Tale of a winter month: a look at February accidents

Before getting to the subject at hand I would like to have a word about methodology.

I use final NTSB reports only. These don’t come out until a year or more after the accident. NTSB does issue preliminary reports rather quickly, but, by their own admission, they might contain errors that will be corrected in the final report. I have always questioned the value of any safety research based on preliminary reports. Because there are still pertinent 2011 accidents that haven’t been finalized, I used February 2010 as a basis for this report. Only one accident in that month has not been finalized.

Cessna 337 crash
A Cessna 337 crashed after making a high speed low pass.

Consider also that the NTSB considers an event an accident when someone suffers death or serious injury or when the aircraft received substantial damage. Broken toes, fingers and noses don’t count; nor do most fender-bender landing accidents, including forced landings and gear-up landings.

There are usually about three times as many events reported to the FAA as become NTSB accidents. The reports generally come to the FAA from local law enforcement or from within the FAA.

For this study we’ll consider fixed-wing airplanes operating under Part 91 in the contiguous 48 states. I found final reports on 52 such accidents for February 2010. That is a relatively low number, but we have known for a long time that accidents are in direct proportion to hours flown. There is not much flying in February and at this time flying activity was further depressed by the lousy economy.

Only five of the total accidents involved homebuilt airplanes. None of these were fatal and this low accident involvement was likely related to a low level of activity in these airplanes. When the weather gets better, they are usually much more involved in the accident picture.

Of the 47 accidents in certified airplanes, 14 were fatal. One of those was a midair collision.

The type of airplanes involved tends to illustrate that pilots fly mainly to go somewhere in the month of February. Five of the fatal accidents were in high-performance singles and four were in twins. So the much larger fleet of simple singles was a relatively small part of the picture this month with the same fatal accident involvement as the twins.

In recent years it seems like the number of twins wrecked is increasing out of proportion to the dwindling fleet size. Is this because as twins get older the maintenance requirements go out of sight in relation to the value of the airplane? There is some suggestion of that in the record and we will see some of that here.

Pilots will spend a lot of money on deicing equipment and even more time worrying about ice. It was a factor in only one accident, involving an A36 Bonanza. The pilot was maneuvering for an approach when he lost control of the airplane. The ice was deemed more of a distraction than a debilitating factor for the airplane.

There were two other IFR accidents.  A pilot lost control of his Malibu Mirage on a night instrument approach and a Cessna 310 pilot flew into power lines after a zero-zero takeoff. IFR accidents are usually a bigger part of the picture but the weather in February tends to be either pretty flyable or terribly uncomfortable due to turbulence. There also those snowstorms and trying to operate after one passes can be problematic for days.

Two of the twins were old. One a Model 65 Beech Queen Air, was built in 1960, the other, a Piper Twin Comanche, was built in 1967. In both cases, both engines failed and the dead stick landing that followed was not successful.

An old Queen Air would be a frightfully expensive airplane to maintain today and the airplane itself is not worth much. It is thus not surprising (to me, anyway) that both engines failed. Consider that an engine overhaul on both engines would run about $90,000 against an average retail of $33,000 for the whole airplane and it is obvious that pilots might try to keep on flying until something happens. In this case, too much happened, though no cause was found for the dual failures.

The Twin Comanche bit the dust because the seals on the gas caps were shot and after that airplane sat out in the rain it had a lot of water in the fuel. This was apparently not eliminated during the preflight inspection.

Cirrus crash
A Cirrus and a glider tow plane collided in flight, and the Cirrus burned as it descended under its parachute.

There were four fatal accidents involving an impaired or incapacitated pilot. That is relatively a lot. One was alcohol related. Two were drug-related and one mental. The pilot who went bonkers and flew his Piper Dakota into an Internal Revenue Service office is in this list.

A pilot dismantled a Cessna 337 Skymaster during a high speed low pass. The NTSB faulted both the pilot and the FAA, the latter for a lack of guidelines on the possible interaction between multiple STC modifications. My opinion is that FAA is often fast and loose with STC approvals and a lot of things are approved that would never be allowed to see the light of day on new airplanes.

There were a couple of stall-spin accidents but nothing unusual.

The hours of daylight are a little short in February but darkness was a factor in only three accidents. That is less than would be expected.

The midair was between a Piper PA-25 Pawnee tow plane  and a Cirrus. You might have seen the video of the burning Cirrus descending under its chute. The PA-25 had a glider in tow and the glider pilot said he didn’t notice that either airplane took evasive action before impact. The NTSB assigned the usual “failed to see and avoid” probable cause and cited the difficulty both pilots might have had in seeing the other aircraft.

On the same day as the midair, another Cirrus, an SR-22, fell on hard times. Because of an ill passenger, the pilot attempted a landing on a sod strip. The airplane apparently crow-hopped, the nose gear failed, and the airplane flipped over onto its back and was substantially damaged though nobody got hurt.

