Accident Following Engine Failure At Takeoff Claims Decathlon Pilot

The student's attempt to return to the airport failed.

About 90 seconds after takeoff from runway 15 at Toronto’s Buttonville Municipal airport the solo student pilot aboard a Bellanca 8KCAB Decathlon transmitted a “Mayday,” on the YKZ tower frequency. The pilot cited an irregularly running engine for the emergency. Witnesses watched the pilot bank the aircraft hard right and begin rapidly descending until it struck the ground. The aircraft was destroyed by both impact forces and a post-impact fire and the student pilot died in the accident. Weather at the time of the accident was reported as light winds, good visibility and a few scattered clouds.

The post-crash investigation by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada indicated the aircraft’s 150 hp Lycoming engine was not developing full power at the moment of impact. While the propeller was turning at nearly 2,700 rpm, the manifold pressure indicated it was developing about 65 percent power. Oil pressure was thought to be near the bottom of the safe range at the moment of impact. The post-accident engine inspection did not show any signs of a catastrophic failure making the precise reason for the power loss unclear.

The pilot, who’d owned the Decathlon for eight years prior to the accident, had recently completed the required annual inspection making it legal to operate. The pilot’s qualifications and logbook reviewed after the accident showed a disturbing disregard for his own safety, as well as for others. He’d been reissued a new student pilot certificate on the day of the accident to replace one that had expired a few years before. The new certificate was endorsed by a CFI just prior to the accident flight.

The TSB report spoke volumes about the pilot’s flying history. “The pilot’s training record and aircraft journey log indicated the pilot had received a total of 17.6 hours of dual flight instruction and had flown 111 hours of solo flight, (since purchasing the airplane) only 3.3 hours of which were under the supervision of a flight instructor,” the report explained. “Records also indicated that prior to this flight, the pilot had received recent training from his flight instructor that included forced landings.” The pilot’s instructor made a note in the pilot’s logbook just prior to the accident flight that indicated, “most of the solo flight time that had been logged after September 22, 2011 had not been supervised flights.” Investigators also learned the pilot had illegally carried passengers on a number of earlier flights.

An engine failure so soon after takeoff would be challenging for most pilots, especially when a look at the community surrounding the airport showed it was surrounded by many residential and commercial buildings offering few options for a safe place to put down the aircraft. While the accident report did not specifically mention the altitude from which the aircraft descended when the pilot first reported the engine problem, the aircraft couldn’t have been more than a few hundred feet in the air a minute and a half after takeoff. While the TSB did not list a probable cause, eyewitness statements reported maneuvers consistent with a low altitude stall-spin, as the student pilot most likely attempted to return to the airport.

Much has been written about the need to avoid the graveyard turn back to the airport at low altitude, but a pilot with minimal experience could easily have panicked when the powerplant failed so soon after takeoff and the only view ahead included structures. However, striking the ground at low speed, but under control, is always preferable to falling out of the sky uncontrolled when the only result of the maneuver is certain to be fatal. But avoiding a catastrophic outcome in this type of situation demands consistent training and preflight planning.

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