Straight and level can be boring, there’s no question about it. Occasionally racking over into a steep bank, or performing the commercial-certificate maneuvers when you don’t have to, are among the ways non-aerobatic pilots can relieve some of the monotony of using an airplane for transportation.
For some, it’s all about showing off. Others may just want to challenge themselves, perhaps to see if they can still perform as they did on their checkride. And most of the time, that’s okay—a steep turn or max-performance maneuver every now and then usually won’t have an adverse consequence, presuming the airplane’s limitations are respected.
It’s when we fail to respect the airplane, or the conditions under which we’re operating it, that we can get into trouble.
On August 14, 2011, at about 1430 Mountain time, a Cessna P210N impacted terrain about one-eighth mile off the departure end of Runway 20 at the Burley (Idaho) Municipal Airport. The private pilot and his three passengers received fatal injuries and the airplane, owned by the pilot, sustained substantial damage. The flight was originating at the time of the accident.
Up to beginning the takeoff roll, the aircraft’s operation had been normal. Because witnesses’ view was temporarily blocked, it could not be determined if the pilot performed a run-up prior to turning onto the runway. The airplane was seen accelerating down the runway and lifting off at a location later determined to be about three-quarters of the way down the runway. Just after liftoff, the main landing gear was seen moving aft, and then retracting into the fuselage “with the jerky asymmetrical sequencing typical of retractable gear Cessna 210 airplanes.” At an altitude estimated by witnesses to be about 75 feet agl, and the airplane not yet to the end of the runway, it was seen banking to the left and starting what appeared to be a left turn.
Almost immediately after the airplane entered the left bank, it began a gradual descent. It then continued to descend toward terrain in the left bank, ultimately impacting the surface of an asphalt road located immediately beyond airport property in what nearby witnesses estimated was a 30-degree bank angle. The left wingtip was the first part of the airplane to contact the road. The airplane then bounced back into the air and traveled about 75 feet before colliding with a set of railroad tracks. It then slid about 55 feet further before coming to rest. Almost immediately, an intense fire, which had been initiated upon contact with the railroad tracks, engulfed the entire airframe.
Five days prior to the accident, the pilot and his family departed California for the flight to Burley, Idaho. While en route, the airplane’s alternator stopped functioning and the pilot deviated for repairs. The family reached its destination by automobile. Three days prior to the accident, the pilot picked up the airplane from maintenance and flew to a nearby airport to fill the tanks with relatively inexpensive fuel. After taking on 94.24 gallons of fuel, the pilot flew directly to Burley.
Although the exact weight of the airplane at the time of the takeoff could not be positively determined, takeoff gross weight and performance calculations were performed based on the assumption that all three fuel tanks (two mains and the auxiliary) had been topped off when the pilot refueled and that about 70 pounds of fuel was used during the subsequent flight to Burley.
Based upon fuel and baggage weight assumptions, the weights of the occupants and the most recent weight and balance found in the airplane’s records, the takeoff weight was estimated to be within 50 pounds, plus or minus, of its maximum takeoff gross weight of 4000 pounds.
The 1353 Metar at the Burley Municipal Airport reported a wind from 030 degrees at three knots, 10 miles visibility, clear skies, temperature of 90 deg. F, dewpoint of 36 deg. F, and an altimeter setting of 29.97 inches. The airport manager later updated this information to include a temperature of 91 deg. F, and wind from between 020 and 030 deg. at six knots at the time of the accident. Based on the field elevation of 4150 feet msl, the density altitude was calculated to be 7116 feet. Based on the estimated weight, the temperature of 91 deg. F, and the tailwind of six knots, the expected takeoff ground roll was determined to be 2412 feet, and the 50-foot obstacle clearance distance was determined to be 4048 feet.
All of the airplane’s non-ferrous metal structural components were consumed or destroyed by the fire, except for the rudder, right elevator, a portion of the engine cowling, and the outboard half of the right wing. Despite significant damage to the engine, and its accessories, no pre-impact anomalies that would have kept the engine from producing rated horsepower had been found.
Both wing-mounted speed brakes were in the retracted position. The instrument panel and its associated instruments had been destroyed by the impact and fire, but the throttle and propeller controls were determined to be in the full forward position. All three landing gear were in the retracted position.
The NTSB determined the probable cause(s) of this accident to include: “The pilot’s failure to attain sufficient altitude and maintain aircraft control during a turn shortly after liftoff while operating at maximum gross weight, with a tailwind, and in high density altitude conditions.” The only real question is why the pilot attempted this kind of takeoff.
According to the NTSB, the 42-year-old pilot’s last logbook entries were dated some eight months earlier; he had logged about 480 hours total flying time, with about 160 of them in a Cessna 210. The last flight review entered in the logbook was completed on March 7, 2009. Either the NTSB could not locate the pilot’s current logbook or he stopped logging time, and either decided he didn’t need another flight review sometime or failed to log completing an FAA-sponsored pilot proficiency award program.
There’s evidence of a cavalier attitude, exemplified by the pilot’s almost-immediate gear retraction upon liftoff and quick initiation of a turn before gaining altitude. The NTSB noted the pilot had performed such a turn the last time he had taken off from that airport. But that was in winter; the air was denser and the wind probably was different. This time, there was much less margin for error.