While the NTSB’s preliminary statistics show that the number of general aviation accidents dropped again last year, as did the number of people killed, the estimated number of hours flown also dropped, resulting in a slight increase in both the overall and fatal accident rates. It’s estimated that GA aircraft flew 20,456,000 hours in 2009, compared with 22,805,000 in 2008. In 2009, there were 1,474 total accidents, 272 of them fatal; in 2008, there were 1,566 accidents, and 275 involved fatalities. A total of 474 people were killed, compared with 494 in 2008. Last year’s GA accident rate was 7.2 per 100,000 hours flown, and the fatal accident rate was 1.33 per 100,000 hours. In 2008, those numbers were 6.86 and 1.21, respectively. The NTSB didn’t provide separate statistics for LSA, but my search turned up 72 accidents and incidents involving various types in 2009, from airplanes to powered parachutes. Of these, 17 involved fatalities, resulting in 23 deaths. That made 23.6% of these 72 LSA accidents fatal, compared with 18.4% for all of GA. Several examples show that pilot error, not airplane malfunction, is often the cause.
In April 2009, the NTSB issued safety recommendations after several LSA accidents. The NTSB called on ASTM International, the industry organization that sets LSA standards, to enhance standards regarding protection from flutter, to be sure required control stick forces minimize the possibility of pilots inadvertently overcontrolling an airplane and to provide better airspeed data in handbooks and on airspeed indicators.
A two-seat weight-shift aircraft was flying from north to south over the Shawnee Field Airport at Bloomfield, Ind. The sky was clear and the wind was calm. An instructor and builder of the accident airplane make and model observed the aircraft, which was equipped with a pusher propeller, “initiate a steep climb and then an approximate 60-degree-bank turn.” Another witness reported that while maneuvering for the landing, the airplane entered a “hard left bank at low altitude and went into the ground.” The sport pilot and passenger were killed. Investigators found nothing wrong with the airframe or engine. The published stall speed for the airplane is 32 miles per hour.
Toxicology test results on the pilot revealed the recent use of diphenhydramine, an over-the-counter antihistamine that can have sedating effects. The extent to which pilot impairment from the medication may have played a role in the accident couldn’t be determined. The NTSB determined that the probable cause of this accident was the pilot’s failure to maintain control of the airplane while maneuvering.
A high-wing LSA experienced a total loss of engine power in cruise flight near Okeechobee, Fla. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed. The private pilot had minor injuries. The flight had originated from Okeechobee County Airport.
The pilot told investigators he was climbing out at less than 1,250 feet MSL at full power, when he heard a grinding noise followed by a total loss of engine power. He saw there was a pasture straight ahead and decided to try to land there. After flaring the airplane, it touched down hard in the soft sandy soil, bounced and touched down again. The main landing gear sank in the sand, and the airplane nosed over inverted.
About 10 gallons of fuel were removed from the fuel tanks. The aircraft was moved to a repair facility where the engine was tested, no problems apparent. The NTSB determined that the probable cause of this accident was a total loss of engine power during initial climb for undetermined reasons.
A high-wing LSA was being used for a demonstration flight in Oshkosh, Wis. The instructor pilot reported that, during preflight, she looked at the fuel-quantity tube between the seats, and it indicated half full, or about 11 gallons of fuel. After approximately 30 minutes, the aircraft was returning to the airport when the engine stopped. The engine was restarted, but it stopped again about one minute later. The engine stopped and was restarted about five times. The pilot executed a forced landing to a field, and the airplane nosed over during the landing roll.
Inspection of the fuel system revealed that it was empty. When fuel was added, the engine ran normally. The inspection of the fuel-quantity tube revealed that it was “discolored,” and that there was a crease in the tube making it appear that there was a half tank of fuel. The fuel-quantity gauge on the instrument panel operated normally.
The NTSB determined that the probable cause of this accident was a total loss of engine power due to fuel exhaustion as a result of the instructor pilot’s inadequate preflight inspection. Contributing to the accident was the creased fuel-quantity tube.
A pilot and his grandson were on board a low-wing LSA at Lake Wales Airport in Florida. The pilot was using runway 18, a turf runway that was 2,313 feet long by 50 feet wide and sloped down toward the middle. The soil was soft. A witness reported that the airplane contacted the ground about 1,600 feet after its liftoff point, and again about 2,500 feet from the point of initial takeoff. The right wing hit a tree, then the airplane flipped and came to rest inverted. Both occupants got out before a fire erupted.
The pilot reported that the engine was operating properly and that there were no preimpact mechanical failures or malfunctions. When asked how this accident could have been prevented, the pilot said that he should have aborted the takeoff when he touched down the first time after the liftoff.
The NTSB determined that the probable cause of this accident was the pilot’s failure to maintain aircraft control and failure to maintain clearance from trees during initial climb.
A low-wing LSA made an emergency landing at Casa Grande Municipal Airport in Casa Grande, Ariz., after the cockpit canopy popped opened in flight. The pilot wasn’t injured. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed. The airplane had taken off from Casa Grande a few minutes earlier.
The pilot told a Safety Board investigator that during the initial climb, about 500 feet above the ground, the canopy popped open. The canopy is hinged in front of the cockpit and rotates upward when open. The pilot said he tried to keep the canopy closed with his free hand, but the canopy continued to rise higher and higher. The pilot turned back to the airport and made an off-runway landing next to the airport windsock. The left wing struck a tree and was partially pulled off the fuselage.
The Safety Board noted that the airplane’s Pilot Operating Handbook contained a before-takeoff checklist. Step #4 stated, “Cockpit canopy—closed.” There was no wording requiring the pilot to be sure the canopy was latched or locked. The POH’s emergency procedures section didn’t include a procedure for the pilot to follow if the canopy became unlatched during flight.
There was no discussion in the POH about the airplane’s flight characteristics with an unlatched canopy. The Safety Board noted that S-LSA have to meet ASTM International Standard F2245-07, which doesn’t specify requirements for canopy security or the use of any type of latched/unlatched indicator in the cockpit. There’s no guidance indicating that the manufacturer should include information in the POH about canopy security before flight and in flight. A manufacturer’s representative stated that the airplane is fully controllable if the canopy becomes unlatched in flight, and that the canopy will remain slightly open with the airflow keeping it down.
The NTSB determined that the probable cause of this accident was the pilot’s failure to ensure that the canopy was latched prior to takeoff. Contributing to the accident was the inadequate guidance in the POH regarding canopy procedures.
Another low-wing LSA was substantially damaged following a loss of control shortly after landing during a touch-and-go at the Northwest Regional Airport in Roanoke, Texas. The private pilot and passenger weren’t injured.
The pilot was on his fifth touch-and-go. As he applied full power, the airplane began to swerve toward the left side of the runway. He applied right rudder pedal that resulted in a swerve back to the right. The airplane then ran off the right side of the runway, and the landing gear collapsed. The airplane came to rest in grass alongside the runway in an upright position. The pilot and passenger got out unassisted. Wind was variable at three knots around the time of the accident. The pilot reported having only about two hours in the aircraft.
The NTSB determined that the probable cause of this accident was the pilot’s failure to maintain directional control of the airplane during the landing roll. Contributing to the accident was the pilot’s lack of flight experience in the make and model of airplane.