The pilot of a vintage Cessna 140 taildragger who perished in a stall/spin mishap during an impromptu short takeoff and landing (STOL) event in Nebraska last month was warned on two occasions to “lower your nose” as he was on short final for landing, this according to the National Transportation Safety Board’s preliminary report on the crash. These factual reports lay out the information associated with a mishap and are not intended to find the cause of a crash. That final report typically takes up to a year to complete.
The traditional STOL contest, which grades contestants on the total length of their takeoff and landing rolls—the shorter the better—was being flown after high winds scrubbed the planned STOL/Drag event, in which planes race at very low altitude in a straight line and back again to a short landing. The more traditional STOL event that participants were flying the day of the fatal accident has airplanes take off, fly a pattern and return for a landing, so the altitude of the planes in an event like this is many hundreds or even a thousand feet above the ground while in the pattern to come around and land.
The NTSB report laid out the timeline: “According to a representative with STOL Drag Events LLC., who was a participant organization in the 2022 Wayne County Mayday STOL Drag Races, the day before the accident the event began with short takeoff and landing drag racing (STOL Drag) training conducted on a course next to runway 5-23. The accident pilot had been signed off for competition at a prior STOL Drag event. On the day of the accident, additional STOL Drag training had been completed in the morning and qualifying STOL Drag races were planned for the afternoon. However, due to the northwest gusting winds, the qualifiers were postponed until the next day.
“After the postponement decision was made,” the report continued, “several of the competing pilots expressed a desire to perform traditional STOL (without any drag racing component) on the grass runway 31 given the favorable headwinds.” Prior to the contest, the report’s authors wrote, “a safety briefing was held with STOL Drag representatives, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) inspectors, and pilots that planned to fly in the traditional STOL.” Flying in the event was optional, the report said, and as a safety measure to prevent potential collisions, organizers put the aircraft into “multiple groups of 5 airplanes.”
The first two patterns and landings for each of the planes in the group the accident airplane was in were uneventful. But on the third circuit, the Cessna 140’s speed seemed slower, and its altitude was lower than the airplane it was following in the circuit. The report reads: “During the third approach with the accident airplane on final approach and following a Zenith STOL 701 also on final, the accident airplane descended and appeared to be lower than the airplane ahead. Subsequently, the pitch attitude increased, the airplane rolled to the right, and completed a 3/4 turn right spin and impacted terrain in a near vertical attitude…”
The race official that was operating the radio during the event noticed the slow speed and nose-high attitude of the Cessna 140 and, according to the report, “about 45 seconds prior to the accident, he stated over the radio to the accident pilot, ‘lower your nose you look slow.’ About 15 seconds before the accident, he stated again to the pilot, ‘lower your nose.’ There were no communications received from the accident pilot.”
Shortly thereafter, the Cessna 140 stalled and entered a spin, making about three-quarters of a turn before impacting the terrain near the runway in a nose-down attitude. The pilot was killed on impact.
The remainder of the competition was cancelled. In its report, the NTSB noted that “at the time of the accident, an airport and runway 31 closure Notice to Air Mission was in effect.” An FAA Certificate of Waiver had been issued to STOL Drag Events LLC. from May 1922 to conduct “Competition STOL Drag (Straight Line Air Race, (Non-Closed Course) at Wayne Municipal Airport, Wayne, NE. All racing will be below 100′ AGL, within the defined limits of the course adjacent to Runway 05/23.” The competition that took place instead, again, due to the high winds at the time, was different in character than the one described in the waiver.