A little after 9 o’clock in the morning, seconds after takeoff, one of the pilots of a Velocity V-Twin radioed the Janesville, Wisconsin (KJVL), tower: “We’d like to circle back and land runway 32 and…work through some engine issues if we could.”
ATC acknowledged the request, asked the pilot to report turning final for Runway 32, and asked if they needed any assistance. The reply—“No, sir. We should be fine. Give you a call turning final.”—was the last transmission. N13VT went down while turning onto final for Runway 32, killing both pilots.
Their journey began at 6:30 a.m. on February 16, 2021, leaving Appleton, Wisconsin (KATW). Their destination was Sebastian, Florida (KX26), for planned maintenance. The airplane had issues with its retractable landing gear, and was being flown on a FAA ferry permit. The permit required the aircraft operate with the landing gear extended at all times. In addition, the permit required a copilot for the flight even though the four-seat light piston normally didn’t require more than one pilot.
The Velocity V-Twin is a two-engine pusher canard. Built as a comfortable long-haul cruiser with an advertised range of 1,100 nautical miles, the experimental category fiberglass kitplane is a stunner. Outside, it looks like something from a James Bond movie—sort of a smaller version of the Beechcraft Starship. Entering through big gull-wing doors, inside it has European sports car styling with side-sticks and flat-panel displays.
To some the airplane looks backwards. On the front of the fuselage sit canards, small controllable wings that handle pitch control. Used in many remarkable aircraft, from the Wright Flyer to the Eurofighter Typhoon, canards can offer excellent control authority. In this case, they were designed to stall before the main wing, so at high angles of attack the nose automatically bobs down, always keeping the main wing flying.
On the back of the airplane are the propellers. Pusher aircraft allow the wing to fly in clean, undisturbed air and offer pilots wonderful unobstructed views. We don’t see a lot of pusher aircraft because there remain issues with the propellers working in the more turbulent air behind the wing, as well as troubles with engine cooling. What is certainly an advantage with the V-Twin design is the closeness of the two engines to the aircraft centerline, reducing unwanted yaw in single-engine operations. The accident airplane was built in 2020, and other than the landing gear retraction mechanism issue, had no known mechanical discrepancies.
The pilots landed at the Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport (KJVL)—a tower-controlled field with three paved runways—for fuel. The pilots pulled into the Janesville Jet Center and asked to be fueled up with 100LL. The manager remembers nothing unusual—“chitchat mostly”—about their flight down to Florida. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found no issues with the 100LL pumped aboard.
The weather was good in Janesville. It was winter, and for sure it felt cold, just 7 degrees Fahrenheit. But that’s nothing these two pilots, both in their mid-20s, who grew up in Wisconsin, hadn’t experienced before. The unlimited visibility, complete lack of precipitation, 5,000 foot cloud ceiling, and a light 9-knot wind out of the north would have been welcome VFR conditions.
They taxied out and took off normally. So what was the engine problem? And why couldn’t they return to land on the remaining engine?
At about 1,000 feet above the field, one of the pilots radioed the tower about an issue and requested the return to land. Post-accident examination of the airplane revealed a chaffed wire on the left-engine oil pressure sender. The NTSB report states that based on “ATC communication, the engine teardown, recovered MFD data, and POH rate-of-climb data, it appears that the flight crew may have shut down the left engine seconds after their radio call as a precautionary measure.” The damaged wiring harness caused the cockpit display to show a red “X” where the left engine oil pressure value would normally be. The left throttle, propeller, and mixture controls were found in their aft (shutdown) positions.
So far, so good—a precautionary engine shutdown and immediate return to land. The plane continued to climb but at a slower rate constant with single-engine performance. They were now heading approximately south on a modified left downwind for Runway 32. The flying pilot further pitched down to a level flight attitude. Their indicated airspeed increased to about 16 knots above the maximum for flight with the landing gear extended (VLE is 140 knots for this Velocity V-Twin).
One minute and 10 seconds later, part of the right main gear door came off the airframe and struck the right propeller—an immediate traumatic event. All three blades separated about 18 inches outboard from the propeller hub, creating a total loss of right engine power. Immediately, their altitude and airspeed started to decrease—slowly, steadily, and irrevocably. The NTSB performance analysis dryly notes that from here: “with both engines inoperative, N13VT likely did not have the energy required to glide back to the airport.”
As the airplane drifted lower, recovered onboard avionics data showed a rising angle of attack, followed by increasingly frantic gyrations in pitch and roll. Through the tower window, the controller saw the airplane descend beyond trees southeast of the airport. It was in a left bank that started to tighten. As this happened, the controller observed the airplane’s nose “almost pointed down toward the ground.”
Walking his dog southeast of the airport, the last eyewitness to see N13VT aloft described the flight path “as similar to something that would be seen from a crop duster popping up over a field” with an engine “chopping at the air and working hard.” A few seconds later, it disappeared behind trees and crashed. The airplane came to rest inverted in a 3-foot-deep tributary of the Rock River, about a mile south of KJVL. There was substantial damage to both wings, canards, and the fuselage. The aircraft was discovered upside down, mostly underwater, with its two main landing gear legs sticking up in the air. One had the gear door plate attached; the other didn’t. The pilots were found dead in the wreckage.
Their cause of death was officially reported as drowning and hypothermia, with complicating blunt-force injuries to the head.
The NTSB found no evidence of preexisting mechanical malfunctions or anomalies that would have precluded normal operation of the engines. It was right after takeoff that the problems began.
To the pilots, this must have seemed like a nightmare worse than any simulator session. Soon after feathering the left prop and shutting down the left engine for an oil pressure problem, the right engine suddenly—violently—quit. Too far and too low to glide back to the airport, they would lose control and crash three minutes later.
Maybe a single-engine mindset would have saved them. In a single-engine airplane (or, of course, a glider) we must always be mentally ready to set down within gliding distance. Keep control and fly the airplane to the best landing spot on the best terrain presented. But multiengine pilots are usually more like systems managers, trained to operate on the remaining good engine to get to a suitable airport.
I thought it odd that only a 16-knot overspeed would break off bits of the landing gear, but the NTSB explained that mystery in its examination of the previous flight’s data. From Appleton to Janesville, the pilots flew the Velocity V-Twin well above the VLE speed of 140 knots for operation with the gear extended. In cruise, they maintained between 170 and 180 knots. Starting the descent, they reached 190, a full 50 knots above the listed maximum speed. The NTSB noted this may have weakened the gear door attachment points. And then, when single engine, the higher-than-normal sideslip angles may have helped force the door off the landing gear legs.
Two lessons are obvious from this crash, despite its crazy one-in-a-million double-engine failure: Don’t exceed aircraft limitations, and be prepared to land off-airport.
Plus, there’s a third lesson.
Do we have to shut down an engine when the gauges show a big red “X”? An engine fire always requires a full shutdown. But if a powerplant seems to be running OK, might we be better off in some conditions letting it produce thrust for as long as possible? I fly a two-engine airliner across the North Atlantic every week, and when we’re two and a half hours away from the nearest suitable airport, it will take more than a missing oil pressure indication to shut down an engine.
For light aircraft, there have long been debates about whether two engines are really safer than one, the efficiency of pusher props, and the effectiveness of canards. This just-released NTSB report doesn’t resolve any of those disputes. But it does reinforce the reality that while a canard might stop you from stalling, it won’t keep you from crashing—and two engines won’t prevent you from losing all power.