Pilot Briefing

April 1, 2007

Big Bopper's death still raising questions

The music might have died in 1959, but the investigation continues. Forensic anthropologist William Bass, founder of the research facility at Knoxville's University of Tennessee Forensic Anthropology Facility, nicknamed the "Body Farm," has been hired by the son of J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson to investigate the crash that killed, besides Richardson, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the pilot, Roger Peterson, in Mason City, Iowa.

Richardson's son, Jay Richardson, believes there are unanswered questions about his father's death, namely did he survive the crash and die as he struggled to get help? His body was found in a field nearly 40 feet to the northwest of the wreckage of the Beechcraft Bonanza. Also, there are questions about Holly's pistol and whether it had been fired. The musicians were on their way to the next concert gig and wanted to avoid riding on a cold bus.

Let's look at what we do know about the crash(see " The Night the Music Died," February 1993 Pilot). The airplane took off in gusty, wintry conditions and went down minutes from the airport. Debris was scattered over a distance of 570 feet or so. The airplane struck the ground with its right wing tip. The vertical speed indicator was jammed, showing a 3,000-foot per minute descent and the airspeed indicator needle was stuck between 165 and 170 mph. According to the coroner's report, Peterson was found in the wreckage, while Valens was found 17 feet to the south and Holly was 17 feet to the southwest.

The Civil Aeronautics Board determined that the probable cause was the "pilot's unwise decision to embark on a flight which would necessitate flying solely by reference to instruments when he was not properly certificated or qualified to do so. Contributing factors were serious deficiencies in the weather briefing, and the pilot's unfamiliarity with the instrument which determines the attitude of the aircraft."

Bass will X-ray The Big Bopper's bones and see if he can find new information about the injuries. Because The Big Bopper's remains were going to be exhumed and moved to a more prominent gravesite, his son figured it would be a good time to conduct the examination.

Van's Aircraft surpasses major milestone

Hitting the 5,000 mark is gratifying for just about any human endeavor. But in the world of homebuilt aircraft — or even certified production aircraft — it's exceptional. On Valentine's Day, Van's Aircraft received word that RV-8 builder Steve Fromhals, of San Antonio, submitted the 5,000th "first flight" report. Later that same day, another report was received, bringing the total to 5,001. To put it in perspective, company officials figure that that averages out to a new Van's airplane in the air every 2.5 days since the company began shipping kits in 1973. It began with the RV-3, which remains in production today. Van's latest design, the RV-12, is designed for the light-sport-aircraft market and should be out by the end of the year.

Skywritings

Why do highly skilled, well-trained pilots make errors that lead to accidents even though they have safely completed many thousands of previous flights? Most accidents are attributed to human error, but this is often misinterpreted as a lack of skill, vigilance, or conscientiousness by the pilots. The Limits of Expertise: Rethinking Pilot Error and the Causes of Airline Accidents takes a fresh look at the causes of pilot error and accidents, arguing that accidents can be understood only in the context of how the overall aviation system operates. The authors, R. Key Dismukes, Benjamin A. Berman, and Loukia D. Loukopoulos, are all researchers affiliated with the NASA Ames Research Center and have varied experience from accident investigation to cognitive psychology. They analyze in detail the 19 major U.S. airline accidents from 1991 to 2000 in which the NTSB found crew error to be a causal factor. Published by Ashgate Publishing, the 364-page soft-cover book sells for $39.95.

"Geology is thrilling," says author, photographer, and geologist Michael Collier. "It's an excitement that has always been hard to capture between the covers of a book." That said, Collier does it anyway in his book Over the Mountains: An Aerial View of Geology by using his Cessna 180 as a tripod. Collier flies over some of the nation's most beautiful and remote areas, and besides capturing compelling images, he offers geology lessons along the way. The photos were shot mostly in the West and Alaska, but he also covers the Allegheny and Appalachian mountains in West Virginia and Tennessee. Go for a ride with this expert guide in this 121-page hardcover book. Published by Mikaya Press, it sells for $29.95.

