Only Questions Remain from a T-28A Trojan's Final Flight

Examining the aftermath of a mysterious, fatal crash of a 1950s Air Force trainer.

T-28A Trojan accident
A T-28A Trojan after a July 2017 crash.NTSB

The pilot, flying solo in a T-28A Trojan — a 1950s Air Force trainer with a gross weight of 8,500 pounds and a 1,425 hp radial engine — took off on a July afternoon from Runway 31 at Hector International (FAR) at Fargo, North Dakota. He was bound for Pelican Rapids, Minnesota, about 35 miles to the southeast. The T-28 turned to a left crosswind, climbed to 900 feet agl and accelerated to 160 knots.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board’s report, the pilot then told Fargo Departure Control that he was going to land at Moorhead Municipal (JKJ), which is about 9 miles southeast of FAR. Perhaps there was something in his tone of voice that suggested a problem; the controller asked whether he needed any assistance. The pilot replied, “I don’t think so.” After clearing him to land at JKJ, the controller again asked whether the pilot needed assistance, and this time he replied, “No.” The controller then told the pilot to squawk VFR and terminated radar service. The pilot did not acknowledge.

A perspective view of the flight path, based on transponder returns and included in the accident docket, seems to show that the airplane maintained altitude as it flew along an eastbound track roughly 3.5 nm north of the approach end of JKJ. Only when it turned southward did it begin to descend.

The pilot steered for a point slightly west of the approach end of Runway 12 at JKJ, presumably to give himself room for a base-to-final turn. The descent was gradual but inexorable. Several witnesses saw the airplane pass low overhead. All of them said that the engine sounded as though it was in distress. One said it was making “a terrible racket” that sounded like “a gearbox that was failing or out of oil.” It should be noted, however, that most people don’t know what a big radial engine sounds like at partial power, so their judgments have to be taken with a grain of salt. The engine was obviously delivering some power, because the gear was down and the rate of descent was much less than it would have been with a windmilling prop.

For several miles, only farm fields and the occasional road lay below.

About half a mile from the runway, the T-28 crossed an interstate. It was very low at that point — low enough for its right wing to strike a lamp on a tall pole alongside the highway. The wing did not strike the pole itself, and the lamp, which was knocked off the pole, was not very massive; it’s unlikely that the collision with the lamp could have had a powerful effect on the flight path of such a heavy airplane. But the impact, or possibly the pilot’s surprise — he presumably did not see the pole before he hit it — might have had something to do with the fact that the T-28 touched down right-wheel first in a cornfield, then the right wing caught, then the nose dug in. The impact tore off the wing and wrenched the engine and firewall from the fuselage. The remainder came to rest upright, facing north. There was no fire. When witnesses got to the airplane, they found the pilot pinned in the wreckage. His shoulder harness had failed, and he was seriously injured, but he was still conscious and coherent. What he said is not recorded. He died before medical help could reach him.

The pilot steered for a point slightly west of the approach end of the Runway, presumably to give himself room for a base-to-final turn.

FAA representatives observed a tear-down of the airplane’s Wright Cyclone engine. Propeller and gear-case damage was consistent with the engine developing power at impact; otherwise, everything appeared normal, and there was no evidence of a malfunction.

The private pilot, 41, was a collector of classic warbirds. He had about 800 hours, but his time in the T-28 could not be determined. I think it is safe to assume that he knew what he was doing. So, what went wrong?

It appears that shortly after he took off, he saw something that made him want to land. Let’s say it was falling oil or fuel pressure. Whatever it was, he must have felt, as the ambiguity of his “I don’t think so” suggests, that he needed to land soon, but not necessarily right away. So the first question is why he elected to go to Moorhead rather than return to Fargo, which was closer. I don’t know the answer. The only explanation I can think of is that he was pointed more or less in that direction, and it was all open fields along the way, whereas a return to Fargo would have required crossing a densely built-up urban area.

If that guess is right, it might also account for his initially flying due east, rather than southeastward, direct to Moorhead. Again, there was a residential area, Dilworth, in the way; his path took him around it.

The NTSB cited an FAA inspector’s comment that “there were two open fields and four roads between the public park [from which one witness watched the T-28 pass low overhead] and [the] accident site. The pilot made no attempt to make an emergency landing in either field.” It’s unclear to me whether we are to infer from this observation that the pilot had a rational belief that he would reach the runway at Moorhead, or that, like many pilots who try to make it to a runway at (or just beyond) the limit of their gliding range, he had fallen prey to an unwarranted optimism.

About half a mile from the runway, the t-28 crossed an interstate. it was very low at that point — low enough for its right wing to strike a lamp on a tall pole alongside the highway.

But something other than blind hope might have motivated the pilot to try for the Moorhead runway. The T-28 is a heavy, fast airplane that stands very tall on its tricycle gear. The fields over which the pilot was flying were filled with mature crops, and probably furrowed and irrigated. Quite probably the T-28 would dig in and nose over if it landed on them. If the engine had failed entirely, that might not be a consideration; you would take your chances in whatever field presented itself. But if your engine was still showing signs of life, it might seem wiser to try for a hard runway.

He did pass several straight country roads, one state highway and one interstate. He was very low, and could probably discern whether there were power lines or other obstacles along the roads. That he did not try to land on one suggests, again, that he believed he was likely to make the runway.

One witness said the T-28 was slow and its wings were “rocking” at the time it struck the light pole. NTSB reports frequently mention this type of motion in order to suggest an impending stall, which, assuming the flaps were up and the airplane was light, would have come at around 77 knots. It implies, in this case, that the pilot had been trading speed for altitude — or at least for a reduced rate of descent — and had run out of both. He was still half a mile from the runway threshold, and cannot have been more than 30 or 40 feet above the ground. He must by then have accepted that he was going into the corn. The green sea ahead must have riveted his attention, to the point that he did not see the light pole.

The NTSB’s statement of probable cause stated, “Controlled descent into terrain due to engine issues, the reason for which could not be determined because examination of the engine revealed no evidence of malfunctions or failures that would have precluded normal operation.”

That about sums it up. The rest is imagination.