Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Amateur-Built Safety

The NTSB wants more done to improve amateur-built aircraft safety

On April 3, 2011, an experimental amateur-built Lancair 360 crashed shortly after taking off from Chesapeake Regional Airport (CPK), Chesapeake, Va. The commercial pilot and the passenger were fatally injured. The pilot was taking his sister on a local sightseeing flight in visual meteorological conditions.

The pilot had flown in from his home base in Williamsburg, Va., with his son on board. They met family members for lunch. The pilot then offered to take his sister for a ride.

A witness saw the airplane take off from runway 23. The airplane was about a quarter of a mile beyond the departure end of the runway with its gear retracted when the engine began "hissing and sputtering." The witness saw the airplane then turn sharply to the right while losing altitude. After 90 to 110 degrees of turn, the nose dropped sharply, the turn stopped, and the nose began to recover from vertical before impacting the ground.

Another witness reported that when the airplane was about 150 to 200 feet above the ground, there was a loud backfire, followed by several smaller backfires. The airplane started turning back toward the airport and stalled. Additional witness statements were consistent, except that one thought that the airplane reached an altitude between 300 and 400 feet, and another stated that the airplane rolled 90 degrees, then headed "straight down," but continued rolling until it was upright again, and the pilot "tried pulling up but didn't have sufficient altitude." Another witness said "the airplane appeared to enter a classic 'stall/spin' and rolled inverted." The wreckage was located at the edge of a grassy field, on airport property, next to an undamaged perimeter fence. It was about 1,200 feet from the departure end of runway 23.

The pilot held a commercial pilot certificate, was a flight instructor, and had a current second-class medical. He was an active-duty U.S. Army pilot, Army instructor, instrument flight examiner and a graduate of the U.S. Navy Test Pilot School. A document indicated the pilot had 4,533 flight hours. Investigators requested flight data from the Army, but it wasn't provided.

The pilot's personal logbook indicated he had more than 50 hours in the accident airplane. Logbook remarks for a 2.7-hour flight on May 20, 2010, read: "left tank run dry landed w/3 gallons in right."

Both fuel tanks were found empty at the accident scene, but they had been compromised. Areas of vegetation at the crash site had turned brown from exposure to gasoline. Based on the amount of discoloration, investigators determined that there was very little fuel in the left tank and more fuel in the right tank.

The NTSB noted that the airplane was built from a Lancair II factory "fast-build" kit with some modifications. The Safety Board said a likely scenario is that the pilot took off with the fuel selected to the left tank, and once the loss of engine power occurred, he selected the right tank, which resupplied fuel to the engine before impact.

The NTSB determined that the probable cause of this accident was that the pilot didn't maintain airspeed following a loss of engine power, which resulted in a stall and spin. Contributing to the accident was the pilot's selection of the wrong fuel tank at takeoff, which resulted in fuel starvation and the total loss of engine power.

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