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Taking Off With Controls Locked Proves Fatal For Pilot

The pilot of a Van’s RV-8 made one simple mistake that cost him everything.

An RV-8 similar to the accident airplane. The model, a speedy and maneuverable kit plane, is one of the most popular kits ever.
An RV-8 similar to the accident airplane. The model, a speedy and maneuverable kit plane, is one of the most popular kits ever.

A pilot told me that while reading “After the Accident” articles, she reacts in one of two ways: I would never do that, or that could have been me. A recent fatal crash, right after takeoff, seems to fall into the first — I’d never do that — category.

On June 13, 2020, just before 2 o’clock in the afternoon, a Vans RV-8 two-seat single-engine homebuilt taxied out at the Mandan Municipal Airport in Mandan, North Dakota (then Y19, now known as the Mandan Regional Airport-Lawler Field, KJLL). The owner/pilot was alone in the front seat, heading home to the grass strip at his farm. It was a nice summer day; no clouds in the sky, 81 degrees Fahrenheit, wind from 130 degrees at 18 knots. While possibly challenging for light aircraft or low-time pilots, the wind was blowing straight down Mandan’s 4,399-foot runway 13.

RV-8s are clean, aerobatic, classic tandem taildraggers (nosewheel versions are designated RV-8A). They have two seats, front and rear, and both front and back seats are equipped with a control stick. This sharp-looking one, white with red trim, was built in 2002 and powered by a 200-horsepower Lycoming IO-360-A1B6D engine. It had flown 695 apparently uneventful hours by the time of its last inspection in November 2019. 

The 57-year-old pilot had over 1,000 hours in his logbook, which showed him making near-annual trips to Oshkosh, attending local fly-ins and practicing aerobatics. He was a mechanical engineer and farmer who also enjoyed flying his Citabria airplane. Both his FAA medical exam and flight review were current. 

Just prior to taxiing out, he was by the hangars talking to another pilot. This flyer saw the control stick in the rear cockpit was secured fully back by the seatbelt. For aircraft without other types of gust or control locks, a seatbelt can be a fine way to stop the flight surfaces banging around in gusty winds. But done in a rear cockpit, it can’t be undone alone from the front cockpit once you’re strapped in. The local reminded the pilot, “Be sure to remove the seat belt.” Taxiing out, this witness, and another pilot, noticed the RV-8’s elevator remained full up the whole time. 

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The pilot elected to do a midfield departure. The ground roll was short, and as he became airborne, the nose kept coming up steeper and steeper. The unusual climb lasted maybe 50 feet; the plane rolled left, quickly came back down almost vertically, and crashed upright into grass by the runway. It was as though he had taken off with the elevator still secured in the full up, or stick back, position. The two eyewitnesses, running toward the burning wreckage, both reported, “the elevator was in an up position at the accident site and slowly lowered as the fire continued.” They tried to pull the pilot out, but the airplane was now engulfed in flames. He died of blunt head and chest injuries.

After the accident, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) checked for other possibilities that may have caused the airplane to stall and crash suddenly. But toxicology testing was negative, and examination of the wreckage found no preimpact anomalies in airframe or powerplant. They eventually assigned probable cause for the loss of control to be exactly what the horrified observers first guessed, “the pilot’s failure to remove the seat belt used as a flight control lock from the aft control stick before takeoff.” The hobbled plane had pitched up, stalled and crashed. The elevator likely lowered during the fire as the webbing material melted, releasing the stick.

“Sometimes, the cause is as simple as not following checklists or standard procedures.

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It’s not nearly the first time pilots have been killed trying to take off in a plane with the flight controls locked. Sometimes, unusual circumstances throw off routines. In 2016, a USAF C-130 stalled and crashed 28 seconds after takeoff, killing 14 people. While unloading tall cargo at Jalalabad Airport, Afghanistan, a pilot raised the elevator to give the ground crew more clearance at the rear loading ramp. Tired of holding the yoke back, he secured it in place with the strap of a night vision goggle case. He then forgot to unstrap it before takeoff.

Sometimes, the cause is as simple as not following checklists or standard procedures. In 2015, the crew of a Gulfstream G-IV business jet taking off from Hanscom Field in Massachusetts left with the gust lock system engaged. Seven people died. The NTSB found that in the last 175 flights, a complete preflight control check had been performed only twice. Disciplined use of a checklist would have caught this unsafe practice.

There is, in fact, a long history here. Airplane checklists were first developed in 1935 after a prototype B-17 flown by a top test pilot crashed after attempting takeoff with the controls locked. We have to do some kind of checklist before taking off. We must ensure the controls have full, free and correct movement. Additionally, we can make it a habit not to tie the flight controls using a passenger or co-pilot seat belt. This is the policy for Vans company pilots, who never secure the rear cockpit stick.

It seems inconceivable to take off with the stick or yoke tied or locked. It certainly feels like one of those I would never do that type of accidents. And I’m sure the RV-8 pilot who died in this crash, asked minutes earlier, would have felt the same way. I would never do that. But maybe that feeling is part of the problem. We can get distracted. Forget a checklist. In a hurry. Focus elsewhere. You just think, “We’re ready,” and add power. And just that quickly, maybe this is a that could have been me type of accident. 

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Read our previous After the Accident article, “A Bad Weather Report Leads To A Fatal Crash On A Snowy Flight.”

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