To me, showing off in an airplane means conducting an efficient flight as planned and avoiding the worst weather, culminating in a smooth landing and an on-time arrival. For others, it might mean loops and rolls, flying inverted or a seemingly endless series of other aerobatic maneuvers visible to spectators. Each operation carries its own risks.
For example, the limited aerobatics I’ve flown over the years have been conducted in airplanes certificated for it and at altitudes supplying a healthy margin for error. Meanwhile, a VFR-only pilot who recently accompanied me on a long IFR cross-country expressed some apprehension at not seeing the ground for hours at a time. Perhaps familiarity breeds contempt, but I’m very comfortable droning along when the clag extends to the surface and an engine failure means scant seconds to find a landing area after breaking out.
The experienced aerobatic pilots I’ve ridden with were both competent and confident. I, too, was confident in their abilities, knowing they had done this stuff hundreds of times and knowing I hadn’t. But not all pilots have the skill and experience to pull off some things. Those who do may not always exercise the best judgment in displaying their skill and experience.
According to the AOPA Air Safety Foundation (ASF, now the Air Safety Institute), low-level maneuvering “remains the one phase of flight that produces the greatest number of fatal accidents. More than half of all accidents that occur during maneuvering flight involve fatalities.” That was in 2004, in discussing accidents occurring during 2002. Little has changed since then.
On November 5, 2011, at about 1644 Eastern time, a Beech D-45 (T-34B) Mentor was substantially damaged when it impacted terrain following loss of control during initial climb at the Wings Field Airport in Williston, Fla. The flight instructor/owner and the private pilot aboard were fatally injured. Visual conditions prevailed.
According to witnesses, the airplane performed an exaggerated soft-field takeoff and became airborne in a couple of hundred feet. It then ballooned up and started to settle but then leveled off just above the turf runway and accelerated. As the airplane passed abeam the witnesses, who were friends of the flight instructor, a few puffs of smoke came from the airplane’s smoke system and its wings wagged up and down.
After reaching the end of the runway, the airplane pitched up abruptly and “aggressively” into a 60-to-70-degree nose-up climb attitude, to approximately 200 feet agl. It then yawed and rolled simultaneously to the left to about a 300-degree heading while pitching nose-down. Engine power was then heard to “come back up” and the airplane turned right to an approximate 090-degree heading. The airplane’s nose then oscillated up and down and the airplane “fell like a rock,” disappearing behind trees bordering the departure end of the runway. The sound of impact was then heard.
The airplane impacted terrain left-wing-first in a shallow nose-down pitch attitude after striking the top of a tree. There was no debris path. The wreckage did not reveal any evidence of pre-impact failure of the airframe or engine. The landing gear and wing flaps were in their retracted positions. Control continuity was established from the control surfaces to the flight controls in the cockpit. Fuel was present in the remains of the two 25-gallon wing tanks and in the centrally located sump tank.
The throttle, mixture and prop controls were in their full-power, takeoff positions. All of the propeller blades exhibited S-bending, leading edge gouging and chordwise scratching indicative of being under power at impact.
Weather observed at 1650 at an airport 18 nm east of the accident site included winds from 030 degrees at 10 knots, gusting to 16. Another weather observation, taken 23 nm south of the accident site, at 1655, included winds from 050 degrees at 12 knots, with no gusts. According to the NTSB, at the time of the accident, “little or no wind was present at the surface of the airport.”
According to witness statements, the accident flight was the fourth of the day for the two, during which the flight instructor was training the private pilot in formation flight. A witness also stated the airplane’s left turn shortly after takeoff looked like an aerobatic maneuver known as a “Hammerhead” and reminded him of a “classic departure stall.” Another witness stated that when the nose of the airplane “broke” to the left it reminded him of a “classic power-on stall.”
Witnesses also advised the NTSB the pilot was competent in formation flight but tended “to be spontaneous, energetic and aggressive.” He had flown in aerobatic competitions and airshows, earning a reputation as a “showman” and that “the showmanship had never worn off.”
“Buzzing a field (airport) with the smoke system on to get everyone’s attention” and then making “a low pass down the runway” was common for this pilot. He had performed the observed takeoff maneuver “many, many times” prior to the accident and was “probably trying to impress everyone with the takeoff when the accident happened.” He “knew energy management very well,” was another statement about the accident pilot attributed to witnesses by the NTSB.
The NTSB determined the probable cause(s) of this accident to include: “The flight instructor’s failure to maintain airspeed in changing wind conditions during a steep climb after takeoff, which resulted in an aerodynamic stall. Contributing to the accident was the flight instructor’s ostentatious display close to the ground.” That’s the first time in our memory the word “ostentatious” has appeared in an NTSB probable cause finding.
It’s easy to label this pilot a dangerous show-off, and he may have been one. But it also appears he had the skill and experience to know what he was doing, with one exception: If he had waited until reaching a higher altitude before performing what witnesses described as a hammerhead stall, it’s likely we wouldn’t be writing about the loss of another valuable warbird. The airplane belonged to him, and it’s likely he had relatively few hours in it flying straight and level.
The old saying, “Good judgment is the result of experience and experience the result of bad judgment,” is attributed to various sages. Perhaps our accident pilot had not yet replaced his bad judgment with enough of the good kind.