As sure as the snow melts, it happens every April and July – a string of mishaps occur that read like a top ten list of general aviation accident causes. Ironically, these mishaps are the unfortunate fallout from two events that energize the GA community – Sun n Fun at Lakeland, Fla., and EAA AirVenture at Oshkosh, Wis.
Pilots plan months ahead for their pilgrimage to those Meccas of aviation. When the big day approaches, Internet computer bulletin boards and e-mail lists come alive with message traffic detailing who is going and when. They map out where to meet and discuss what latest aeronautical goodies theyll hunt for.
However, the correspondents seldom discuss how to make a safe journey – that seems to be taken for granted.
Maybe it shouldnt be. Last year there were at least 17 accidents, nine fatal, involving aircraft flying to or from these events. Like many GA accidents, most did not have to happen.
At last years AirVenture at Oshkosh I got to witness one of the needless accidents. As I sat in a line of aircraft waiting to depart, I watched as a Bonanza pilot continued with a very unstable approach until he crashed adjacent to the runway. Fortunately there were no serious injuries, but a simple go-around would have salvaged the situation and made his day – and mine – a lot better.
The Top Ten
The accidents involved all phases of flight – takeoff, en route and landing – and they covered all the accident bases – including such standards as VFR flight into instrument conditions, stall/spin and fuel exhaustion.
Four accidents, three fatal, occurred during the takeoff phase of flight. An accident involving engine failure on takeoff after a stop in Illinois killed aircraft interior specialist Don Stretch on his way to Oshkosh. A Cessna Cardinal, also heading for Oshkosh, departed Benton, Ill., with thunderstorms in the area and didnt make it a mile from the airfield before crashing.
An ultralight at Sun n Fun made a downwind takeoff, overran the runway and hit a ditch, with fatal results. The pilot of an Aventura II homebuilt on his way to Sun n Fun became distracted when the landing gear wouldnt retract. He stalled and crashed but survived.
Mishaps in the enroute phase of flight resulted in seven accidents, four fatal. A non-instrument rated pilot flying a Cessna 190 enroute to Sun n Fun entered IMC conditions in Arkansas, became spatially disoriented and crashed out of control.
Two died in a K35 Bonanza enroute to Oshkosh when it crashed in Iowa while thunderstorms were active. A F4U fighter replica didnt make it to Sun n Fun after fuel exhaustion near an enroute fuel stop airport.
A Lancair made a forced landing after paper towels blocked the air intake. Engine failure for unknown reasons was behind the fatal forced landing of a Kolb Slingshot. A KR-2 that hadnt been flown for 40 days suffered an engine stoppage because of fuel contamination. In the mountains of Utah, a Glastar entered an unexplained descent and crashed.
Landing accidents, two fatal, claimed six aircraft. Two stall/spin accidents in the landing pattern at Oshkosh claimed two lives and two homebuilts. A Civil Air Patrol Cessna 182 suffered a crunched nose gear and firewall while landing at Sun n Fun. An RV-6 landed hard.
A C35 Bonanza crashed next to the runway while attempting to land at Oshkosh. A Lancair on the way home from Oshkosh made two fly-bys at a private airstrip in New York before crashing on the third.
Year After Year
Some years are better than others, but the increased flying activity generated by Sun n Fun and Oshkosh equates to increased workload for the NTSB. Pilots can start to address that problem by taking as much time to refine their skills as aviators as they take to prepare themselves as airshow spectators and aviation shoppers.
A good place to start is with the airshow arrival procedure. Both events publish detailed instructions that are readily available from a number of sources – the Experimental Aircraft Association as well as Notam books and pamphlets at Flight Service Stations, Flight Standards District Offices or FBOs. These arrival procedures come complete with graphic diagrams and frequency lists and are as important as your credit card. Dont leave home without them.
When you obtain the procedure for your destination, study it. Get a sectional chart and reconcile the arrival graphic detail with the chart depiction. Load into your navigator the Lat/Long of the arrival procedure entry point. To minimize distractions during your arrival at the fly-in, get as familiar with the procedure as is possible without being there.
While youre looking at the sectional chart, assess what suitable divert airfields are close to the destination in case the field is saturated with traffic or closed to arrivals.
Next, consider your proficiency as an aviator. And were not just talking about legal currency here, either. The last thing you want to do is enter the fray of those two shows with rusty skills. And remember the currency FARs are the minimum acceptable standards, not the desired benchmark.
Now look at your airplane. Are the inspections current? Any squawks? Some forced landings are no surprise to the pilot involved. They took off with, as the NTSB terms it, a known mechanical deficiency.
Spend some time with the airplane flight manual or pilots operating handbook. Work a sample weight and balance problem based on the anticipated load, both for takeoff and landing. Most pilots think of weight and balance only in terms of its effect on takeoff.
A lot of airplanes arrive for landing at the show airport with a minimum fuel load and a maximum load in the cabin and baggage compartments. Since the C.G. moves aft with fuel burn-off in some airplanes (the V-Tail Bonanza is a good example) this situation can lead to dangerous out of C.G. conditions that produces unusual stall speeds and quirky handling and landing characteristics.
While youre in the airplane books, look over the performance charts. A loaded airplane on a hot day is not going to takeoff, climb, or cruise like it does with just one pax on the Saturday morning breakfast run.
This was reinforced to me last year when I took off for Oshkosh, loaded, in late afternoon on probably the hottest, most humid day of the year (naturally). I was truly surprised, despite a reduced fuel load, how much runway I consumed on departure and how pathetic was the initial climb. Even my wife noticed and mentioned it when I called from Oshkosh to report our safe arrival.
