Holiday Weekend Round-up

Today was President’s Day in the USA, when we all celebrate everything all of our Presidents have done for us by….well, anyway, lots of people get the day off of work so everybody decides to go skiing and the ski resorts are extremely overcrowded. That’s what happens on this day.

The holiday weekend here in the Northeast USA was another cold, snowy one, just after another major snowstorm that came through late last week. The mountains of snow piled up will take at least until June to fully melt, they are that high.

But it has been a bad weekend for aviation. First, in domestic general aviation, after January 2014 was among the safest months in general aviation, this weekend alone saw four fatal accidents which resulted in 7 deaths in the United States.

Cessna 210L (above, similar to the accident airplane) near Birmingham, AL

On Friday night, after 10pm EST, contact was lost with a Cessna 210 (registration N732EJ) flying near Birmingham, Alabama. The plane was found the next day in a very rural area, and the two occupants had not survived the crash. Only very sparse information is available, including that the plane was flying under IFR conditions. A front was moving through Birmingham at about the same time the aircraft was in the area. KBHM released a series of SPECI METAR updates, including one at 10:36pm EST calling winds 310 degrees at 7 knots, 5 mile visibility, broken cloud layers at 600 and 1400 feet, and overcast at 2300 feet. Rain had just ended at the airport. Some reports mention the possibility that the high winds may have been a factor in the crash. While the surface winds weren’t yet that high, I suppose it is possible that the winds were higher at around 3000 feet, and that wind shear or strong turbulence could have led to an upset and loss of control of the aircraft in the night IMC.

Beechcraft 35-33 Debonair near Telluride, CO

The Sunday crash of a Beech Debonair, similar to the one shown above, is very perplexing. It crashed just after takeoff, about a mile west of the airport, and killed the three occupants. The plane departed with three pilots on board, two commercial and one military, on a short IFR flight to Cortez, Colorado. The weather at the time was reported as winds 080 degrees at 5 knots, 2 miles visibility in light snow, and clouds overcast at 1200 feet. These conditions were improving, and the next METAR (1.5 hr later) listed ceilings at 7000-8000 feet and no snow. This airport is at a very high elevation (9,070 feet MSL), so the first speculative thought is to consider the performance capabilities of the airplane, likely close to max gross weight with three adults on board. The airport is in a narrow valley between peaks rising 5,000 feet on either side. Often, airplane crashes are not the result of any one thing, but a sequence of events. Steep terrain, low visibility in snow, and decreased performance due to high altitude has been shown countless times before to be a dangerous recipe.

Rans S-10 Sakota northeast of Houston, TX

A small homebuilt aircraft, similar to the one shown above, apparently suffered an in-flight breakup that killed its pilot. There is virtually no information available, except that witnesses heard a “loud bang” and that the airplane appeared to tumble out of the sky. The aircraft is one intended to perform aerobatics, so it’s possible that during a maneuver the load limits of the plane were exceeded, causing a structural failure.

Sonex aircraft in Wellington, FL

Another crash of a small homebuilt aircraft, similar to the one shown above, happened on Monday afternoon in south Florida. The airplane came to rest just off the end of the runway in a small lake, and the pilot did not survive the crash. Reports indicate the pilot may have been an extremely experienced American Airlines pilot, usually flying the 777. A witness thought the plane was experiencing engine trouble, as he heard several louds pops, like fireworks, before the plane went down. Another witness claimed the pilot was performing a “loop,” which was followed by the engine trouble and crash. In any case, it is disheartening to read of the loss of such an experienced pilot.

Elsewhere in the world

These crashes caused the untimely deaths of 7 people this weekend, and I send my deepest condolences to their friends and families. The above descriptions are in no way meant to place blame or judge the actions of the pilots, only to assemble any facts I can gather and to begin to try to make sense out of the accidents to better equip myself and pilots everywhere.

Elsewhere in the world, this weekend also saw the peaceful hijacking of a 767 on its way from Ethiopia to Rome. The co-pilot locked the captain out of the flight deck and flew the plane to Geneva, Switzerland to seek political asylum. More on this story later.

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Airplane Crash: Turbo Commander 690C near Nashville, Tennessee

20140204-205015.jpg

I’ve always had a fondness for the big twin Commanders, so to see this post from the NTSB on my Twitter feed yesterday was rather saddening, especially just a few months after the tragic crash of another Turbo Commander. Like that previous crash, this one was unfortunately newsworthy, and even more unfortunately, fatal.

Aero Commander 680, similar to the accident airplane

Aero Commander 680, similar to the accident airplane

The airplane, a Gulfstream Aero Commander 690C , left Great Bend, Kansas at 2045Z (3:45pm EST) and flew east for 1.5hrs at 23,000 feet. This was followed by a normal descent over the next 20 minutes to 3000 feet just west of Nashville, TN. The track log shows the plane intercept the approach course via a procedure turn on the RNAV Runway 02 approach into John C. Tune Municipal Airport, KJWN. The plane descends and slows as if on a normal approach to 700 feet (this is what is reported on Flightaware.com so it may be inaccurate). A missed approach is apparently initiated, and the airplane climbs back to 3000 feet, maneuvering to the west and then to the south, setting up for another approach. As the plane makes the turn to intercept the approach course again, it starts to descend, gradually, intercepting the glideslope to the runway. All of these things are normal, the flight is going as planned. But within a few minutes, the airplane crashes into a narrow strip of land next to a YMCA complex, with a debris field of some 150 yards. It was about 10 miles south of the airport.

N840V-flight-path

N840V flight track map

What happened in those few minutes and what could have been done to prevent it? This sounds like a loss-of-control while in the clouds, considering the short debris field and at least one eyewitness account:

We were at Kroger, so we didn’t actually physically see it hit the ground, but we did see it come out of the clouds and spiral.

I generally don’t trust non-pilot accounts of the way airplanes fly or sound, but using the word “spiral” is probably not just a generalization on the witness’ part.

The weather at the time, and for much of the day, wasn’t great:
N840V-weather

Notice that all day Nashville International Airport (KBNA, 10 miles east of KJWN), was reporting rather light NNE winds at 5-10 kts, but the visibility was in the marginal range (3-5 miles) and the ceiling was just 900 feet with mist (fog) due to a narrow temperature/dew point spread. But there isn’t mention of precipitation, and assuming the big Turbo Commander was well equipped, the weather conditions were low but weren’t quite “minimums” at the time.

KJWN-RNAV-02

At this point the rest can only be speculation. What caused the airplane to “spiral” out of the cloudy evening sky? Was there an engine failure? It’s possible, but with a turboprop I consider it unlikely. Although no precipitation was falling on the ground, were there icing conditions in the clouds? Perhaps. Did the pilot have too many things to juggle, single-pilot IFR in the waning hour of daylight, a 2-hour flight and one missed approach behind him, a big fast complicated but capable aircraft in front of him? Perhaps. Maybe it was a combination of those two things. Maybe it was none of these things. In time I trust the NTSB will make some sense out of this tragic accident; I can only hope it brings some further understanding about the art of flying to us pilots, as well as some measure of comfort and closure for the families of the victims. To them, I express my deepest condolences.