The Downwind Turn

Combining gusty winds and an overloaded, tail-heavy airplane is a recipe for an unrecoverable stall/spin.


Low-level, low-speed maneuvering is always a challenge, something reflected in the accident record. Whether we engage in this type of maneuvering because we’re showing off or trying to get around the traffic pattern, the risks are the same: There simply isn’t enough altitude to recover from a stall/spin if we get into one. Add some stiff wind, gusty conditions and/or poor planning to our low-speed equation and things quickly can get out of hand. That’s presuming everything else is as it should be, including an airplane loaded within its weight and balance limitations. If it’s overweight, out of balance or both, you’ve just become a test pilot on a difficult day.

One of the keys to dealing with a situation involving a heavy airplane close to the ground is to handle it gently—this isn’t the time for yanking and banking. That’s especially true when maneuvering to land, or when executing a go-around, as this month’s in-depth accident examination shows.

On June 1, 2011, at 1433 Mountain time, a Cessna 172R entered a rapid vertical descent while executing a go-around and collided with the ground at the Wendover Airport, Wendover, Utah. The private pilot and three passengers were fatally injured; the rented airplane was substantially damaged. Visual conditions prevailed.

The first communication with the airplane occurred at 1403 when the pilot requested of Flight Service that he be identified by ATC and given his current location. Eventually, at 1420, the pilot contacted ATC at Hill Air Force Base and requested guidance to the Wendover Airport. At 1422, ATC established radar contact, and told the pilot he was 23 miles south of Wendover. The pilot was advised that Wendover’s Runway 08/26 was open, that Runway 12/30 was closed and that the surface wind was from 220 degrees at 21 knots, with gusts to 25.

Between 1424 and 1428, ATC remained in radio contact with the pilot and ensured he had the Wendover airport in sight before approving a frequency change to Wendover’s CTAF. A recording of the Wendover frequency reflects the pilot making standard traffic calls starting at 1429. At 1431, the pilot stated he was on final for Runway 26.

Witnesses working on Runway 12/30 observed the airplane attempt to land on Runway 26. They described the airplane touching down on the runway multiple times and flying down the runway sideways, with its nose pointing into the wind, before starting a climbout. When the airplane had regained a few hundred feet above the runway, it turned north, turning downwind. As the airplane made its turn to the north, witnesses stated the airplane suddenly rolled and descended straight down.

Video imagery of the accident was captured by a surveillance camera. The video depicted a small airplane traveling over the runway, gaining altitude, making a turn toward the camera, and then suddenly descending vertically to the ground.

A fuel sales receipt shows 44.2 gallons of 100LL avgas were added to the airplane before the accident flight. The pilot’s and passenger’s bags were collected and weighed, totaling 76.6 lbs. The pilot weighed 189 lbs, the passenger in the copilot’s seat weighed 165 lbs and the passengers in the rear seat had a combined weight of 438 lbs.

Total airplane weight, assuming a full fuel load, was 2857 lbs, 299 lbs over maximum ramp weight. The center of gravity (CG) was calculated to be 3.7 inches beyond the aft limit predicted by extrapolation. Without any fuel, the airplane’s weight would have been 2539 lbs, 19 lbs below maximum gross weight, and the CG would have been 2.3 inches aft of the limit. A Cessna representative stated the elevator trim tab was approximately 15 degrees tab up when examined, and indicated the aircraft was tail-heavy, but not beyond control.

The fuel selector was found in the “both” position. Fuel was observed leaking out of both left and right wings. The tail section was intact, with the vertical stabilizer in place with the rudder, and the horizontal stabilizer in place with both elevators attached. Control cables were traced from the cockpit to both ailerons; the right aileron control cable had separated at the wing root in a broomstraw fashion. The flap jackscrew was fully retracted, corresponding to a flaps-up condition. Elevator cables were continuous from the cockpit to the elevator bell crank. The rudder cables were traced from the cockpit to the rudder bell crank; the left rudder cable was found separated in a broomstraw fashion inside the aft fuselage floor assembly.

The engine’s spark plugs appeared to be normal. The fuel servo and fuel flow divider contained fuel. The engine was rotated by hand and thumb compression achieved on all four cylinders. Both magnetos were rotated by hand and spark was observed at all leads.

A witness who was with the pilot the evening before and the morning of the flight stated he was not aware of the pilot doing any flight planning while they were together. Also, there was no record of the pilot receiving a weather briefing. At 1435, the Wendover AWOS recorded wind from 200 degrees at 24 knots gusting to 28, 10 statute miles’ visibility and a clear sky.

Probable Cause
The NTSB determined the probable cause(s) of this accident to include: “The pilot did not maintain adequate airspeed during the downwind turn resulting in an aerodynamic stall, in-flight loss of control, and spin. Contributing to the accident was the pilot’s inadequate preflight planning and exceedance of the approved weight and balance envelope.”

There’s not much to add to the NTSB’s summation. Hindsight tells us it wasn’t a good day to be trying to get into Wendover in a Skyhawk, especially an overloaded one. Putting one of the heavier back-seat passengers in the right front seat would have helped, but probably not much.

The sidebar on the opposite page dives into the long-standing downwind turn controversy. The gist of it all is an airplane usually doesn’t care from which direction the wind is blowing, except when abrupt changes to the relative wind are made, regardless of whether they result from pilot input, encountering gusts, or both. In this accident, it’s likely the pilot’s turn to a downwind heading was enthusiastic, conducted at a relatively low speed and accompanied by a poorly timed gust. Add in the beyond-aft-CG condition and low altitude, and there simply wasn’t a chance to recover.




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