Think about these potentially unusual performance characteristics when selecting an enroute stop or a divert airport. Pick an airport with plenty of runway and no obstructions. That relatively short strip with great fuel prices may not seem like such a terrific bargain when the trees at the end loom large on takeoff.
Speaking of fuel, for heavens sake dont run out on the way to or from the show. Thats a pretty simple statement, but determining how much fuel is required for a trip is student pilot stuff. Just do it. During one airshow at Oshkosh, a Cessna 182 ran out of fuel on short final for Wittman Fields runway 27 and ditched into Lake Winnebago. As that pilot found out while swimming to shore, close is not good enough.
Every pilot on the planet has heard that fuel supply should be measured in how much time aloft it will give. That is a good technique, as long as you take the most conservative route. If either your fuel gauges or your watch tells you to stop for fuel, make the stop.
Having plenty on board is not the only fuel worry. Youve got to manage it properly. Plan your fuel usage so that you switch to a tank with ample fuel just before you start the airshow arrival procedure. Youre going to be plenty busy with lots of distractions. Might as well remove the worry of switching tanks.
The last important in-the-book task is to review the airplanes emergency procedures. Sit in the cockpit and go over some of the memory item drills such as engine failure, loss of electrical system and forced landing procedures.
One procedure not in the books but drummed into the head of every pilot is for engine failure immediately after takeoff. Keep the airplane upright and make shallow turns to line up on whatever terrain offers the least objectionable landing area. Worry about saving yourself first, the airplane second.
Be realistic about your chances of making the trip without weather problems if you or your aircraft are not instrument flying capable and youre flying a long way. Its pretty hard to fly more than 500 miles without crossing some type of weather system, especially if youre making a springtime trip to Sun n Fun. Get a good weather brief before you go and keep it up to date enroute.
Try to leave yourself a weather out. Look for a useful side trip to make if weather blocks your route. Drop in on relatives or old friends for a visit. Make a stop in a city along the way youve been meaning to see. That way you wont be sitting at some FBO looking for a reason to launch into iffy conditions.
Arrival procedures for Sun n Fun and Oshkosh require precise airspeed and altitude control while maneuvering for several miles via visual reference to geographic landmarks. Those are skills not often used by the average GA pilot, so practice them before you go. This is also a good time to take a hard look at your overall stick and rudder skills.
If you think practicing slow flight is unnecessary, know that an ATP-rated pilot spun-in while turning base to final on the first day of the Oshkosh show last year. Two days later, a well-known Internet aviation forum participant stalled and spun-in his Glasair while S-turning to comply with an Oshkosh controllers request for more spacing. A few days later I watched the Bonanza crash. It was a bad year for landing accidents.
At a safe altitude, fly at the airspeed specified in the arrival procedure (usually 90 knots) and maintain altitude precisely. Get used to the mushy control feel by practicing some turns. (The Sun n Fun procedure requires two 90 degree turns.)
Try making some S-turns that may be required for spacing and practice rocking the wings vigorously a few times as is so often requested for identification by tower controllers at these events.
After honing your slow flight skills at altitude, try flying at roughly the height agl called for in the arrival procedure while following a road for several miles. Maintain precise control of airspeed and altitude.
If you find it difficult to see over the nose at the deck angle required by the slow airspeed, try dropping a notch of flaps to bring it down.
Make a note of the required power settings so that you can quickly configure your airplane when it comes time to enter the arrival flow, but remember that temperature, as well as weight and balance, may require some power adjustment from your practice settings.
Watch engine temps and open the cowl flaps as necessary. If youre flying a retractable, try these exercises with the gear up and down to get the feel.
When youve mastered accurate airspeed and altitude control, practice landing at a specific spot on the runway, both at the numbers and farther down in the touchdown zone. Sun n Fun and Oshkosh have adopted colored markings on the runway that may be assigned by the tower controllers as targets for landing touchdown.
Im not a big fan of these markings. Theyre sometimes hard to see and pilots may focus on them so completely that other flying tasks may be neglected. But they exist and youll be expected to perform if requested. Practice, practice, practice if you need it.
While youre practicing spot landings, pay attention to precise centerline tracking since you may be sharing the runway with another aircraft. Same goes for takeoff.
If youre a chatterbox on the radio, youll have to modify your behavior. At the two big airshows, 98 percent of the talking is done by the controllers. You need only to listen and rock your wings when requested. Ive flown to Oshkosh 21 straight years and I dont think Ive said five words on the radio, except during instrument arrivals.
The airshow controllers are some of the best of the business. They get an incredible number of airplanes on and off the airport in an amazingly short time.
But a variety of things can foul up their best-laid plans, and you may have to go around. At times theyll call for you to go around, but there will be times that you may have to make that decision on your own.
Whether its at ATCs request or you decide on your own to go around, do it without hesitation. Once you start the go-around, stick with it and dont try to land.
If you go around, listen up. ATC may try to resequence you into the pattern. If not, fly the VFR departure for your landing runway (another good reason to review the procedures before you go) and enter the arrival procedure from the beginning. Thats what a fuel reserve is for.
Really, many of these techniques for flying safely to Sun n Fun and Oshkosh apply to any trip. But for our trips to the showcases of general aviation, lets give the NTSB a break and make it a personal crusade to fly safely.
-by Bill Kight
Youll keep Bill Kight away from an airshow when you pry his cold, dead fingers from the yoke of his Mooney.