August 14, 2014
By Jim Moore
A factual report on the Feb. 3, 2012, crash that killed Micron Technology CEO Steve Appleton released Aug. 12 by the NTSB sheds new light on the circumstances, though a determination of probable cause may still be months away.
Investigators found no evidence of a mechanical failure that would have precluded normal operation, though there was significant corrosion in the fuel control unit; NTSB investigators note that Appleton, who purchased the aircraft from a previous owner less than two months before the crash, was relatively unfamiliar with the complex systems of an aircraft that Appleton himself described as "squirrely." While insurers required Lancair-specific training at the time, there is no evidence cited in the report that Appleton had sought such training.
Appleton’s Lancair IV-TP appears to have suffered a power loss shortly after a takeoff attempted minutes after a rejected takeoff; witnesses saw it pitch steeply and crash seconds after liftoff.
Appleton held an airline transport pilot certificate with category ratings for multiengine land, multiengine sea, and single-engine land airplanes, along with various type ratings, and had private pilot priviliges for single-engine seaplanes. He had logged more than 3,600 hours by the time he prepared for his final flight, though the NTSB report notes that flight data recovered from the aircraft indicates Appleton had logged less than 14 hours in the aircraft he bought from the previous owner in December 2011.
Data recovered from the electronic flight information system, recording in detail the accident flight as well as previous flights, correlates to witness accounts and other evidence. Following a rejected takeoff, Appleton requested a departure clearance at Boise Air Terminal/Gowen Field in Boise, Idaho, shortly before 9 a.m., the report states. The EFIS data recorded a sharp drop in engine torque soon after liftoff, corresponding to the time Appleton notified the tower of his intention to turn back to the airport. During the last 16 seconds of the flight, which reached a maximum altitude of 325 feet above ground level, engine torque decreased to 14 percent—well below the normal operating range. A post-crash examination uncovered corrosion within the fuel control unit, though the report notes that while “numerous parts could not be examined due to the condition of the unit (corroded) precluding their removal,” there was “no evidence of pre impact mechanical malfunction or failure that would have precluded normal operation.”
Investigators interviewed experts including an engineer formerly employed by Lancair, who said the aircraft (modified to accommodate a turboprop engine) had a dramatically higher wing loading than the original piston model, in the range of 40 to 45 pounds per square foot. The turboprop modifications exacerbated the aircraft’s “already-existing aggressive stall characteristics,” making the Lancair IV-TP a “challenging airplane to fly, which without adequate training, makes it a dangerous airplane because it was not designed for such a high-horsepower engine.”
A company pilot who had flown with Appleton in the accident aircraft told NTSB investigators that Appleton was “unfamiliar with the panel, which made the airplane even more challenging.”
The former Lancair engineer told investigators that a pilot has very little time to react to a power reduction during or immediately after takeoff: Without an abrupt pitch correction (to reduce the angle of attack), the airplane would become “unrecoverable” within 5 seconds after a power loss during the initial climb. The engineer opined that the aircraft would stall at more than 80 knots indicated, with a tendency to drop a wing, and told investigators that he advises pilots to use a decision altitude of 1,500 feet agl, landing straight-ahead in case of any power loss below that altitude.
The data, along with witness accounts and radio transcripts, shows Appleton attempted to turn back.
Appleton’s death drew significant media attention, and some questioned whether key corporate employees should fly general aviation aircraft. AOPA Foundation President Bruce Landsberg noted, days after the accident, that the Lancair has a heavily loaded wing, and higher stall speed than comparable certificated aircraft.
“Does this make Lancairs bad aircraft? Not in my view. But before flying one pilots must understand the nature of the animal they’re dealing with,” Landsberg wrote.
AOPA Online Associate Editor Jim Moore joined AOPA in 2011 and is an instrument-rated private pilot who enjoys competition aerobatics.
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