Aftermath: A Run of Bad Luck

Once in a while, it's tails seven times in a row.

Aftermath Artwork

Aftermath Artwork

The fault may have been in their stars — it would be easy to check with the help of a good astrologer — but amateur-built and otherwise non-type-certificated aircraft hit an especially rough patch in April 2014.

The run of bad luck actually began a couple of weeks earlier, on Feb. 16, when the 77-year-old unlicensed pilot of a RANS S-10 crashed inverted into an open field in Texas. He had announced over the radio that he was going to attempt a roll. Witnesses saw the plane roll inverted and go into a steep dive. The elevator moved rapidly up and down and then the left wing separated.

A friend of the pilot said he had been trying out some aerobatic maneuvers but had not had any dual aerobatic instruction. The pilot said that he intended to keep his speed below 125 mph because the elevator tended to "flutter" at higher speeds.

Nevertheless, in a journal entry dated about a month before the accident, the pilot had written, "Flew S-10 and tried to roll it, aileron only, about 95 mph with horizon just a little low. Hard left aileron, plane inverted then went into dive upside down and spiraling. Thought I maybe was too slow so I tried again at about 105 mph, this time I was spiraling real fast upside down in a dive, even with throttle back off and as I was pulling it out this time I noticed my airspeed was 180 mph. I gradually started pulling it out, pulled 4½ Gs, and was down to about 600 feet."

It may be that this pilot started off, as most do, experimenting with the simpler barrel roll and, on attempting an aileron roll, had not realized the importance of keeping the nose on a point. One of the many advantages of learning aerobatics from an instructor is that she will call your attention to such details.

The Grim Reaper took a break before getting back to work late in March. A 573-hour pilot, 66, had bought a Sonerai IIL in November 2013 but had not yet flown it. In fact, he had not flown at all since 2003, except for a 1.2-hour instructional flight in an Aero AT-4 in January.

On March 29 he took off for the first time in his Sonerai, but soon returned because the plastic hose that served as a sight gauge for the fuel tank behind the instrument panel was dripping. He replaced the cracked hose with a new one and took off again.

The airplane was next seen approaching an open field 8 miles from the departure airport. Its engine was running roughly and it was "struggling to stay airborne." The airplane cleared a set of power lines and then rolled to the left and dived. Most likely the pilot had pulled up to clear the power lines and stalled the wing in the process.

Most of the fuselage was consumed by fire and the engine was too badly damaged for the National Transportation Safety Board to identify any evidence of a mechanical problem. Since the pilot had had to empty the fuel tank in order to replace the sight gauge, however, one possibility is that the act of draining and refilling the tank introduced or dislodged debris that later found its way to the carburetor of the Volkswagen engine.

About a week later, near Brigham City, Utah, power lines contributed to the demise of another pilot. The aircraft in this case was something called a "weight shift control trike" that consists of a fabric wing below which dangles a tricycle-gear pod with intimate seating for two. The engine, a 64 hp Rotax 582, is mounted directly behind the occupants.

The pilot had obtained his private license in 1986 and had logged about 150 hours in fixed-wing aircraft over a three-year period. After a long hiatus he had begun flying the trike in December 2013 and had logged almost 20 hours in it, 16 of them with an instructor. He had been seen maneuvering at low altitude prior to the accident — maneuvering at low altitude is part of the fun of flying this type of aircraft — and it seems that he suddenly became aware of power lines ahead of him, banked sharply to avoid them, and perhaps nosed down or caught a wing in the process.

The next day, in Texas, a man who had never flown anything at all took off in a trike and promptly crashed beside the runway. No cause could be found, other than the intrepid adventurer's complete lack of experience or training.

Two days later, a Bowers Fly Baby crashed in California, killing its 80-year-old, 1,800-hour pilot. The airplane, built in 2006, had been involved in a previous accident when it lost power after takeoff on its maiden flight. The current pilot, the third owner, bought the airplane in December 2012, at which point it had flown all of 29 hours. He set about progressively refurbishing the airplane, whose build quality he described as crude.

The airplane did not fly again until March 2014, after an annual inspection by a professional A&P. The owner then conducted a test flight that revealed roll control peculiarities and an "inconsistent" airspeed indicator. He rerigged the ailerons and intended to move the pitot farther outboard, away from the slipstream.

The crash, which occurred on the next flight, was assumed, based on a witness's description, to have been caused by a partial power loss. NTSB investigators found that the 65 hp Continental's carburetor was improperly adjusted in several respects, but whether those discrepancies, or perhaps carburetor ice, were responsible could not be determined.

Two days after that, a Helicycle, a single-seat helicopter powered by a 160 hp Solar turboshaft engine and flown by a student pilot with an R22 endorsement, pitched down for unknown reasons while flying in the traffic pattern. The helicopter was demolished and the pilot killed.

Another five days passed, and a 4,500-plus-hour commercial pilot, 69, took off from a grass strip in Kansas in an unregistered Quicksilver, which was operating as an ultralight although it is properly an LSA. The wind was 11 gusting to 18. The pilot was determined to fly the airplane to an airport one and a half miles away, although a friend suggested that it might be better to trailer it there. The Quicksilver climbed to 100 feet and then struck a tree, ejecting the pilot.

After that improbable cluster of mishaps, things settled back to their normal tempo, with a Stolp Starduster failing to recover from a spin in May — pilot teaching himself, again — and a BD-4 with a Ford V-6 engine crashing in June after its uncertificated propeller shed all three blades simultaneously.

No single thread unites these mishaps, but several factors emerge in more than one. One is age; but the fact that a number of the pilots involved were well stricken in years probably reflects, more than any impairment on their part, the fact that it is only after retirement that many people finally get to indulge their dreams of "just messing about" with airplanes. Another factor in several accidents is inexperience, or lack of recent experience or training. Unlike a properly maintained "standard aircraft" whose behavior is pretty predictable, non-type-certificated aircraft can harbor disconcerting surprises which, I imagine, a little recent experience or training might help you cope with.

There is too a certain bravado common to most of the pilots. Wouldn't you hesitate to roll an airplane if you thought its elevator was prone to flutter and you couldn't complete a roll without falling out of it at 180 mph? Would you try to teach yourself to fly, or to roll or spin? Would you take off in 18-knot gusts in an ultralight you'd never flown? Would you get out of gliding distance of the airfield in an airplane whose engine you weren't sure would keep running?

The thing about flying is that it's very hard to survive a fall from 100 feet, let alone 1,000. Some people just don't seem to realize that.

_This article is based on the NTSB's reports of the accidents 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. _

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