SAFETY FIRST. The Grand Canyon may be one of the most beautiful and rewarding places to fly, but the high-altitude airport also can present some difficult challenges.
One of the truly wondrous things about general aviation is the ease with which you can reach vacation sites that would be a hassle via road, ferry or airline transportation. GA also can make an easy day trip out of what otherwise might be an exhausting weekend. Pilots, however, need to be careful that fun and adventure don’t replace the seriousness and responsibility that must be applied to any flight.
Grand Canyon National Park Airport (GCN)
The Grand Canyon offers incomparable vistas, and sometimes difficult flight conditions as one day-tripping pilot discovered. The Grand Canyon National Park Airport in Arizona has a runway that’s 8,999 feet long, but the field elevation is 6,609 feet MSL. A pilot must pay special attention to density altitude and aircraft loading/performance calculations. Although the pilot of a Cessna 172RG tried to get it right, the NTSB reported he was slightly off the mark. The airplane took off, but settled back to the ground in a field about one mile south of the airport. The private pilot and both passengers received minor injuries, and the airplane was substantially damaged. The pilot had flown from the Palomar Airport in Carlsbad, Calif., earlier in the day. This was to be the return flight. Weather was VFR, with scattered clouds at 5,500 feet AGL, an overcast ceiling at 8,000 feet, and the wind from 260 degrees at 9 knots, gusting to 15. The Safety Board’s investigator calculated the density altitude to be 7,728 feet. The pilot had a total time of 206 hours with 51 in type.
Witnesses saw the airplane departing runway 21. After the main gear lifted off, the airplane flew in ground effect along the runway, then continued in ground effect until impact.
The pilot told investigators that after the airplane lifted off, he retracted the landing gear in an attempt to increase the climb rate, but it wouldn’t climb. The pilot then decided to try landing on the remaining runway and extended the gear. By the time the gear was extended, he was out of runway and had to maneuver to avoid trees.
When investigators looked at the wreckage, they found the mixture control set in the full-rich (forward) position. The Pilot Operating Handbook for the airplane notes that prior to takeoff from fields above 3,000 feet elevation, the mixture should be leaned to give maximum power in a full-throttle, static run-up.
After speaking with an FAA inspector regarding a flight assessment test, the pilot told the NTSB that he moved the engine, propeller and mixture controls forward following the accident when he was retrieving personal items from the airplane. The pilot reported having 12 hours of flight time operating out of airports above 3,000 feet MSL. Following the accident, the pilot underwent five hours of dual training at airports over 7,100 feet MSL. The pilot also noted that he may have encountered wind shear or turbulence as he retracted the gear during the attempted takeoff.
A Safety Board investigator completed weight-and-balance calculations for the accident flight. The takeoff weight was 2,767 pounds. According to the Pilot Operating Handbook, the airplane’s approved gross takeoff weight was 2,650 pounds.
The NTSB determined that the probable cause of this accident was the pilot’s failure to properly lean the mixture, which resulted in a power deficiency, a degraded climb capability and the inability to attain/maintain an adequate airspeed that led to a stall/mush condition while departing during high-density altitude conditions. Also causal was the pilot’s inaccurate preflight performance and weight-and-balance calculations.
Hilton Head Airport (HXD)
After you’ve spent time on Hilton Head Island, S.C., with its picturesque waterfront and wildlife areas, it might be difficult to focus your mind’s eye away from the beauty and onto mundane things like a preflight inspection. A Piper PA-46-310P had taken off from Hilton Head Airport in VFR conditions on an IFR flight plan to North Myrtle Beach, S.C. The instrument-rated pilot had 2,536 hours with 186 in type. Shortly after takeoff, the pilot determined that he needed to return to the airport. During the attempted return, the airplane hit trees and the ground and caught fire. The pilot and passenger were killed. A pilot told investigators that he saw the pilot and passenger arrive at the airport, load the airplane and board it. The witness said he didn’t see the pilot perform a preflight inspection, and he stated he “wondered about it” at the time. A witness saw the airplane flying erratically, with a “vapor trail” coming from the left wing. A witness who was monitoring the airport’s common traffic advisory frequency heard the pilot declare an emergency and make reference to something being “off.”
