Flying an Imperfect Game

A pilot falls for an Icon with fatal results.

Roy Halladay was a pitcher whose work ethic and perfectionism were legendary. So were his talents. In 2010, he pitched a perfect game for the Phillies, and followed that rare accomplishment with an even rarer one: a postseason no-hitter, only the second in major-league history. (The Yankees’ Don Larsen threw the first during a World Series against the then Brooklyn Dodgers, 54 years earlier.)

Halladay, who left baseball in 2013, was the son of a retired professional pilot—military and airline—and was himself a 700-hour private pilot with multiengine and instrument ratings. He owned a Cessna Caravan and, in October 2017, acquired an Icon A5, a light-sport amphibian.

He loved the Icon, raved about it, and said flying it low over the water was like flying a jet fighter. “Take it easy,” his father urged him. “Don’t get carried away.” Aviation demands restraint. Nevertheless, he and his wife flew the Icon under the Skyway Bridge across Tampa Bay, Florida, on October 26, and Halladay reported the stunt on social media.

On November 7, he took off alone from a small lake north of Tampa. He did not arm the airplane’s ballistic recovery chute. He flew to the edge of the Gulf of Mexico, where he turned south and proceeded to perform some attention-getting, low-level maneuvers just offshore. He would zoom up a few hundred feet, bank steeply, swoop down, and recover a few feet above the water. On the third maneuver, he pulled a little more than two Gs, pitched up 30 degrees, and reached a height of 358 feet—while bleeding off a good deal of airspeed and getting close to the airplane’s maximum angle of attack. He then banked steeply to the right and started downhill. This time, the combination of low speed and high pitch angle was unlucky. The Icon did not have sufficient energy to recover before it hit the water at a steep angle. The airplane was shattered, and Halladay was killed.

The entire flight had lasted 17 minutes.

The National Transportation Safety Board took an unusually long time—two and a half years—to produce its final report on the accident. The cause of death was “blunt trauma”; drowning was a “contributory condition.” The probable cause was “the pilot’s improper decision to perform aggressive, low-altitude maneuvers due to his impairment from the use of multiple psychoactive substances, which resulted in a loss of control.”

The board’s tenuous grasp of English grammar made it difficult to tell what this meant. Was it the decision or the loss of control that was caused by the impairment? Or was the loss of control due to the decision? Perhaps the writer believed that ambiguity equals “all of the above.”

The psychoactive substances revealed by the postmortem toxicology screen were the stimulant amphetamine at 40 times therapeutic levels; several different prescription opioid painkillers or anti-anxiety drugs, also at high levels; and a muscle relaxant and an antidepressant. Most of these drugs came with warnings about compromising the user’s ability to operate machinery. Their effect in combination had not been investigated, but it is hard to imagine they did not have some influence on Halladay’s decision-making, judgment and physical performance.

It transpired that Halladay, who was 40, had undergone inpatient rehabilitation for opioid dependence twice between 2013 and 2015. (The NTSB was apparently unable to obtain his subsequent medical history.) His wife described him in magazine interviews as anxious and driven by his own perfectionism. His father told an NTSB interviewer that Halladay suffered from anxiety and depression, as well as chronic back pain. Seemingly, he also had a persistent substance-abuse problem.

The elder Halladay described his son as prone to risk-taking, but the examples he gave—long overwater and night IFR flights in his single-turboprop Caravan—would not strike some pilots as unduly rash. As further evidence of “sensation-seeking and a willingness to take risks,” the board cited Halladay’s flight under the Skyway Bridge, but though illegal unless he was in the process of taking off or landing, such a flight involves very little actual danger. On the evidence presented, he could as well have been characterized as “confident, boyish and fun-loving.”

Read More from Peter Garrison: Aftermath

It is not even clear to me that there was unquestionably a loss of control in the accident. The Icon is equipped with both an angle of attack indicator and a rudimentary flight-data recorder, and it appears that during the final descent, Halladay reduced power to idle, pulled two Gs, and kept the angle of attack just below the stall. At least up to two seconds before the crash, when the data recording ceased, he resisted the temptation, all but overwhelming when the ground or water is rushing up to meet you, to pull back as hard as you can. His actions were appropriate, given the situation he found himself in; but he misjudged the room that would be required for the recovery, and did not have enough airspeed to allow him to pull more Gs without stalling. The crash seems to me to have a lot in common with those airshow accidents in which an airplane runs out of space while recovering from a loop—less a loss of control than a miscalculation.

The Icon A5 was designed by top-notch engineers and aerodynamicists, and it is in many ways a remarkable aircraft. Because it was intended to appeal to an entry-level sport pilot, its creators gave a great deal of attention to making it foolproof. Its low-speed manners are exemplary, and it is the only noncanard airplane to qualify as spin-resistant under Part 23 criteria.

The curse under which it labors is that flying low over water is a lot of fun, and low flying is inherently somewhat hazardous. Low is where the obstacles are, it’s where there’s no room to recover from fumbles, and it’s where people can see you and you’re tempted to put on a show. Nevertheless, low is where the Icon was born to fly.

In October 2017, at about the same time Halladay took delivery of his airplane, Icon distributed to all A5 pilots a document entitled “Low Altitude Flying Guidelines,” which supplemented its existing manual on Sport Flying Operations. A company spokesperson was certain that Halladay had seen and read it. It included the concept of a “soft deck” at 300 feet, below which angles should be limited to 45 degrees in bank and 10 in pitch. The earlier manual dealt with the relatively subtle concept of an airplane’s energy state; in effect, it warned of the danger of getting “behind the power curve,” where in order to gain speed you have to give up altitude.

These publications proved sadly prescient; it was precisely the combination of hot-dogging maneuvers at low altitude and a low-energy state at the top of a zoom climb that led to Halladay’s fatal crash.

There was another warning in the A5 manual that might have had a bearing on the accident as well. It said, in underlined letters, “Do not show off.”

The Seduction of Flying Low

When a type has only two fatal accidents, it’s hardly possible to talk about one without mentioning the other. Jon Karkow was lead engineer on the A5, as he had been on Scaled Composites’ GlobalFlyer, in which the late Steve Fossett made two solo nonstop flights around the world. In October 2017, Karkow was skimming over Lake Berryessa, in northern California, when he flew at low speed—54 kias—into an inlet that he thought led to another lobe of the lake. But it was the wrong inlet; it led into a blind cove with steep sides, and he crashed trying to turn back out of it. The seductive pleasure of low flying, a miscalculation and insufficient energy to recover—a situation seemingly different from but in some ways quite similar to Roy Halladay’s.

This story appeared in the September 2020 issue of Flying Magazine



Login

New to Flying?

Register

Already have an account?