By Robert N. Rossier, EAA 472091
This piece originally ran in Robert’s Stick and Rudder column in the January 2021 issue of EAA Sport Aviation magazine.
Accident data tells us that maneuvering flight is dangerous business, resulting in more than a quarter of all fatal accidents. When we think of maneuvering flight, we might think of steep turns, rapid climbs and descents, or radical configuration changes that can put us in harm’s way. We imagine the accidents occur as a result of such maneuvers as buzzing, canyon flying, aerobatics, and crop dusting. The truth is that even the simplest maneuvers can confound us, especially when flying low and slow. Perhaps an issue is the fact that we don’t perceive some phases of flight as maneuvering flight, so we don’t perceive the risk. Yet it is there.
In the fall of 2019, we saw recorded images of a Cessna 414 on approach to Linden Airport (KLDJ) in New Jersey. It was just before 11 a.m., visibility was 10 miles, and winds were calm. The airplane was about 2 miles from the missed approach point for the GPS-A approach, for which it had been cleared. Level at 400 feet and clear of the 700-foot overcast ceiling, the aircraft was making 90 knots over the ground. It should have been safely on the ground in less than two minutes. But suddenly, for what seemed like no apparent reason, the aircraft entered a left bank that progressed quickly to a spiral dive and slammed into trees and a house, resulting in a post-crash fire. The aircraft was destroyed. The lone 7,000-hour commercial-rated pilot was killed. The last few seconds of the flight were recorded by two doorbell surveillance cameras — one was 0.2 miles south of the crash site and one was 0.2 miles north of the crash site.
The preliminary NTSB report provides a better idea of what might have happened leading up to the deadly spiral. Normally, we might maintain blue line (VYSE, or best single engine rate of climb speed in a light twin) as our approach speed, which is 108 knots for the aircraft in question. But that wasn’t the case here. Over a period of 17 seconds, the groundspeed slowed from 90 to 80 knots while altitude and course remained constant. Twelve seconds later, still on course and altitude, the speed decayed to 70 knots, which happens to be the published stall speed for the aircraft. Eleven seconds later, the aircraft descended to 375 feet, turned left to 050, and slowed to 66 knots. It then descended rapidly to 175 feet and a heading of 321 degrees with a groundspeed of 82 knots. Impact with the tree and house came quickly thereafter.
The NTSB investigation is ongoing, but the picture painted by the preliminary report suggests how pilots can paint themselves into such a deadly corner. We may never know exactly what went wrong, but we might conjecture that the pilot became distracted. If the power or the elevator trim had not been properly set, a distraction could result in an unnoticed drop in airspeed during a distraction. Perhaps the autopilot was not set properly set, was accidentally bumped off, or wasn’t available or used. A distraction could have been caused by just about anything — looking for a dropped pencil, studying a chart, setting the radios or GPS, or searching for something in the cockpit. It doesn’t take much. Once we enter a stall at low altitude, the ride is pretty much over.
The takeaway is a dark reminder that when maneuvering at low altitude, even straight and level in seemingly benign conditions, it only takes a short lapse in attention for chaos to rear its ugly head. Flying close to the ground is close to the edge — an edge that we can easily slip over.
A similar accident occurred in August 2020 at Groton-New London Airport (KGON) in southeastern Connecticut. Again, it was a light twin flying low on an approach to landing — technically maneuvering, but a phase of flight that many might not recognize as particularly dangerous. As with the previous accident, this one is still under investigation, but the preliminary NTSB report reveals that the aircraft was making an approach to the runway and was about 2 miles out when the situation went awry. The instructor and student had just completed a training flight from KGON to Bangor, Maine (KBGR), where the aircraft refueled. They then flew to Augusta, Maine (KAUG), and to Portland, Maine (KPWM), where they made touch-and-go landings, and then flew back to Groton for a bit more pattern work.
When they arrived back at Groton at about 10:30 that night, there were few clouds at 1,500 feet, visibility was 10 miles, and winds were out of the southwest at 5 knots. It was not a bad night to be finishing up some training. They made two touch-and-go landings on Runway 23 and were in the pattern for another landing. According to the preliminary NTSB report, the landing gear and 10 degrees of flaps were extended abeam the numbers. But, after turning base, the routine training flight turned ugly as the right engine sputtered and lost at least partial power. The instructor took the controls, maintained airspeed, and retracted the flaps, leaving the gear down due to their low altitude. He verified the malfunction was with the right engine. He briefly pitched down and then up, and noticing a high descent rate, he feathered the right prop and shut down the right engine. Recognizing that they wouldn’t make the runway, he searched for an off-field landing site and settled on a residential street. As he flared for the landing, he felt a collision.
The aircraft slammed through the roof of a single-story home about 1.4 miles short of the runway. It penetrated the roof at what appeared to be a shallow angle, with the nose in the living room and the left engine and tail sticking out from the roofline. Miraculous is the fact that the aircraft did not explode or catch fire. The instructor and student both exited the aircraft without any serious injuries. The lone homeowner had gone to bed a short time prior to the Seneca’s arrival in the living room and escaped injury. Despite the destruction of the house and aircraft, it could have been a whole lot worse.
As of this writing, the NTSB report is preliminary, so we don’t have all the facts. We don’t really know all the details that led to the accident, but there are still some important lessons we can take away, and a few points to ponder. Once again, we see how there is little room for error, even when making normal maneuvers at low altitude. An emergency procedure that we have practiced innumerable times can suddenly throw us a curve and put us in a no-win situation. We might imagine that the aircraft was relatively lightly loaded and should have been able to continue to a safe single-engine landing. It didn’t work out that way. Perhaps fatigue or the surprise factor played a part in the accident. Perhaps other factors were involved. At least the pilots in this case had luck riding with them that night and lived to tell the tale.
This year we can approach things differently. When we think of maneuvering flight, we should think of any phase of flight that puts us low and slow. It’s a time to be focused and on top of our game, even if it seems it should be a walk in the park.
Robert N. Rossier, EAA 472091, has been flying for more than 30 years and has worked as a flight instructor, commercial pilot, chief pilot, and FAA flight check airman.