Author Terry Thompson has written a book that is meant to be read each day for 31 days. The Aviator's Devotional: 31 Daily Inspirational Readings for Those Who Fly helps pilots recapture the romance of flight. Thompson says the 133-page hardcover book is unapologetically Christian-based, but it appeals to pilots of all backgrounds and faiths through analogies of everyday life issues. The book sells for $14.95 and is available at Amazon.com or through the author's Web site.

What's in the April issue of AOPA Flight Training?

  • Glass Class. Glass-cockpit airplanes are a different breed, as you'll find from the very first moment you preflight one.
  • High Wing, Low Wing. Which one should you choose? We lay out the differences.
  • Medications and Flying. If you take that pain pill before venturing aloft, how is it likely to affect you?
  • Takeoff Rules of Thumb. 'Guestimates' as a safety factor.

The April issue mailed on February 28. Current AOPA members can add a subscription to AOPA Flight Training for $18 per year. For more information, call 800/872-2672.

Photo of the Month: Learning to fly the Cub

AOPA member David Bahnson, AOPA 5810772, took this photo of his wife and her instructor in the couple's refurbished 1946 Piper J-3 Cub to win January's photo of the month. The 2007 AOPA Pilot General Aviation Photography Contest runs through September 4, 2007. See AOPA Online for details and to enter your own photographs.

Meet the approach master

How much flying do you do in a year? Scott Thompson is paid by the FAA to fly more than 500 hours a year across nine western states checking the final segment and initial missed approach of 300 instrument procedures — most recently in a 430-knot Learjet 60.

He is based at the FAA's Sacramento, California, field office. On the day he was interviewed he had shot 15 approaches, but he won't hop into a Cessna 172 on personal business and do the same thing. He holds high standards, and feels he is not current enough in a 172 because he hasn't flown it in a while. Nationwide there are 30 aircraft and about 80 pilots plus 40 technicians who operate electronic equipment on the aircraft, making sure those VORs, precision approaches, nonprecision approaches, and any equipment you use while in the air are working properly. Thompson operates mostly in VFR weather.

It takes two years to learn the job and there is no need to think of it as time building for an airline career; flight-inspection pilots make around $100,000 a year and pile up hotel frequent-visit points at an amazing rate. The government now allows them to use the points on vacations. When not flying, Thompson and his staff do paperwork, important paperwork. They write reports on the accuracy of the systems they visit and copyedit the accuracy of newly printed approaches.

If you are an instrument pilot, you know that runway markings, lighting, and airport signage are parts of the airway system, too, and so they also are checked by flight inspectors. They check military installations but leave those in combat zones to U.S. Air Force crews. "We prefer not to get shot at," Thompson said. Prior to flight duties he was an air traffic controller in the Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Tower and in Oakland Center. Want to know the history of flight inspection? In his spare time he has written a book called Flight Check!: The Story of FAA Flight Inspection along with several other books, and more than 100 magazine articles. — Alton K. Marsh

Dept. of R&D
Getting down and dirty with vortices

One of the best ways to deal with aircraft-generated vortices is to respect them for what they are. Then add some funky devices to the wing tips to alter their personalities. University of Houston professor Fazle Hussain is working from a $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to find ways to reduce gridlock at major airports where aircraft have to wait for turbulence to subside before they can land or take off. Hussain, a topnotch fluid dynamicist, is using computer modeling to see how mechanical devices can speed up the breakdown of these tornadolike forces.

AOPA ePilot ® Headlines

Recent news from AOPA's weekly e-mail newsletter

Flutter may have caused Grob jet crash
The German Federal Bureau of Aircraft Accidents is focusing its investigation of the November 29, 2006, crash of Grob Aerospace spn test aircraft No. 2, the company's planned new business jet, on the possibility of control surface flutter.

Eclipse settles suit
A lawsuit filed by Eclipse Aviation against Aspen Avionics, alleging Eclipse had the rights to a moving map and MP3 player, has been settled.