Emergency response personnel found the airplane on the ground in flames in a wooded area behind a residence less than a mile from the airport. Investigators could not find the fuel cap for the left-wing inboard tank at the accident site. It was later found at the airport, in the grass beside runway 21 with the cap’s locking handle in the stowed position.
Investigators determined that the airplane was fueled while it was at Hilton Head. The lineman who fueled the left wing stated he secured the left inboard fuel cap and “closed and locked cap back and rechecked to make sure cap was closed and locked back to its original position….”
The NTSB determined that the probable cause of this accident was the pilot’s failure to maintain control of the airplane during a VFR pattern for a precautionary landing, which resulted in an uncontrolled descent and subsequent collision with terrain. Also causal was the pilot’s inadequate preflight inspection of the aircraft, which resulted in his failure to secure the fuel cap.
Montauk Airport (MTP)
Montauk Point, N.Y., is at the eastern end of Long Island, 125 miles from New York City. It’s a popular vacation and day-trip destination for folks willing to put up with the predictable traffic jams on the Long Island Expressway and local roads. Pilots can take advantage of an uncontrolled airport that’s right next to a beach. Years ago, the airport’s operators ran an old fire engine as a shuttle for pilots and their passengers between the terminal and the sand dunes at the end of the runway. A short hike over the dunes, and you were on a relatively private beach. Nowadays, they use a van for the shuttle service.
A pilot and two friends from the New York area decided it was a lot easier to fly into Montauk than go over the road for an evening fishing trip on a chartered boat. They arrived at the airport at about 5:45 p.m., went fishing and returned to the airport at around 1 a.m. The twin-engine Piper PA-34-200T they were using crashed into a pond near the airport shortly after taking off. All three on board were killed. According to the commercial pilot’s logbook, he had about 901 hours with about 100 hours at night. He had 472 hours in type. Fueling records indicated that the airplane had full fuel at the beginning of the flight to Montauk, and would have had more than enough for the return flight. Weather recorded at the airport after the estimated time of the accident showed the wind was calm. Sky condition wasn’t recorded at the airport, but was clear at an airport about 20 miles away.
Wreckage examination failed to disclose any evidence of engine or airplane systems problems. Parts from the flap mechanism indicated that full flaps, 40 degrees, had been deployed, but whether that was the position of the flaps at takeoff could not be verified. The maximum use of flaps during takeoff as recommended by the manufacturer was 25 degrees.
The NTSB determined that the probable cause of this accident was a loss of control during climb for undetermined reasons.
Catalina Airport (AVX)
Catalina Island is off the coast of Southern California, about 22 miles south-southwest of Los Angeles. The island is a vacation and day-trip destination with one city, Avalon, and an unincorporated town, Two Harbors. A private pilot and two passengers flew to the Avalon Airport from Long Beach, Calif., for sightseeing and lunch. They used a Piper PA-28-181. The pilot told investigators that he believed there were 34 gallons of fuel on board when leaving Long Beach. He also told investigators that he didn’t look in the airplane’s two wing tanks before departing for the return flight to Long Beach. After takeoff, there was a total loss of engine power and the pilot tried to make a forced landing on runway 22. The airplane struck the ground short of the runway and was substantially damaged. The pilot and one passenger sustained minor injuries while the second passenger was seriously injured.
The airplane’s owner told the Safety Board that when the airplane was last refueled, it had 34 gallons on board, but it had been flown for 2.1 hours before the accident pilot rented it. According to the airplane’s recording hour meter, the accident pilot flew it for a total of 1.4 hours, making a total of 3.5 hours since its last refueling. The owner expressed the opinion that the pilot had experienced fuel exhaustion.
The NTSB determined that the probable cause of this accident was the pilot’s inadequate preflight and failure to refuel the airplane prior to takeoff.