Editor's Log

March 1999 Issue




Test Failed

A pilot’s attitude can stack the deck before the engine even starts.

More than 14 months after the crash of singer John Denver in a Long-EZ off the California coast, the NTSB at press time released its final report on the accident.

The investigation of the last flight of N555JD is noteworthy because Denver’s high profile ensured a more thorough investigation than otherwise would have occurred. The final result of the investigation has become well known, that Denver likely lost control while turning around to switch fuel tanks using the selector that was mounted behind him.

But the lessons that can be learned from Denver’s crash are more lasting than the no-brainer opinion that you shouldn’t mount your fuel selector where you can’t reach it.

Though Denver’s ability to entertain set him apart from the masses, his ability to pilot airplanes was decidedly average. He had a few incidents in his background. He had about 2,700 hours on his private ticket. Like many other people, he had over the years accumulated a multi rating, instrument rating, sea plane rating and glider rating. A testimony to his wealth is a Learjet rating.

The Long-EZ was Denver’s new toy. The day before the accident, Denver got a “checkout” that involved two touch-and-goes, some slow flight and a review of the airplane’s systems. In order to reach the rudder pedals, Denver put a pillow on the seat back.

The preparation for the flight – or lack thereof – set the stage for disaster. Although he had flown a couple of other Long-EZ demo flights, his preparation for flying a new type was part of the problem. Amateur-built airplanes are distinct from their certified cousins in that they vary widely in terms of construction quality, weight, power and even handling characteristics. That means each airplane – not just each new type – has to be approached with the same caution a test pilot reserves for an upcoming flight.

I’m no test pilot, but I don’t think cruising over the ocean at 500 feet is quite the right technique.

Much has been made about Denver’s supposed problem with alcohol and whether the FAA was really trying to yank his medical. In a way, the alcohol, the controversy over the medical, and the accident all tie into one common thread: pilot attitude.

Flying is fun, but it can’t be taken as lightly. Don’t think beach volleyball, think motorcycle racing.

The most critical piece of equipment on the airplane is between the pilot’s ears. When that stops working, it doesn’t matter how many hours you have or how fancy your bird. Because gravity will always be trying to drag you down.


-Ken Ibold