With a Cirrus kicker plus a lesson or two
Fifteen years ago I did a safety study on both the 182 and the 36 and because those legacy transportation airplanes are still in limited production, I thought I would look at them then and now and then stir in some Cirrus. That airplane was just coming to us then and it is close to dominating new production now.
I sort of have a dog in the hunt with the 182 and 36 as well. I owned a 182 for a couple of years and flew it 1,000 hours and I have flown every model of the Bonanza ever built, except the current G36. With that in mind I have always considered these two airplanes to be brave, courageous and true in the finest sense of those words.
The picture presented 15 years ago was based on accidents that happened in preceding years, or, more than 15 years ago. The same is true of the accident picture presented for the current time.
An airplane’s accident history is directly related to what people do with that airplane. The 182 and 36 have been staples in the private aviation travel fleet since they were introduced in 1956 and 1968 respectively. Sure, people just ride around in these airplanes, like any other, and they have special purpose uses, but most of the time they are going somewhere and history has proven that the longer the trip, the greater chance of weather trouble.
The 36 is faster so it has been used over longer distances and in more IFR operations. The 182 is simpler and a good step-up from the ubiquitous 172 so it is used over somewhat shorter distances and more VFR than IFR flying. The 36 cruises at 160-175 knots where the 182 does 135-145 knots and while that difference doesn’t seem like a lot, it really is if flying a substantial distance
I think it is safe to say that the 182 and 36 fleets are about the same size or a little smaller now than in the previous period. The production numbers have not been big and accidents and retirements have probably outnumbered production. With either airplane though, you can gussie up the oldest one and have the basic capability of a new one for a fraction of the price. Do remember, though, that the cost of operation relates more to the new price today than how much money you have in an old one. We’ll see if that is becoming a factor in accidents.
I calculated that the 182 had a fatal accident rate of .74 per 100,000 hours in the earlier period. That was better than the average for the private airplane fleet and only the 172 was better at .56.
I used accidents from two years, to get a meaningful sample. In this period, the 182 had 17 fatal accidents. Fifteen years later a two-year period found 14 fatal accidents. Because the fleet hours flown would likely only be slightly lower that suggests that the accident rate hasn’t changed much and is still quite good.
In the first sample, about half the events came as a pilot continued VFR into adverse weather. Two were IFR. Several low speed loss of control accidents (stall/spin) occurred on go-arounds. There was but one power-related accident and it was related to carburetor icing during an IFR flight over rough terrain. New 182s have fuel injected engines to address that problem.
Fast forward and there were no fatal accidents on go-arounds but there were three stall/spins at other times. One airplane was lost on an IFR flight after a significant icing encounter. I will look at that in more depth in a minute. There were two fatal accidents after the mechanical failure of the engine which was something that did not show up in the previous period.
If one thing stands out in the latest accident picture, it would be mountains. Several of the 182s lost were operating in quite high terrain and hit mountains. One did report an engine problem before the accident in a mountainous area but a reason for the problem was not established.
The differing accident patterns over time suggest that 182s are being used a bit differently now. Pilots don’t seem to be pushing weather as much when flying VFR and that one IFR icing accident suggests that most of those operating the airplane IFR are doing so with good care.
In doing safety studies over the years I, a dedicated single-engine advocate, have always been encouraged by the almost complete lack of engine-failure related fatal accidents in singles. That appears to be changing, by at least a bit, and I fear that the trend will continue as the airplanes age and the price of overhaul or replacement goes up as the value of the airframe goes down. Pilots are free to buy and fly old ones but it needs to be done with an understanding that the risk goes up if plenty of TLC money is not spent.
I said I would revisit the 182 icing accident. I had one significant icing encounter in my 182 in 1970. There was a lot of irony in the activities of that day and I will digress and tell that tale first.
We lived in Little Rock and were going to Fayetteville to watch the Razorbacks play SMU. The possibility of icing was mentioned in the telephone weather briefing but to me it was clearly okay to have a look. A cold front had passed and while there can sure be icing behind a cold front it usually isn’t severe because the clouds have had time to get cold and try to freeze those pesky super-cooled water droplets.
I changed altitudes several times and finally found an ice-free level after accumulating what I estimated to be between a half inch and an inch of ice. The airplane was flying fine and had lost only about 10 knots of indicated airspeed.
The weather at FYV was 900 overcast and two. I remember the surface wind as being from 300 at 20 or 30 knots. I was quite familiar with the area and the rough terrain around the airport so was not at all surprised at the rather wild turbulence during the circling approach, the only one available at the time. I got some more ice on the first part of the descent but it started to melt off at about 2,000 feet a.g.l. I left the flaps up and the gusty crosswind landing was okay. No damage in other words.
It was just another day at the office except for a little last minute drama.
Another airplane, a Southern Airways DC-9 charter, came up on the frequency, destination Fayetteville, as I was flying the turbulent approach. I remember thinking that a circling approach with a ceiling that close to the surrounding hills in a DC-9, with a strong tailwind on base leg and crosswind on Runway 34 would be a lot more challenging than the same thing in a 182.