That last accident was rather typical of the events that wind up being investigated by the NTSB.

As with any list of accidents, it is possible to read through and come to the conclusion that most were a result of the pilot screwing up, or, to put it another way not flying and thinking correctly. Occasionally the thought that comes to mind is, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Those are the accidents that we really need to think long and hard about.

23 Comments

  • Dick, you are killing me here!

    It’s sufficiently hard to talk my wife into flying a GA plane (still trying), and after leaving this artical on my iPad she comes blazing with questions… I need to show her a “good” safety artical, something she can relate too like driving a car ( I know I know..), something that makes sense in the mind of the non pilot.

    Want to talk about the deciline of pilots? Start with arming us young pilots with stats that we can share at dinner with our wifes and friends, something to take the scare factor out of this amazing experience we call flying, because I can personally tell you, we r losing the war of public (family) opinion.

  • I have always though we do best by being honest. The old chant about flying being safer than driving is a total falsehood regardless of how you compare the two. Do your loved ones understand the risk involved in eating a double cheeseburger (if you or they eat cheeseburgers)?. Me, I flew for 57 years and ate many thousands of double cheeseburgers and both activites were well worth the ever-present risk.

    • I (respectfully) disagree.

      If we look at the flying population and it’s huge decreas, one has to consider the real obsticals for a new pilot. If u put the money, time and training hurdles aside, u still need to deal with public opinion.

      Maybe 50 years ago people could not wait to jump in the plane with you, but today being a pilot seems to the general public as excessively risky, and u can’t blame them… Every other day another plane crashes into front page news. They don’t hear about the good side, the safe side, the responsible side of flying, and that is exactly my point. I(we) need better tools to fight back.

      You don’t like car vs plane comparison?, very well, let’s find another complex machine most people operate and use that as our baseline, but not doing any comparison leaves people with the same basic notion that you need to be crazy to fly a small plane… Tomorrow when they close down another airport lets not pretend we didn’t know it was coming.

      • Liad,

        It is your job to convince your wife that you are a safe pilot. The only way to do that is to be a safe pilot. Reading the advice from gray-beards is but one of the many things you should do to mitigate risk to the best of your ability. Make her aware of your continuous learning process. If she is uncomfortable flying GA airplanes, it is possibly your skills she might be unsure of.

        BTW, I can call Collins a gray-beard even if he doesn’t have one, and I do. He’s been flying longer than I and provided much education along the way.

        I don’t know where you are located, (I’m in SoCal and AZ) but my wife continues to enjoy flying with me all over the left coast. There are clear benefits unique to GA that are easily demonstrated. Fly up to KMRY to enjoy a 3-day weekend in Carmel, off to Sedona for a few days, up to the wine country, a quick ski trip to Cedar City or other resorts, fly her visiting relatives to Catalina Island for lunch, etc. All unencumbered by a long drive in heavy traffic.

        Avoid flying her to the $100 burger joint or greasy spoon for breakfast. Those are things many pilots enjoy, but not women.

        Always make it clear to her that you are not in a hurry to get there and if there is any question about weather, or whatever, you will postpone the flight for another day. If delayed, make it part of the adventure.

        • Hi Edd.

          I am still a student pilot so no flying with my wife just yet, however not flying with my CFI and friend that probably took her over the Atlantic few times in an airliner is specifically my point. Its not the pilot, its the perception of GA flying.

          In an era where flying is becoming more and more out of reach to most, I find myself fighting to have people try it out. I select the friends that can afford the expense and can put in the time. I always lose on the safety discussion.

          I think dick and other icons in this industry are missing a very important point: if people are too scared to take a simple trip around the pattern, the chances of them becoming pilots is zero, flat out zero, and we can all see how our industry is getting more and more expensive because of that, and when my Mooney’s annual will hit $7,000 in a few years, it will be that much harder to keep on flying, let alone convince people at dinner that this is something they should try out.

          My 2 cents

          So this is my cry for help… If we don’t fix the perception of GA flying, there will be none left.

          • I think the public perception is more of a fear of the people who fly, not of flying itself. We do certify some pretty nutty dudes to fly airplanes. So next time you jump op on that soap box, do it in front of a mirror.

        • Liad,

          Perhaps a pinch hitter course would help your wife. My wife was always a little nervous flying, but after a few hours of instruction tailored to her needs instead of a license, she is much more comfortable with the aspects of flying in a small airplane.

      • Commercial scheduled flights are safer than driving, especially over long distances, but GA I don’t think will ever be safer than driving.

        I think you can help by explaining that many of the risks of flying are under your control. When driving, you have to deal with other drivers.