Cirrus starts work on jet
A proof-of-concept version of the Cirrus jet is under construction but will not fly for a year.

Symphony hits sour note
Symphony Aircraft Industries, manufacturer of the Symphony 160 and located in Quebec, Canada, has filed for liquidation after a bankruptcy court withdrew protection from creditors.

Columbia breaks sales record
Columbia Aircraft says delivery figures were up by 200 percent in 2006 over the previous year despite a hailstorm and delays in certifying the glass panel.

Now you can receive a customized version of the free AOPA ePilot e-mail newsletter tailored to your interests. To customize your weekly newsletter, see AOPA Online.

'Flying aircraft carrier' exposed on sea floor

A giant airship sat on the floor of California's Monterey Bay for 71 years before modern technology caught up with it. It marked the end of an aviation era and the beginning of an oceanic enterprise.

The USS Macon was one of two rigid-hull airships built so large they could carry 100 crewmembers and five small reconnaissance aircraft. Made by the Goodyear Co., the airships were 785 feet long and weighed 200 tons fully loaded. They were powered by eight piston engines built by the Maybach Co., of Germany. They had skyhook-trapeze mechanisms for releasing and retrieving Sparrowhawk biplanes. The airships were kept aloft by 12 helium-filled cells inside the hull.

But their lifespan was short. On April 4, 1933, the Macon's sister ship, the Akron, went down in a storm off the coast of New Jersey, killing 73 crewmembers. Then on February 12, 1935, the Macon succumbed to heavy winds and crashed into the Pacific. Only two of the Macon's 83-man crew died in the accident. A long association with Stanford University grew out of the second incident.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed William F. Durdan, a professor who established Stanford's first aeronautics course, to reevaluate the Navy's use of airships. Although Durdan thought highly of lighter-than-air technology, it wasn't enough to keep the zeppelins flying.

Enter David Packard. You know him as the second part of the Hewlett-Packard name. A Stanford alumnus, Packard founded the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) to explore the ocean's depths using remotely operated vehicles (ROVs). He also had an interest in aviation and remembered seeing the airship flying when he was an undergraduate student. Packard financed an expedition to look for the airship in 1989. A year later, Chris Grech of the MBARI finally located the wreckage, two large debris fields, 1,400 feet beneath the surface. ROVs videotaped the remains. Packard died in 1996, but interest in the Macon continued.

In September 2006, Grech, along with a team of Stanford engineers and representatives of many institutions and agencies, returned to the wreck site off Point Sur, California. This was to be the first detailed archeological survey of the airship's remains. An ROV started making passes over the debris, snapping photos of one 20-square-foot section at a time.

Because the crash site covers more than 75,000 square feet, the team collected some 14,000 images. A computer will combine and color correct the images to create a detailed map of the wreckage. One can only imagine what it looked like in flight.

Online Survey
Most beautiful airplane

If you had just landed on Earth from outer space, the description may sound goofy: a radial-engine cabin-class biplane made of fabric and steel tube with retractable gear. It's actually anything but goofy. And once you see a Beechcraft Staggerwing, you'll know why it was voted the most beautiful airplane, hands down, in our recent online survey. Nearly 3,000 members expressed a range of opinions from military jets to sailplanes, but the Depression-era Staggerwing won out. Members said it's the perfect balance between "muscular strength and delicate grace," and they rated it high for its "classic lines and symmetry." Other top vote-getters were, not surprisingly, the North American P-51 Mustang, F4U Corsair, Piper J-3 Cub, Hughes H-1 Racer, Cessna 195, Lockheed Constellation, Boeing 747, Concorde, Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, and the Beechcraft Starship. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but what is interesting is that there were a range of motivations behind each design. Some were built for war or purely aerodynamic reasons and others had more utilitarian considerations.

In the case of the Corsair, its trademark bent wings resulted in better prop clearance so engineers could design shorter, lighter landing gear. Even the A-10 Warthog got some votes. You don't have to be a mother to love one, just a pilot who flies it.