On a clear, sunny afternoon over scenic hills outside San Diego, the paying passenger on an extreme aviation experience was having fun. After laughing and yelling through rolls, tumbles, tailslides, his expression suddenly changed. There was a problem. The pilot was going to open the canopy on the Extra 300 plane. Jumping out and using the parachute would be next.
He saw the canopy locking pins move. The big plexiglass bubble blew away, taking with it the GoPro camera. Six seconds later, still strapped in, they impacted rugged terrain in a high-energy, unsurvivable crash. Twenty seconds after that, the GoPro landed, where it lay undiscovered for two years. Once recovered, the video helped the National Transportation Safety Board understand more of what happened on Oct. 21, 2017, over the El Capitan Reservoir, California.
In the rear seat was a 54-year-old commercial pilot with about 4,300 total hours, of which 2,200 were as a flight instructor. His mother was an aviation physiologist, his father a Navy aviator, his wife an airline pilot. After a ground career at aerospace companies, he became a full-time pilot in San Diego, giving scenic rides and teaching tailwheel flying, aerobatics and emergency maneuver training. He was hired at the flight experience company in May 2017, passed training and by October had 113 hours in the Extra 300. The company president stated that he was a good mentor, conservative in nature, and provided supervision for some of the younger pilots.
In the front seat was a 34-year-old passenger who lived in McKinney, Texas. Father of two boys, he was not a pilot. However, this wasn’t his first time in a cockpit, as he’d flown with the same company at its Las Vegas location once before. The NTSB docket shows the $699 25-minute package purchased this time was advertised “for the aerobatic extremist…not for the faint of heart…you are at the controls…no flight experience necessary…includes our dynamic low level bombing run, where you strike a ground target utilizing the same tactics as an F-16 fighter jet!”
They were flying a 2009 Extra Flugzeugbau EA 300/L, a tandem two-seat tailwheel monoplane with 310 horsepower Lycoming engine driving a three-bladed constant-speed MT propeller. Designed in 1987 by Walter Extra, these are strong, sexy aerobatic thoroughbreds. This one looked especially sleek, with silver wings and a royal blue fuselage. Multiple cockpit cameras recorded flights for customers, but only the GoPro that flew off with the canopy survived the crash. The plane was part of a fleet of Extra 300’s in three vacation locations, Las Vegas, San Diego and Lake Tahoe.
Founded in 2011 by an ex-Air Force fighter pilot, the company sells thrill rides and fighter pilot experiences, along with some traditional tailwheel and aerobatic instruction. The sales pitch was aerial machismo, with an emphasis on high-speed high-g combat. Pilots wore flight suits and used call-signs. The accident pilot’s advertised moniker was “Bandito.” The company claimed to be the “premier civilian aerial combat training center in the world,” yet it wasn’t a military contractor. There were no tests or ratings. Neither a part 119 airline nor a defined commercial operator, this type of adventure flying exists in a regulatory gray area.
The owner had multiple discussions with several FAA offices regarding certification. FAR Part 135 wouldn’t work, as passengers are prohibited from touching flight controls, thus losing the appeal of “you fly the plane.” Other common regulatory options for paying passengers, like parachute jumpers (14 CFR § 105.9) or sightseeing air tours within a 25-mile radius (14 CFR § 91.147) don’t apply. Neither does the Living History Flight Experiences exemption (LHFE) that allows passenger flights in historic warbirds. It was agreed the operation would operate as a regular Part 91 flight school, requiring all company pilots to obtain flight instructor certificates.
However, the traditional flight school model isn’t a perfect fit for these popular aviation attractions. It’s a problem in the regulations that’s actually older than the FAA, dating back to the CAB. More recently, in 2017, the Office of the Chief Counsel wrote an FAA legal interpretation to another operator who wanted to do “bucket list” rides and discovery flights scheduled by third parties like Groupon. Assistant Chief Counsel for Regulations Lorelei D. Peter defines instruction narrowly, requiring it to be for an FAA rating or a task like banner towing or crop dusting. She steered the inquirer toward using the rules for sightseeing air tours.