        How safe flying is really depends on what you do. There isn’t a ton of risk being a student pilot or a weekend recreational flyer. You go out on nice days. You’re close to the airport in familiar terrain. You have an instructor.

        If you’re flying to get someplace on a schedule – well – that’s a totally different story.

        If there’s specific fears you can address those. People used to ask me if I had a parachute – most people don’t seem to understand that a plane without power can still glide to the ground.

        Keep in mind that there are some people who are just risk averse, and who would never fly airplanes, ride motorcycles, shoot guns, eat sushi, watch foreign movies, travel abroad, make experimental art, or whatever.

    • I agree that honesty is the best approach. However, I think one thing that has changed over time is the aviation media’s constant analysis and focus on accidents. I don’t believe that the old Air Facts magazine had separate sections and articles devoted to accident analysis, but virtually every aviation publication today does. It’s an anomaly in the business. Even motorcycle magazines don’t do that and their safety record is no better than the airplane. I believe this focus was an attempt to improve safety by exposing accident causes as examples of what not to do. But this method has not worked. The safety record remains about constant. Perhaps it is time to try a different approach. Maybe articles that expound on the glory of simulator training instead? There must be some gold to be mined in good simulator training, both VFR and IFR. Beyond that, it seems to me that the focus should be on the joy of safe flying (well ok, and the latest airplanes and gizmos).

      • This is a worthy debate to have, but I side with Collins on it. No, we shouldn’t emphasize crashes or wallow in misery, but we can’t hide from accidents. The fact is our safety record is not nearly good enough–much of the public’s fear is (at least somewhat) justified. Until we fix the facts, we’re to blame.

        And I think history shows we’ve learned a lot from accidents–SLD icing after Roselawn, CRM after the Eastern Airlines crash in the Everglades, radar shadows after the Southern Airways crash, etc. Even if some of these were known issues, by emphasizing them after a crash, they stay top of mind with pilots.

        The benefit of flying is that we control how safe we are. Done properly, it can be extremely safe. But we have to work at it.

      • When my father started Air Facts in 1938 it consisted mostly of accident reports and safety analysis. In later years it had less but always had some accident coverage. Back in the beginning someone said that Mr. Piper wouldn’t like Air Facts because it would hinder sales of Cubs. Guess what? Mr. Piper gave a subscription to Air Facts to everyone who bought a Cub.

        • Dick:
          Thanks for correcting me on that. I only have about a dozen Air Facts mags from the 50’s and 60’s and that is what I was basing my observation on (I do keep those in my treasured aviation artifacts collection by the way). I’ve never seen any of the really early copies; I would love to though.

    • Dick, please understand that I have nothing but respect for you, but (with respect), I think you are finding it hard to put yourself in the average Joe’s shoes.

      Most of us do not come from a “flying” family. Unlike most people who reads FLYING and comment on AirFacts, the average Joe has no ties to the airport other than driving pass it every now and then. They will never see the inside of a cockpit unless we do something about it.

      The only real way to “get” into aviation is if a friend talks you into trying it out, in hopes that you will like it and maybe spend the time and money to get your certificate.

      When Joe goes home after dinner with Liad and talks to his wife about taking on flying, she freaks out. “You have kids” and “that is irresponsible” comes up probably 100 times in the short drive home.

      Most likely Joe will just drop it, and there goes another potential student pilot. Now if it was just one incident, I would not read too much into it, but I am 0 for 4 already, and that sucks.

      So I will go back to my original post: If we don’t arm the “to be” students with some “show and tell” safety statistics, we will continue to lose the battle to the perception that flying is simply too risky and irresponsible.

      I only bring this up because my friends are the people the entire industry is looking for.. they are young, successful and have money and time to put into flying, but none of them are student pilots to this day.

      • I suspect pilots have to have understanding wives – let’s face it, the vast majority are men – or be the sort who will just not be P**** Whipped!

        Because it’s way more than likely that the women in our lives will chirp and agitate against an interest in flying, rather than encourage it.

        The bulk of GA fatalities result from weather related contacts with terrain – the VFR into IMC chestnut, stall spins at low level, coming to grief whilst doing something reckless, often involving low flying. These are all controllable risks. If they weren’t, I wouldn’t fly. Oh and piston twins to me just seem an easily avoidable, expensive danger.

        All we can do is convey that reality to friends and loved ones; that we as individuals are the sort of folks sufficiently diligent and competent to do so without testosterone and type A personality characteristics compromising our judgement and decision making.

