Saturday, June 11, 2016

Fatal Crash at Local Airport

Wreckage of Cirrus SR22 at local KMWA airport yesterday.

Fatal Crash

Yesterday at 4:38 p.m. in good weather, a Cirrus SR22 apparently landed long during touch-and-go landing practice at KMWA airport and overran the runway. Of the two aboard, one is confirmed dead. Occasionally, the Bear has written aviation articles, and this is one of them.

The Cirrus SR22 is a sweet little airplane that is very popular, although most students train in the venerable Cessna 172 Skyhawk.

Cirrus SR22

Touch-and-go landings are a late part of a student pilot's training. The student lands, immediately raises flaps and throttles up to take off, then comes around and does it all over again. The airplane is never stopped. Nearly everything else about flying an airplane is a cinch, but landings are as much an art as a science. They are hard. That's why students practice them so much.

Undoubtedly, one of the two was the CFI; the other would have been the student pilot. It was almost certainly the student who was in control of the aircraft.

Airspeed, Airspeed, Airspeed

How does an accident like this happen? Like the Bear said, landing is hard. You have to have a number of things just right -- configuration (e.g. flaps), airspeed (airspeed, airspeed), altitude, rate of descent, and, of course being lined up properly. Did the Bear mention airspeed?

With a crosswind it really gets fun, because your airplane's nose is not pointing in the same direction your airplane is going. It will always "weathervane" into the wind. Just before touchdown, you have to line it up by kicking the rudder over. At least that's how the Bear was trained.

Of all of these, airspeed is the most important. You would think it would be the easiest, since there is a big thing marked with numbers with a needle in front of you. But so many accidents happen because of failure to pay attention to airspeed. Even professional captains can make this basic mistake, as in the 777 crash on landing in San Francisco. (At least they had the excuse of believing the airplane would land itself without their help. That would be, not exactly.)

A long landing can be caused by coming in too fast, too high, or "floating" That is a frustrating experience where you just can't make your airplane get down those few extra feet to the runway, due to an aerodynamic interaction between your wings and the ground. Ultimately, though, it's trying to land without enough runway left.

Go Around, Go Around, Go Around

You would think pilots would power up and abort a landing when things were not going exactly right, but, oddly, they sometimes don't. Then, they usually die, along with whoever else had the misfortune of sitting next to them, probably a poor CFI who has invested $40,000 in his education and is getting paid box store wages.

This particular airport, KMWA, is one with which the Bear is familiar. Once, as a student, he was proudly demonstrating his fledgling skills to his brother, who was in the back seat. Not taking into account the extra weight in the tin-can Cessna, the Bear made a very firm landing. Nothing was bent, however, except the Bear's ego. Tough little birds those Skyhawks.

Forcing a landing without enough runway left is the obvious result here. Pilot error has to be expected. Always better to go around if your landing does not look picture perfect.

The Dangers of General Aviation

Ironically, the Cirrus SR22 is famously equipped with a parachute to bring the aircraft down safely if it cannot remain airborne for some reason. Obviously, it wouldn't have helped here.

There are no two ways about it. General Aviation flying can be dangerous. Mostly because of poor judgment on the part of pilots, not a lack of airmanship. A careful pilot flying a well-maintained airplane is very safe. They don't fly through questionable weather, they know their equipment, they keep their heads, and they use their checklists.

It is said that in general, men show better airmanship, but poorer judgment; and women show poorer airmanship but better judgment. The Bear would rather go with the latter if he had to choose.

Despite the informed conjecture here, we won't know for certain what happened until the NTSB and FAA complete their investigation. The Bear is not assigning blame or criticizing these particular pilots, but is speaking in general terms of accidents like these. The Bear wasn't there and doesn't know the particular circumstances of this crash. It is very sad when the absolute joy of flying turns into a nightmare, especially when it ends in death.

The last fatal crash there was in 1985. The pilot of a Cessna 150 suffered a fatal heart and his wife unsuccessfully attempted to land. So you never know for sure what happened until the investigation is concluded.

Oddly, just yesterday, the Bear was telling one of his sons that he ought to consider getting his PPL, and that he would buy him a "Discovery Flight." The Bear's mate was passing the airport at nearly the exact time the crash occurred.

St. Bart's Overrun

Here is an example of a runway overrun without such drastic consequences. This is at St. Bart's, famous for having the shortest runway in the world. Just 2100 feet long. And, you've got to clear a hill on short final. Pilots bringing tourists in must be specially certified as having Jedi powers or something.

You can also tell there is a crosswind by the way the airplane is crabbing into the wind, but that should not have made a difference. The pilot is over-commited to landing, even when two-thirds of the already short runway is behind him. (The Bear would abort a landing beyond the one-third mark, and enjoyed putting it on the numbers, the Navy way.)

Why did he not go around and save himself a bent airplane? A go-around is a bit inconvenient, and an admission that you screwed up your landing. Yeah, the Bear knows: pretty dumb, huh? Notice how the airplane is "floating" down the runway to the two-thirds mark. That can be maddening. There's not a lot you can do at that point; you probably came in too fast. The pilot was probably so focused on waiting for a chance to flare (and also dealing with a fairly mild crosswind) he lost situation awareness. Perhaps he thought his turbo twin's "beta" function (sort of a reverse gear) would save him.

