Aftermath: Buzz Job

Accident analysis that goes behind and beyond the NTSB report. Flying

The tiny, private dirt strip, 1,800 feet long, was way out in the boondocks. Oriented north to south, it was parallel to an ­unpaved county road and screened by a line of trees. By the other side of the strip to the east was a small crescent-shaped lake. Pine woods surrounded both, cleared for a few hundred feet at each end to open up the approaches to the runway. The landowner was an ex-airline pilot who now performed aerobatics in airshows. It was the kind of place where a person feels free to horse around and do what he likes.

The airplane, a Bellanca ­Decathlon, took off from the airport of a nearby town. The private pilot, 52, had logged 1,700 hours; his passenger, 50, a co-worker of his, had logged 136. The pilot of the ­Decathlon and the owner of the strip had been good friends for a long time.

Several people, including the owner, were standing on a beach beside the little lake when the Decathlon passed overhead. It descended, turning, and came back for a low pass, now flying southwestward across the water. Witnesses could see the pilot grinning and his passenger waving as they went by. After passing the onlookers, the pilot pulled up — steeply, one witness thought — to clear the 50-foot trees that stood between the airstrip and the county road. When the Decathlon had completed 90 degrees of a climbing right turn, its left wing suddenly dropped. The property owner — who was well qualified to observe and report in detail what happened next — said the pilot lowered the nose and applied full right rudder. The airplane leveled out momentarily, then its nose dropped. The engine went to full power, but it was too late. The airplane did not spin but dived vertically, burying its nose in the soft shoulder of the road. Both of the men aboard died in the crash.

The low pass is an aviation tradition. The suspenseful approach, the pilot’s nonchalant wave, the whoosh of air, the shift in the pitch of the engine’s roar, the swooping climb, perhaps even a departing barrel roll — it’s all a piece of theater that dates back to the earliest days and is unlikely to ever grow stale, despite the fact that amateur performances — which go by the name “buzz job” rather than the more dignified “low pass” — sometimes turn out badly.

A buzz job, commonly over a friend’s house or a place where people are gathered for a picnic or whatnot, occasionally ends in an accidental stall. Often, the pilot-victim is young, male, and full of youthful high spirits and a desire to show off and impress his friends or a girl. Typically, he pulls up, looks back over his shoulder to assess the effect of his bravura flying, stalls, and ends up augering in a short distance away. It happens a few times a year. Family members are left to grieve and fellow pilots to shake their heads in disbelief.

This one was a little different. The pilot was a middle-aged man. Most likely, his friend on the ground, the airshow pilot, was someone before whom he would not have wished to appear rash or ­immature. ­Furthermore, the pilot did not just blunder into a stall and not know what to do next. When the airplane’s left wing unexpectedly dropped, the pilot did all the right things. He kept flying the airplane, but he lacked the airspeed or height to recover.

The National Transportation Safety Board divided its findings of probable cause into two parts. First, there was “the pilot’s decision to make a low pass over a lake near trees,” then his “failure to maintain airplane control while maneuvering at a low altitude to avoid trees.”

As far as the loss of control is concerned, it should be mentioned that the airshow-pilot witness merely said that the Decathlon pilot “began a climbing right turn.” He did not mention avoiding the trees. It was a different witness who said that “the pilot pulled the airplane straight up, likely to clear a stand of 50-foot-tall pine trees.” There is quite a difference between “straight up” and “a climbing right turn;" one is evasive action, the other is the logical completion of a planned maneuver. We are left to judge which interpretation is the more plausible, given the age and experience of the pilot and the composition of his audience. The pilot witness, as a good friend of the deceased, might be motivated to put the best possible face on his friend’s actions; the comments of the other witness, on the other hand, may have been retroactively colored by having seen the fatal outcome.

As to the decision to make the pass in the first place, it does not seem especially rash to make a low pass over a lake at the end of which one would have to clear 50-foot trees. It does not take much to gain 50 feet in a speeding airplane, provided that you begin in time.

The devil, as usual, is in the details. What the pilot perhaps did not anticipate was how his attention would be diverted and how that might affect the timing of the eventual climb. The witnesses’ reports of seeing the pilot grinning “from ear to ear” imply that at the time he passed them he was turned to face them. This is natural; a buzz job is a kind of social interaction, and the pilot wants both to be recognized and to observe the effect he is having.

When the Decathlon passed beside the small beach on which the witnesses were standing, it was still about 1,200 feet from the trees. ­Assuming it was moving at 120 knots or more — it had been descending, and speed is part of every good buzz job — each second brought it 200 feet closer to the trees.

Diverted attention is always a danger in low-altitude flying. Low-altitude maneuvering requires attention to the outside environment, as well as attention to speed and attitude. It can be difficult to combine them.

On the other hand, the pilot was likely familiar with the airstrip and its environment, and so he knew the size and location of the trees. The NTSB implies that the pilot’s need to take evasive action to avoid the trees was an essential element in the accident, but it is possible that he was quite aware of the trees all along and was not acting abruptly or impulsively when he began to climb. The fact that he crashed directly behind the line of trees — in fact, he was almost touching them — and that by that time he had already turned 90 degrees, suggests that he began the pull-up while still fairly far from the trees. If that was the case, then his error was neither one of judgment, in deciding to make the low pass in the first place, nor of inattention, in allowing himself to look aside for too long. It was, as the second part of the NTSB’s conclusion suggests, a simple miscalculation of the combination of bank angle, pitch angle, acceleration and speed required to complete the display with suitable panache.

As commercial pilots remember those who have struggled to make a chandelle feel effortless and well-timed, the balance between rate of turn, rate of climb, and rate of deceleration is a delicate one. If the climb is not steep enough, surplus energy remains at the end of 180 degrees; if it is too steep, you run out of energy before the reversal is complete. The last-second effort to correct your ­errors under the check airman’s expressionless gaze feels painfully awkward.

It’s all right to fly low, and it’s all right to fly close to the edge; but, for most pilots, it’s not a good idea to do both at the same time — and especially not in front of an audience.

Peter Garrison taught himself to use a slide rule and tin snips, built an airplane in his backyard, and flew it to Japan. He began contributing to FLYING in 1968, and he continues to share his columns, "Technicalities" and "Aftermath," with FLYING readers.

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