        Nick South Africa

  • I have been reading your books when I started flying back in 1986. Reading and learning about how and why accidents occur is important to me.
    I was an instructor for many years and gave up flying in 1999 when I could not get a job that paid a livable wage. Four years ago I thought about flying again and possible instructing part time. During that time I received a phone call that would change that. My best friend Lenny was killed in a plane crash. Lenny and I become close friends at Emery Aviation College and have flown many hours together. He was a first officer at Frontier Airlines and had over 10,000 hours of flight time. The NTSB report stated that the mechanic forgot to tighten the spark plugs and during takeoff some of the plugs came loose and a couple came out. He tried to return to the airport on the upwind and hit the top of a light pole. In this case the NTSB blamed the mechanic. Lenny was delivering that airplane for a customer. He had no prior time in that airplane. I’ve had two catastrophic engine failures both with positive outcomes. I contribute that success with my being extremely comfortable flying those planes. In Lenny’s case he had no flying experience in that aircraft . If he had practiced emergency procedures and knew the flying characteristics of that plane would he have tried to return to the airport or flown straight ahead?

    We talk about minimizing risk.
    Before I flew any airplane I always received dual from someone qualified in that plane.
    It’s been twelve years since I’ve flown and I’m planning on going out to the airport this week. The first book I purchased was the Next Hour.

    Thanks Richard,

    Dave Whelan

  • Double engine failures on twins are typically fuel related (yes, there have been exceptions). The cost of overhauls on the Queen Air is mentioned as a possible relevant factor, but was it in fact? The twin Commanche accident is an apparent fuel related failure.

  • I don’t know if this is the most appropriate forum to post this comment but my gut feeling is that if Cirrus was manufactured with a common yoke instead of a sidestick it would be a safer airplane. Again, just a gut feeling.

  • Pilots of GA aircraft will always have an uphill battle trying to convince the public that we can be safe and flying in one can be a sheer pleasure. I am a low time “new” pilot @56 years old and it took one of my bravest daughters to be the 1st person to fly with me after receuiving my PPL. Once the flight ended my awesome daughter was grilled by everyone regarding the flight. The outcome from the many questions was a list as long as my arm of family memebers that wanted to go flying with me which I have succesfully accomplished. I do not hide behind rose colored glasses and tell the truth to muy paxs. Yes, flying is dangerous, but when you go up with me I can assure the folks that they are flying with a professional, competent and dedicated aviator that is 110% sure of the what’s, why’s and how’s

  • We all view the world through our own experiences, and this was mine… I grew up reading Ernest Gann and watching a tiny black & white TV with rabbit ears, as Sky King, Whirlybirds, Ripcord, The Blue Angels and 12 O’Clock High showed me the world of flight…

    The aviation bug was planted early and deep, and I could not wait to grow up and become an aviator… As a young man there was no fear factor, no calculations of cost, just a constant, burning passion to fly… And I did…

    I’m no social scientist, but we all know that television and movies can be hugely influential; for example Navy enlistments literally “zoomed” after Top Gun hit the cinemas… With today’s mega-cable TV providers needing to fill up hundreds of channels, a new wave of airplane shows is once again “on the air”… Ice Pilots, Mighty Planes, Flying Wild Alaska, Extreme Pilots, and more…

    My guess is that the next big wave of pilots is, at this very moment sitting in front of their 60” flat-screen, high-def TVs being influenced, enticed and encouraged toward flight by this resurgence of aviation related television programs…

    Looking forward to seeing them up here… Its been a long time since I’ve heard, “enter left downwind, you’re number five for the runway”…

  • In regard to the twin comanche with shot seals in the caps. The original design had a concave top with the rod going through the middle of it so any rain collected in this well and drained into the tanks. The first line of defense is supposed to be the seals on the doors. I vaseline mine if it looks like rain. Webco now has a replacement that is a convex shape which eliminates the problem. FYI

  • I know this is an older article, but maybe listing to Dick Collins just might save your life, & maybe it would have done the pilot much good in the accident report below if he had been following Dick’s writings.

    Incidents such as this will keep many from flying in small air planes not what Dick Collins is writing, what he is writing is for the flyers who will listens own good.

    This is a listing of those killed in the air plane crash incident listed below. Pilot McLaughlin, 40; passengers Kevin Kropf, 29; Ronald O. Hostetler, 41; and Hostetler’s three children, Alan John, 15; Eugene Ray, 14, and Robert David, 11. I knew everyone personal except for the pilot.

    Here is the report.
    http://planecrashmap.com/plane/ar/N479KC/

    Newspaper article
    http://www.apnewsarchive.com/1993/Six-Dead-in-Arkansas-Plane-Crash/id-60a9e8fb419fccecacbe9ee736c6eeb4

    I’m not a flyer but I believe the younger generation would do very good to listen to the experienced of Dick Collins, it will probably save your life along with the passengers you might have with you such as the man in the report above. Yet that’s hard for the younger generation to do, many of them must learn the hard way & the ‘school of hard knocks’ in a small air plane can be very “unforgiving.”

    May the Lord Bless,
    Jerry

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