Inspectors at the San Diego Flight Standards District Office had asked the company to be more explicit about the flight school nature of its business. The bottom of every page of the company website was changed to read, “flights are instructional in nature conducted by certified flight instructors under 14 CFR Part 61 of the United States Code. Instruction will be provided during ground and flight portions for all flights.” Despite this, a brochure picked up at the Lake Tahoe Airport by an FAA Inspector in June 2017 included several packages labeled as “rides.” This Lake Tahoe visit was the last time the FAA saw the accident airplane intact. Camera attachment points had been added to the airplane’s wings and stabilizer without a major repair or alteration maintenance record (FAA Form 337). Concerned these could interfere with aerodynamic flying characteristics, the FAA required them removed from all company aircraft and a series of missing placards be installed in the cockpits.
The Saturday of the accident, the pilot woke up on a couch in Vegas. He’d flown in commercially the day before and slept at the company’s hangar/office/hospitality facility at Henderson Executive Airport (KHND), Nevada. Everyone that morning said he was in good spirits. At about 10 a.m., he flew a customer on a group combat mission. Then, with another employee, he flew the accident aircraft from KHND to his San Diego base, Gillespie Field in El Cajon (KSEE). It was a gorgeous SoCal day, 79 degrees Fahrenheit with clear skies and good visibility. A weather balloon launched that afternoon from nearby Miramar Air Station recorded winds aloft out of the northwest at 7 to 12 knots below 9,000 feet.
The GoPro HERO recording started a little before 4 p.m. The bubble canopy was open, passenger already strapped in. The camera faced aft, capturing the passenger’s upper body and face, with a clear view outside. The forward canopy lock and the tips of the horizontal stabilizer were also visible. It captured ambient audio but no intercom or radio talk. The canopy came down and was locked by the pilot. The NTSB notes the “seatbelt harness was loose around his shoulders and chest. The passenger’s headphones were equipped with a Velcro chin strap, which was not secured, and remained unsecured for the entire flight.” Engine start, run-up, taxi and takeoff were normal.
From runway 17 at KSEE, they flew out to the open countryside northwest of San Diego, cruising at 4,700 feet. It was a route the pilot had flown many times. Then came a series of aerobatic maneuvers between 4,300 and 6,900 feet. They did rolls, hammerheads and tailslides. The passenger appeared to be manipulating the stick during some of the flying. After the pilot completed a tumble, he asked, “how’s that?” and the passenger replied, “that was awesome.”
The passenger seemed to brace for something new. The pilot pitched up to 45 degrees, rolled right, let the nose drop, then the direction of roll reversed, and they transitioned into what appeared to the NTSB to be an inverted spin. Not fully secured, the passenger rose in his seat, reaching up to secure the headphones now pulling away from his head in negative g.
The direction of spin reversed. The rate of rotation began to increase. Wind noise loudened. A gap appeared between the canopy frame and the fuselage, consistent with airspeed approaching Vne. The passenger began to rock from side to side, forced up against his shoulder straps. He was smiling and making yelping sounds. But then his appearance changed. The NTSB believes the rocking was the pilot applying rapid control inputs, possibly to the rudder, trying to regain aircraft control. Something was very wrong.
“They were flying a 2009 Extra Flugzeugbau EA 300/L, a tandem two-seat tailwheel monoplane with 310 horsepower Lycoming engine driving a three-bladed constant-speed MT propeller.”
The Board said it’s likely that the pilot “quickly deduced that recovery was not possible and that a bailout was necessary.” The pilot activated the canopy release handle, it opened and the canopy blew off. The attached GoPro continued recording. The pilot came into view, left hand holding the canopy release handle, right hand by the stick. Inboard sections of the ailerons were visible, along with the leading edge of the horizontal stabilizer, vertical stabilizer and rudder. There was no evidence of bird strike, fire or flight control separation. Engine RPM sounded normal. The camera tumbled through the air.
After six seconds, a couple of frames showed an orange glow on the ground next to the reservoir, with a black smudge above. The plane had impacted at high-speed in a near-vertical dive. The remaining fuel was burning.
The crash wasn’t only seen by (what had been) the cockpit camera. Several ground witnesses took notice when the aerobatics stopped, and black smoke rose above a ridgeline. After the accident, the burning fuel started a wildfire that covered 20 acres before air tankers and helicopters brought the blaze under control. What was left was badly damaged, but careful NTSB analysis showed no evidence of pre-existing deficiencies with the aircraft.
