July 1, 1995
By Bruce Landsberg
The Beechcraft Baron must be considered one of the most successful multiengine designs of all times, with more than 3,500 active aircraft in the United States. How does it fare in the safety arena? In a new report just released, the AOPA Air Safety Foundation compared the 55/56 and 58 model Barons to Beech's own Twin Bonanza and Travel Air. Other comparable airplanes included the Cessna 300 series (303 310, 320, 335, and 340); and the Piper Aztec, Seneca, and Aerostar.
During the 11-year period from 1982 to 1993, the Baron comes out favorably, with 4.7 accidents per 100,000 hours versus 5.4 for the other aircraft. Barons were involved in 278 accidents, compared to 837 accidents in the comparable group. As is the case with all the aircraft the foundation has studied so far, pilots are their own worst enemies, with nearly 80 percent of the accidents attributed to the pilot in command. In the comparable aircraft, however, the pilot responsibility rate is about 68 percent-10 percent lower. The question is, why?
One area appears to be significant. Half of the pilot-related accidents in the Baron occurred during landing, compared to 33 percent with other aircraft. Failure to extend or verify that the landing gear are down is the number- one cause. Inadvertent retraction on rollout is the second most common reason. Baron pilots are nearly five times as likely to have problems with extending or retracting the gear at the wrong time as those flying comparable aircraft. This is both a training and aircraft design issue.
In 1980, the National Transportation Safety Board conducted a special investigation of the Baron and Bonanza to determine why these aircraft had such a high involvement in landing accidents. The nonstandard placement of the landing gear switch, to the right of the throttle quadrant — where most other manufacturers place the flap switch — was a large part of the problem. On 1984 and later model Barons (and Bonanza 36 models), the gear switch was repositioned to conform with the industry standard. Pilots flying the older versions and transitioning from other retractable aircraft would do well not to touch anything during the landing rollout, in order to avoid commanding the wheels to fold instead of the flaps to retract.
Weather was another area that showed a slightly higher involvement for the Baron than for other aircraft This has nothing to do with the airplane itself, but rather with the decision-making skills of its pilots. In cruise flight there were 18 pilot-related accidents with weather as a factor, and all involved fatalities.
Six instrument- rated pilots and four VFR pilots continued into the clouds without a clearance. The conditions under which some of these accidents occurred were so poor that the pilots could have claimed temporary insanity, had they survived. For example, the owner of a charter operation decided to take a flight that another company pilot had declined because of low ceilings and visibility's in mountainous terrain. The 14,000-hour pilot was observed flying between 150 and 300 feet above the ground and impacted a mountaintop three miles from the destination airport.
Ice, thunderstorms, and turbulence claimed another eight Baron pilots on IFR flight plans. One involved a 26-hour multiengine pilot who apparently felt that flying a twin with ice protection amounted to a guarantee that the weather could be ignored. He flew as high as 15,000 feet in mountainous terrain without oxygen, reported half an inch of rime ice on the wings to ATC, and lost control of the aircraft shortly afterward.
Service difficulty reports are not mandatory and are not verified by the manufacturer. However, they give at least an indication of potential trouble spots. There were 278 reports of cracked engine crankcases, most of which were discovered during maintenance. There was also a significant number of broken engine mounts that should have previously been addressed by a service bulletin.
There were more than 600 SDRs on the landing gear and the retraction system. Emergency extension problems were reported because of seized motors, fouled worm gear actuators, and problems with bushings and bearings. Obviously this is a system that pilots should pay particular attention to and let maintenance technicians take their time during inspections. It's cheap insurance.
So what about the big bugaboo of multiengine flying-engine failure on takeoff? There were a total of 19 accident-causing engine problems during takeoff, but only about a quarter of these involved a bonafide mechanical failure. More than half of these accidents involved engine stoppages caused by fuel mismanagement. Four accidents were caused by selecting the wrong tank for takeoff and the subsequent fuel starvation. Improper boost pump operation, improper mixture control, and fuel importing rounded out the list. Takeoff should be considered a critical fuel system event.
Before taking too much comfort in the preceding statistics of less than two engine failures in the fleet per year, remember that the skills required for handling an engine problem on takeoff are considerable. While the odds are in your favor that you'll never have to do it for real, the penalty for being a bit rusty can be severe indeed. The Air Safety Foundation highly recommends periodic simulator-based training for multiengine pilots to prepare for this often once-in-a-lifetime event.
Practicing in the aircraft for engine-out maneuvering must be done with considerable caution. There were eight stall/spin accidents, all as a result of practicing emergency procedures or minimum control speed (V MC) demonstrations. Four of the accidents involved flat spins, which are considered unrecoverable. This repeats the airlines' experience of the early 1960s, where many more aircraft were lost in training than to actual mechanical malfunctions. Certain configurations and parts of the flight envelope entail a high risk.
Another Baron problem involved losing control while trying to close the door during the takeoff roll. It has been shown many times that the Baron will fly nicely with the front door trailing. It is noisy and it may be cold, but it's safe. The danger comes from trying to do too many things at once. As usual, flying the aircraft takes priority.
The Baron Safety Review includes an analysis of a decade's worth of accidents, the NTSB special investigation on landing gear problems, and at least 50 accident briefs on various categories of accidents. A complete training syllabus and reprints of several AOPA Pilot Baron articles are also included. The safety review may be ordered for $22.95 by calling Sporty's Pilot Shop at 800/SPORTYS.
See also the index of "Safety Pilot" articles, organized by subject. Bruce Landsberg is executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.
GA Safety and Accidents,
Aircraft Components and Gear,
Pilot Safety and Skills,
Weather and Seasons
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Pilot Skip Gibbs regularly uses his Bonanza A36 to bring medical volunteers and supplies to remote areas of Mexico. Just before sunset, Gibbs was flying to the historic city of El Fuerte in the state of Sinaloa where LIGA International Flying Doctors of Mercy has been doing good works since 1934.