Early versions of the first two all-new single engine airplane designs in years crashed within a few months of each other, leaving their test pilots and a passenger dead and leaving many people wondering just what went wrong with the airplanes that personify the resurgence of the industry.
Both were popular and promising FAR 23-certified composite aircraft. Both were factory prototypes that were not in the final conformity (certifiable) configuration. Both so far leave far more questions than answers.
On Jan. 8, a Pacific Aviation Composites LC 40-550FG, a prototype of the Lancair Columbia, was executing the second of two apparently normal instrument approaches to Portland (Ore.) International when it dropped off radar about one mile west of runway 10L.
The pilot had departed Bend, Ore., VFR and contacted Air Traffic Control for an IFR flight plan and a landing clearance. While the field was still listed as VFR, conditions were deteriorating and he was told of fog that was rapidly covering the field.
He was then cleared to land on 10L, but apparently dialed in the ILS frequency for 10R. The tower had him go-around to the north to get realigned with 10L.
On the second approach, radar recorded the aircraft at eight miles out as having a steady airspeed and subsequently a steady descent rate. The aircraft bracketed the localizer a few times then, at 600 feet, it appeared to level off.
Radar returns then indicated a left descending turn and, with airspeed increasing, it suddenly dropped off radar and crashed into the Columbia River. Both the instrument-rated company pilot and his passenger were killed.
The airplane was not on a flight test, although the pilot, Hans Oesch, had flown many of the test flights that resulted in the airplanes certification last year.
He was flying to Portland to deliver some papers. His passenger was a 20-year-old college student. The two were planning to spend the weekend in Portland.
The weather deteriorated significantly, and search crews in boats had limited success the night of the accident because of the dense fog.
Despite an extensive search over the next several days, none of the major structural components of the airplane, including the engine, cockpit and bodies of the occupants have been recovered.
From the wreckage found, it appears the aircraft impacted at a steep angle and at high airspeed. The local newspaper reported that searchers recovered the seats and discovered that the seat belts had been ripped from the frames. Metal rods were snapped in two and one hard-foam seat cushion was pulverized, according to the Portland Oregonian. Searchers also retrieved headsets, log books and a duffel bag of clothing from the fast-flowing river.
The sketchiness of the available details has put Lancair at a loss, although the company continues with plans to deliver the first Columbia 300 on schedule.
The loss of the Lancair may have been nothing more than a poorly flown approach that had tragic results.
But then on March 23 Cirrus SR20 serial number 1001, which carried an experimental registration, was destroyed in a crash during routine development tests.
While it was the first off the production line of the newly certified Cirrus design, it was not in the standard conformity configuration. The first two serial number aircraft were built as factory test models and not destined for customers. However, the number three aircraft and all subsequent ones will be in standard configuration.
Cirrus Design president Alan Klapmeier said that the flight was a routine test at the airplanes maximum gross weight of 2,900 pounds and at the maximum aft center of gravity.
In addition, the spring cartridge part of the aileron trim system and rudder-aileron interconnect was disconnected. According to the NTSB preliminary report, test pilot Scott Anderson declared an emergency five miles north of Duluth (Minn.) International, home to the Cirrus Design Co.
Northerly winds were reported to be 18-20 mph, presenting a strong gusty crosswind for landing on Duluths 10,152 foot runway 27.
At two miles north of the airport, Anderson reported he had a flight control problem. A witness saw the airplane overshoot the final turn to runway 27 and track down taxiway Alpha.
It then entered a steep bank and returned to runway 27; then tracked down the runway at 5 to 15 feet above the surface, with the nose yawed approximately 20 degrees right, into the crosswind. At mid-field the witness saw the aircraft begin a go-around to the left with a bank angle of about 90 degrees.
The nose then sliced down to about 20-40 degrees and the aircraft crashed within the confines of a Federal prison.
Although the airplane is certified with a ballistic recovery parachute, for which Anderson had flown the certification tests during 1998, this experimental version was not equipped with the device, nor does it appear likely that he could have used it in this situation due to the low altitude and extreme angle of bank.
When the wreckage of the airplane was examined, investigators found the fuselage to be in remarkably good condition, thanks to the strength of the composite structure. This bodes well for occupant survivability in accidents with a more shallow impact angle.
In this case the pilot was killed due to unsurvivable vertical impact forces when the left wing touched first, causing the fuselage to slap down with such force that it exceeded the designed impact capability of the Cirrus crash-worthy seat structure. The Cirrus seats are the latest in crash-worthiness, having been certified to the new FAR 23 Amendment 47 standards.
Cirrus received the SR20 type certificate in October 1998. With a reported 261 orders, the company is continuing assembly of production models. However extensive re-testing of the airplane is in progress to re-confirm all aspects of the airplanes flight envelope.
Essentially this amounts to a walk-through of the original certification tests. Meanwhile the company is working closely with the NTSB to learn the cause of the mishap.
One NTSB source said the test flight was to explore a region of the airplanes flight envelope a bit more completely.
The source said the airplane has a very weak rudder response or very poor rudder authority. As a result ailerons are required extensively in normal flight maneuvering to compensate for the lack of rudder power.
This characteristic is not unprecedented, but FAR 23 required coupling the controls. The fatal test flight involved un-coupling the rudder-aileron interconnect to check flight control characteristics.
The source also said the airplane tended to roll left, requiring rudder power that was unavailable to the pilot.
While both accidents are setbacks to the two companies plans to compete in the certified airplane market, the aerodynamically sleek Cirrus and Lancair appear to be the wave of the future in both structural integrity and modern 21st century styling.
So far, the market appears to be taking a wait-and-see attitude over the crashes.
Both companies say customers who have ponied up deposits for the new planes are sticking with their plans to buy. Barring official conclusions that the crashes were due to design or construction flaws, the Cirrus and Lancair appear to be ready to emerge from these tragedies with promising futures.
Also With This Article
Click here to view “NTSB Preliminary Reports.”
-by John Lowery