We don’t really know what the problem was with aircraft control. The NTSB didn’t rule out inadvertent passenger interference with the flight controls. The position of his feet during the final maneuver couldn’t be determined, but he was bracing himself against the effects of negative g-forces with a loose seatbelt and a departing headset. Or it could have been something coming loose in the cockpit.
That Extra 300 was subject to service bulletins pertaining to the flight controls, but, according to the NTSB report, they had not been performed. One required the addition of a safety clamp to the transponder after a report one slid out of its rack and jammed against the stick during aerobatics. The state of the wreckage didn’t allow examination of this possible cause. The Safety Board did note that FARs do not require compliance with service bulletins under Part 91.
This wasn’t the first time the NTSB had investigated the company’s fleet of Extras. In 2014, one of them had a wear-related rudder cable separation following aerobatics. Landing at McCarran International (KLAS) it veered off the runway, sustaining substantial damage. The Board found the company had not complied with a service bulletin addressing such possible failures. Also, in 2014, a company Extra landed on a street short of the runway at KHND after an unexplained loss of engine power. The aircraft suffered substantial damage to the right wing.
In 2016, a company Extra impacted terrain 10 miles south of KHND, killing the pilot and paying passenger. The Board found the passenger was airsick after air-to-air combat maneuvers, so the pilot planned a low-level simulated bombing run to return and land. The pilot’s postmortem toxicology testing was positive for tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary psychoactive component of marijuana. He was faulted by the NTSB for “failure to conduct an adequate amount of clearing turns while maneuvering at low level.” Unlike airlines or other passenger-carrying operators, flight schools are not required to have drug/alcohol testing programs.
Digging deeper, the Board found more. In 2016, a company Extra had a failure and near-total separation of the windshield during aerobatic maneuvers. The Board has video that shows, while pulling out of the bottom of a loop, the pilot exceeded Vne speed by 40 knots. This caused the plexiglass to fracture and separate from the frame. He flew back to the airport with most of the canopy missing. The incident was not reported to the NTSB or FAA as required by regulations. When the company started, it had an FAA waiver to carry passengers for hire while flying in formation, but the waiver was suspended in 2012 after a possible low-flying incident. After a second incident involving low flying near the Hoover Dam, the waiver was revoked. Some company pilots had been sent letters of investigation and had certificate actions against them by the FAA for low-level aerobatics and unsafe flying.
The Extra 300L is an amazing airplane with a lot of structural integrity and no bad habits. It’s built for aerobatics, from its carbon fiber composite spar and carbon composite skin to the layout of the cockpit. Patty Wagstaff, aviation legend and active aerobatic instructor, told Plane & Pilot, “In 34 years of flying the Extra series of aircraft, I have found them to be incredibly safe, strong and predictable at all times when flown within their operation envelope and limitations.”
While fully capable of Unlimited category aerobatic competition, the 300 isn’t science fiction. It has some physical limitations that need to be respected. The POH and cockpit-placarded gravitational load limits are plus or minus 10 g. That’s more than the “mere” 9 g an F-16 can pull. The Extra’s ±10 g limitation is reduced to ±8 g with two occupants and further to ±6 g at higher weights. The NTSB collected video evidence that company pilots often exceeded these limitations.
The accident docket has photographic evidence of 9 g, even 10.5 g, with passengers. It was pretty common for passengers to black out due to G-LOC. There are also video stills of pilots maneuvering at 210 knots, over 50 knots above Va. The Board’s final report states the accident pilot “routinely flew airplanes beyond their operating limitations.” Furthermore, “review of footage taken with other pilots revealed a company-wide pattern of disregard for the airplane’s published operating limitations and the company’s own policies regarding airspeed and g limitations.” Damningly, the Board uncovered no evidence of the maintenance inspections required after over-g events, leading it to determine “the airplane was likely unairworthy at the time of the accident.”
Every plane has limits. So does every pilot. The NTSB found the probable cause to be the pilot’s inability to regain aircraft control during aerobatics. Contributing, it says, was the company’s failure to provide effective internal oversight to identify and prohibit exceedance of the airplane’s performance parameters. Additionally, it cited the lack of a regulatory framework for the FAA to oversee such aviation experiences.