I don’t remember the exact conversation but the controller, who was obviously a pilot and familiar with the area, asked the airline crew if they were familiar with the airport. The answer was that they had never been there, which was completely legal for that operation at that time. The controller started describing the runway and the terrain and the turbulence and the ice and the circling approach and the crew opted to divert to Fort Smith and let the team ride a bus to Fayetteville. There was plenty of time for them to do that and arrive in time for the game.
A bit later, early the evening of the same day a Southern DC-9 was flying a non-precision approach to an airport in rough terrain, Huntington, WV, an airport the crew had not visited before. For reasons never fully established, they descended below the MDA, hit a hillside, and The Marshall University football team and a lot of other folks were lost.
So I remember 11/14/1970. Lesson learned. FYI, the Razorbacks won 36-3 and the kicker, Bill McClard, set a distance record for a field goal. Should the record have counted with a 30 knot tailwind?
The 182 with the much more recent ice problem was at 8,000 feet when the pilot reported rime ice and asked for 10,000. Then he asked for 8,000 and then 6,000 and then 4,000, reporting ice all the while and finally saying that he couldn’t maintain 4,000. At 2,500 feet the flight was in VMC. The airplane was quite obviously crippled by the ice and a decision was made to land on a road where some trees alongside the road intervened. Of the three on board, one died.
When I read that, I could only come to the conclusion that they encountered a much more severe icing condition than I had encountered years ago and that had prompted me to decide that a 182 would carry one big load of ice without being overwhelmed. Another lesson learned: There will always be bigger ice than what you have seen.
The 182 had a relatively high total accident rate and it probably still does. The simpler accidents come mostly on landing. The problem there is with pilots using more flaps than they really need for landing. At forward cg a full-flapped 182 will slow rapidly when flared and if just a tad high the airplanes can pitch nose down right before it touches and that can cause all manner of craziness. I seldom used more than 20-degree flaps on my 182.
The Bonanza 36 had a fatal accident rate of 1.81 per 100,000 hours which was substantially above the 182 and somewhat above average.
Where the 182 had a lot of VFR weather accidents, the 36 had about the same number of IFR accidents, usually caused by lousy flying or deviations from the procedures.
There were no fatal accidents related to a mechanical failure of the engine but there were three caused by fuel starvation. The pilot of a 36 does have to choose either the left or right tank and for the engine to run the tank selected has to have fuel in it.
The 36 had about the same involvement in stall spin accidents as the 182 and there were three cases of pilot impairment caused by prescription drugs in the 36 and none like that in the 182. I used to think that made sense because 36 guys have more money and take more drugs but as time runs more and more of the population is popping pills.
In Bonanzas there has long had an accident history related to an improperly latched cabin door coming open right after takeoff followed by a rush to return and land and ending in a stall/spin accident. That still happened 15 years ago and it still does.
I looked at three years of 36 accidents in both periods because it is a smaller fleet and I felt that gave a more complete picture. The 36 had 19 fatals in the first period and 18 in the second so I think it is accurate to say that the rate didn’t change much if at all.
There was one engine failure related fatal accident in the 36 in the later period. The flight was IFR and the pilot was preparing for the approach with 800 overcast and 10 miles visibility when the engine quit. He hit a house during the forced landing. The engine had pretty well dismantled itself and though the final report is not out, available information indicates that the pilot might have stalled the airplane as he maneuvered for the forced landing.
The NTSB also mention induction icing as a possibility in one IFR accident in icing conditions over the mountains but I seriously doubt if that was the case.
The 36 had a big share of IFR accidents in the later period but it also had a few VFR weather accidents which it hadn’t had earlier.
Where there had been drug problems with pilots previously, there were none in the later period. One pilot did die while taxiing out for takeoff.
So the accident picture changed a little for the 182 and 36 over 15 years and the flight activity probably remained about the same. I’d bet the average age of the owners of these aircraft increased substantially though probably not by 15 years.
While this was going on something new was afoot in transportation airplanes, something that resulted in an important increase in the activity as well as a new and younger bunch of pilots, relatively far removed from the crusty old buzzards flying 182s and 36s. Enter the parachute-packing Cirrus.
I’ll start by saying that I don’t think a majority of the pilots now using Cirrus SR-22 airplanes for serious transportation would be doing so had the parachute not been part of the package. That feature attracted a new breed of user.
The Cirrus accident rate was terrible to begin but it improved rapidly in recent years and now appears to be at or better than the average for the fleet. One big reason for this was that in the early years Cirrus pilots appeared reluctant to use the parachute. An aggressive educational campaign changed that and where there used to be a lot more fatal accidents than parachute saves, that had reversed, big time.
Because the Cirrus is closer in performance to the 36 than the 182 I looked at the number of fatal accidents in the Cirrus SR-22 during the same recent time period used for the 36. The SR-22 had 13 compared with 18 for the 36.
What about activity? Both these airplanes are flown IFR a lot and a perusal of what’s up on the FlightAware website usually shows a lot more SR-22s than 36s. At eight this morning (11/07/2016), for example, there were 32 SR-22s and 11 36s flying in the IFR system. (To put that in context, there were also 1,430 Airbus A320s up there.)
It is encouraging that transportation flying in these private airplanes actually seems to be increasing. This was the real backbone of the activity in the heyday and if an increasing number of people discover that there is still no better way to travel around this country than in your own airplane, private air transportation could start growing again. A jet or turboprop would be nice but high-performance singles will get the job done for a lot less money.