Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Hazards Of Extreme Flying

You have to know when you’re too close to crossing the line

SAFETY ENVELOPE.A Curtiss-Wright P-40N, like this one, was lost in an aerobatics accident off the Atlantic Ocean shore of New York. Additional altitude likely would have saved the pilot.
Ensuring that there’s a safety margin in everything we do is fundamental to aviation accident avoidance. It’s when we tinker at the extreme edges of the safety envelope that we set the stage for getting hurt. Extremes can be reached by factors we bring to the table, or they could be imposed upon us and require our recognition and action.

In one accident investigated by the NTSB, the pilot was doing something with which he was familiar, but for which additional altitude would have enhanced his margin of safety. His Curtiss Wright P-40N, which was built in 1944, crashed into the Atlantic Ocean just off Mastic Beach, N.Y., while the pilot was practicing aerobatics. The pilot’s son told investigators that he and his father performed in air shows. During this practice session, the son was on the beach acting as a safety guide and communicating with his father using a handheld radio. The commercial pilot was killed. Visual meteorological conditions existed. The airplane had taken off from the Brookhaven Airport, Shirley, N.Y.

The pilot’s son reported that his father had put the airplane into a “half Cuban eight” maneuver at an estimated 250 to 260 mph. The airplane slowed down during the maneuver, to about 100 to 120 mph. In the middle of the Cuban eight, it went into a spin. The airplane was too low to permit recovery from the spin before impact with the water.

Investigation revealed that the pilot had been issued an FAA Certificate of Waiver or Authorization to perform aerobatics in a box of airspace off the coast. However, the FAA found that the pilot failed to file a NOTAM that the airspace would be in use and didn’t notify ATC to activate the box prior to beginning aerobatic activity as required. The NTSB determined that the probable cause of this accident was the pilot’s failure to maintain adequate airspeed while performing aerobatics at low altitude.

Unless you’re a pilot for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Aircraft Operations Center, you’re not likely to deliberately do extreme flying into extreme weather. NOAA operates a Gulfstream G4, a Citation II, two de Havilland Twin Otters, a couple of Aero Commanders and other assorted airplanes and helicopters for projects like gathering data on hurricanes. NTSB accident files demonstrate that pilots continue to inadvertently find themselves trying to get out of extreme flying conditions precipitated by weather.

A Piper PA-60-602P Aerostar suffered an in-flight breakup in the vicinity of Camp Hill, Ala., while on a Part 91 business flight. At the time, the pilot was trying to reverse course to avoid what appeared on radar to be an intense to extreme radar echo depicting a level-5 to level-6 thunderstorm. The airplane was on an IFR flight plan, in instrument conditions. The private pilot and his passenger were killed. The flight departed Habersham County Airport, Cornelia, Ga.


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