Fortunately, no one was injured.


  1. I have some experience in aviation. The topic you raise is central to basic airmanship, and is pertinent to pilots, (as you say) across all experience levels. WHY do pilots continue down a path that is obviously not working toward an increasingly likely bad outcome.

    I have seen this so many times in my career. It comes down to this: it is hard to say "No", and stop trying to complete the task that may be doomed to failure.

    Here is an interesting link on the important role of being willing to say NO" when making flying decisions.

    It is exceedingly difficult, for whatever reason, to stop going down a chosen path and redirect to a new outcome. I have directed go-arounds from improper approaches and have also observed others directing them, and the common reaction I see to the verbal prompt from the flying pilot is .... Surprise. Almost like a slap in the face. "What? You want me to go-around?" There is a moment of mental transition, then the new go-around phase is entered, no problem. It is like a form of tunnel vision where all concentration is devoted to the task at hand and when one's abilities have been exceeded there is nothing left in the mental tank to see what's going on around you. It's known in the aviation community as a "loss of SA / Situational Awareness", a most serious problem.

    It is as if an excessive mental fixation on completing a task excludes room for needed parallel judgement. Such a pilot does not see how far from safety margins he is. Under any other circumstance (sitting in a classroom, talking about it over beers), he would agree such a departure was unacceptable. But in the heat of the flying moment he.just.does.not.see.them. I have called a go-around on myself, and I can tell you it is mentally difficult to transition from one direction (landing) to another (going around or possibly diverting).

    In a two pilot airplane it is good to have a pilot flying and another pilot monitoring. They are both flying, but with different tasks. One is manipulating controls to attain the desired plan. The other is monitoring the results and communicating mutually agreed upon deviations to the flying pilot; acting as the big picture safety monitor. The monitoring pilot is not mentally tasked with the mechanical tasks of flying, so he can see safety departures more readily.

    Not seeing these safety departure developments (caused by lack of skill or experience or tunnel vision) is usually what leads to accidents like that you describe.

    I looked up your airport information. It certainly doesn't lack runway, unlike the video link you provided. THAT runway looked about as bad as any I've seen. Its steep terrain cause a steep final approach leading to a short runway. Red flags in my mind before takeoff, much less landing.

    A good rule of thumb for your personal GA use is a "Latest Touchdown Point". Determine the last point on the runway acceptable for touchdown during pre-flight planning. Determine this point with reference to an airfield diagram. That way, when you land and you see your LTP going by, you will be programmed to terminate a failed landing by your pre-flight preparation. I have a formula I apply to tight runway situations. Setting this point for latest touchdown takes the guess-work out of it when you don't have as much time to judge and the end of your flight is not going as planned.

    And finally, here is a link to a blog from someone who appears to know, with NTSB experience, who speculates the Cirrus line may have built in design flaws affecting basic controllability. You might find t interesting also.

  2. Yes, all your points are valid. Now Cockpit Resource Management is stressed in airliners. There was the famous Tenerife crash of one 747 taking off in fog and slamming into another on the runway. To this day it is the greatest loss of life of any air disaster. The pilot flying failed to heed his pilot not flying's warnings, and since the former was senior and abrupt, the latter did not insist. The captain wanted to get on that runway and take off. Like you said, it is a fixation on a single aspect of the flight while losing focus on everything else.

    We also see this when pilots know there is bad weather, but take off anyway. (This would be general aviation aircraft.) It's such a pain to lay over. Maybe the weather won't be so bad. But so often, this ends badly.

    I have landed at that airport, and that runway is actually humped. You land and go up the hill, then go down the other side LOL Of course it is much more subtle than that, but it is definitely noticeable, and a bit intimidating a a new pilot. Not that would have anything to do with this incident.

    I find the Cirrus a bit odd for a trainer, but it has been awhile since I went through my training. I don't know if the Cessna 172s are still the mainstay of the training fleet. The reason I bring this up is because I wondered if this was a new buy for the "student" getting familiarized with the Cirrus. I'm not sure they do that; never could afford my own airplane (!) Should have been a tort lawyer!

    1. The Cessna is a fantastic airplane; as safe as can be. Beats them all by a long shot, even if it's performance numbers don't measure up. Tried and true and as sturdy as a tank.

      Click on the link at the bottom of my (lengthy ... sorry) post. That link includes a very interesting YouTube discussion by an insider on Cirrus design deficiencies, using a specific accident as an example. Based on what you say here, I think you'll find it useful.

      A flying bear! Who'd a thunk?

    2. Yes. The Cessna is very nice. I flew a Bonanza once as my "fee" for a friend of a friend's son's case. Just can't beat the Cessna for reliability and the view.

  3. Interesting video and page, Brian. I was not aware of any of that about the Cirrus. It turns out the CFI survived -- a 64 year old man. The student (still not sure if he was training or certifying) was a 56 year old lawyer.

    It really makes me appreciate the Cessnas that are just so well laid-out and simple. My imaginary airplane will remain a Skyhawk.


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