March 18, 2013 Navajo Plane Crash

General aviation is a wonderful experience that is practical and safe. It is not as safe as driving in a car or flying commercially, in my opinion, but it is an acceptable risk that is worth taking. Declaring an activity as safe is a relative thing that requires understanding. Hopefully, what I write here will help.

I was talking with a few cohorts at a business conference yesterday. This was a very effective business conference on leadership, which was a nice surprise to be honest.

We were discussing the news of the day, which included a plane crash in Florida that I was not aware of. I did a search this morning, and thought I’d put a few words out here to help those folks understand what may have occurred. It is important that those of us who are proponents of general aviation address these issues with education.

The aircraft in question was either a Piper Cheyenne or a Piper Navajo. It was a twin engine airplane that is larger than my own Twin Comanche, and I will focus on the fact that it was a twin. Early reports indicate that it may have had engine trouble and returned to the airport. My comments here are general comments – not related to this specific accident in that the available information is preliminary and probably inaccurate.

In general – losing an engine on a twin engine airplane while it is in level flight (at altitude) is almost a non-event. Depending on terrain and altitude, the well trained pilot who is current in the airplane will be, or should be, able to proceed to an airport and land uneventfully. That means you fly a wide and comfortable pattern when you get there, and do not rush the process.

Losing an engine during the landing phase has the potential to distract the pilot, but should also be a non-event. Calmly addressing the issue has little risk, in my view. I acknowledge there are a million scenarios out there that a pilot that flys allot will encounter, and some of them may be a bigger issue – but generally – you are going to be ok and your passengers will be merely curious why you stopped talking.

Losing an engine on takeoff is an entirely different matter. This subject may be determined to apply to this accident, once the facts of this crash are actually all known. Todays facts are incomplete and potentially inaccurate.

In a single engine airplane, losing an engine on takeoff is NOT a death sentence. You have but one initial choice – where I am I going land? Your training is clear and there is no ambiguity. You push the nose down and establish best glide. Gravity is the law, so you are landing. If there are trees ahead – you are still landing, but you are landing in the trees. STILL not a death sentence – just fly between two trees and use the wings to disperse the energy.

Single engine power loss on takeoff sounds ominous, but the failures are rare and the pilot gets to manage his/her risk by choosing when and where to take off from. Thus you can plan where you’ll go ahead of time, and in most case, roll to a stop in a field. It is a risk, but you can manage that risk effectively.

There is one plot complication that may have reared it’s head in this crash. The concept of turning back to the airport you just left when something bad happens. The temptation is huge to turn around and land, and to get it on the ground right now! Sometimes it makes sense to just continue straight ahead and land in a field. The later option has a much higher rate of success, and would be my choice.

Losing an engine in a twin on takeoff is an entirely different matter. One that may also have been involved in this case. When you lose an engine in a twin on takeoff, you must be timely – but not rushed – in securing that condition right away. The airplane will yaw into the dead engine. Recovery is to push the Mixture, Props, Throttles all full forward; ensure the flaps are up and the gear is either up or on its way up.

Now – only seconds later and close to the ground – with your heart racing – you will have one foot pressing hard and one foot with no weight on it. This will be natural, like if your car started turning right onto the shoulder you’d automatically turn left to compensate. In this case your foot presses on one rudder pedal to bring the nose back where you expect it. You use this effect to your advantage to verify which engine is really dead, so you’ll be trained to secure the correct engine.

Verify – Feather. Tap the leg that has no pressure on it – that is the side you have lost power. On takeoff – you don’t wait – reduce power (verify) on the dead side. If nothing changes – you found the offending engine. Feather – pull the prop for the same engine, which makes the blades turn sideways into the wind, as if they weren’t out there. The reduction in drag is noticeable, and the airplane surges forward on the good engine; making the airplane easier to fly.

In this condition – airspeed is life. The twin pilot must understand that the airplane on one engine may not be able to climb or even hold its altitude, but your glide will be longer and your choices broader. Choices are good for me, but they do come with an awesome responsibility.

In the best case – the airplane is holding it’s altitude or climbing relatively slowly. All there is for you to do is keep your speed up; keep the turns mild, and the pattern wide. Return to land or continue to another airport more suitable.

In the worst case – the pilot must now be able to execute a landing straight ahead – or even into the trees. If you cannot hold altitude, then you must do this even with one good engine still running. Could you do that? I could – but could you? Could you do this in just a few seconds time? Can you feel what this pilot felt.

The media described this crash as happening after the loss of an engine in twin, while the pilot was turning back to the airport. Turning back would not be my first choice. If the turn back was started before cleaning up the airplane (mixture; props; throttles; flaps; gear – identify; verify; feather), then the outcome is unlikely to be successful.

General aviation is a wonderful experience that is practical and safe. It is not as safe as driving in a car or flying commercially, in my opinion, but it is an acceptable risk that is worth taking. Declaring an activity as safe is a relative thing that requires understanding. Hopefully I have helped here.

I will undoubtedly receive commentary from my colleagues on this dialog that will improve upon it. Look for those updates to come.

fed – fly safe.