One of a pilots most dreaded scenarios-beyond, perhaps, the mid-air collision-is an engine failure shortly after takeoff. Even multi-engine pilots arent immune, since the pilot of the typical light twin at gross weight and little altitude often has little from which to choose-except exactly where the NTSB investigation will begin.
In a single, at least, when the engine fails shortly after takeoff-for whatever reason-we know whats going to happen. We also know to maintain control of the airplane, choose the most suitable off-field landing site and do everything we can to avoid obstacles. Of these maxims, maintaining control is always the most important and, depending on the terrain, sometimes the easiest to ensure. Over the years, much research and actual accidents have proven the likelihood of surviving such an event is much greater if the airplane touches down at minimum speed, in a slightly nose-high attitude and with its wings level. In other words, under control. Or, as legend R.A. “Bob” Hoover has been quoted, “If youre faced with a forced landing, fly the thing as far into the crash as possible.”
Ive been fortunate in my flying career to never have faced this scenario. On the few occasions when my single engine acted up, I had enough altitude to either troubleshoot it back to life or put the airplane on a nearby runway. In those few instances, thanks to my training, no sheet metal was bent and no repairs-other than to puckered upholstery or the engine itself-were necessary. But those occasions taught me its insanely easy to lose sight of job one-flying the airplane to a safe stop.
On September 23, 2006, at 1300 Central daylight time, a Beech F33A Bonanza operating as a Part 91 sightseeing flight at an air show crashed shortly after departing the Shelby County Airport in Alabaster, Ala. Visual conditions prevailed; the airplane received substantial damage. The private pilot and two passengers were fatally injured.
The accident pilot was conducting air rides. The pilot flew three such flights prior to the accident that day, each of which lasted about 10 minutes. The airplane engine was not shut down between flights.
Witnesses observed the airplane take off from Runway 15 and climb between 100 to 200 feet on the runway heading before they heard the engine sputter, stop and start again. The airplanes nose pitched down to a level attitude, and the engine started and stopped. The airplane began a left turn, estimated at between 45 degrees to 100 degrees of bank. The airplanes nose pitched down and disappeared from view. Two witnesses stated the airplane leveled out and then collided with the ground.
A review of refueling records revealed the airplane was last refueled on August 22, 2006. A friend of the pilot stated he flew with the pilot the day before the accident; the airplane was not refueled. The friend thought the left fuel gauge was on empty and the right fuel gauge indicated half full. On the day of the accident, an air show attendee who flew on an earlier flight observed the left fuel gauge indicated empty, while the right fuel gauge indicated less than a quarter of a tank. The aircrafts total fuel capacity is 80 gallons, of which 74 gallons of fuel are usable.
The airplane collided with the ground on a heading of 091 degrees, 370 feet from the departure end of Runway 15. The airplane went through a perimeter chain link fence and came to rest on a heading of 180 degrees.
The cabin roof was compressed downward from the windshield extending aft to the baggage compartment. The cabin floor was compressed upward at the firewall and extended aft to the rear passenger seats. No fuel was present in the fuel lines. The spinner remained attached to the propeller spinner bulkhead; there was no evidence of rotation. One propeller blade remained attached in the propeller hub. No “s” bending was exhibited by the propeller blade, and chord-wise scarring was present on the propeller tip. No browning of vegetation was present on the ground, indicting no fuel was aboard. The fuel selector valve was in the right main fuel tank position.
The fuel manifold valve was removed and disassembled. No damage was noted to the diaphragm and spring. No fuel was present in the fuel manifold valve cavity. Spark was produced at all 12 magneto ignition leads when the left and right magnetos were turned with a power drill.
The National Transportation Safety Board determined the probable cause of this accident to include, “The pilots failure to maintain airspeed while maneuvering toward an emergency landing area following the total loss of engine power shortly after takeoff resulting in an inadvertent stall, uncontrolled descent, and collision with the ground, and a fence. A factor in the accident was the pilots improper fuel management resulting in a total loss of engine power due to fuel exhaustion.”
This accident wouldnt have happened if the pilot had refueled prior to beginning the days air show rides. Why he didnt obtain more fuel is open to speculation-maybe he wanted to keep the airplane light, knowing he would be filling all the seats and might have a heavy passenger or two. Still, theres really no excuse for running out of fuel.
Beyond his running out of fuel, however, theres the way he handled the engine failure. The NTSB reviewed for us the Bonanzas pilot operating handbook, which shows at an operating weight of 2900 pounds with flaps up and at an angle of bank of 45 degrees the airplane will stall at 75 knots. With a 60-degree bank, the airplane will stall at 85 knots.
Theres no way to know what the pilot was attempting in the few short seconds he had left after the engine quit. Given the steep bank angles, he may have been trying to return to the runway-a turnback-a maneuver these pages have warned against on many occasions.
The low altitude at which the engine quit severely limited the pilots options. Regardless, he failed to keep the Bonanza under control before it touched down. The NTSBs investigation demonstrates what can happen to the cabin structure and its occupants when that occurs. Ultimately, the pilot failed at job one: flying the airplane.