wind speed over a short vertical distance is called a “wind shear.” When an airplane is climbing downwind through a wind gradient or across a wind shear, the increasing speed of the tailwind manifests itself as a reduction in both climb rate — because some power is being used to accelerate in order to keep up, so to speak, with the accelerating wind — and climb angle. If the airplane is on the back side of the power-required curve, as it is when performing a departure stall, it is unable to accelerate, and an increasing tailwind — or a gust from behind — registers as a drop in indicated airspeed.
Dropping below the stalling speed is not the same thing as stalling, which is a matter of angle of attack, not speed. But a stall will ensue if the pilot does not get the nose down very promptly, because the airplane will start to settle and its angle of attack will increase.
So the reason it might be considered “extremely careless and reckless” to perform downwind departure stalls at low altitude — apart from Part 91’s prohibition of “abnormal attitudes” below 1,500 feet — is that, if a strong enough wind gradient exists, the airplane may stall unexpectedly; it may take longer to regain flying speed; and it may lose more altitude than usual in the process.
These “downwind departure stalls” had been performed the day before the accident, and so the mention of them serves mainly to illustrate the witnesses’ contention that the pilot was in the habit of performing excessively bold maneuvers at excessively low altitudes. When the accident took place the airplane was flying upwind, not downwind; but a similar principle can be said to apply in gusty conditions. A sudden decrease in headwind has the same effect as climbing downwind through a wind shear, and a sudden change in wind direction can turn coordinated flight into a sideslip. In any case, performing extremely low-speed maneuvers close to the ground in a gusty wind is not something a cautious pilot would do.
You get pretty good at handling an airplane when you have 3,000 hours in the type, but even highly skilled pilots make mistakes. The semantics of description will always be slippery. If this accident had taken place during a sanctioned airshow, it would have been counted as a chance mishap; because it occurred during an impromptu display — albeit of a kind the pilot had apparently practiced many times — and with a casual passenger, it was “excessive and unsafe maneuvering.”
Sometimes, a mishap is the only difference between recklessness and virtuosity.
Whatever else you may call it, however, it was an unambiguous tragedy for two families.
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.