Borrowing trouble

NTSB Accident No. CEN14FA173

by David Jack Kenny

Flight instructors, pilot examiners, and FAA safety inspectors all agree on a few key points. One is that good airmanship rests on leaving as little as possible to chance—and having viable planned responses to those uncertainties that can’t be entirely controlled. At the opposite extreme lie flights that are attempted in the face of multiple points of uncertainty, any of which might ruin a pilot’s day if they happen to come out badly. As the saying goes, hope is not a strategy.

In November 2013, a 570-hour private pilot bought a Sonerai II LT homebuilt airplane, a diminutive tandem two-seater powered by a converted Volkswagen engine. There is no record of his ever having flown one before. In fact, if his logbook is to be believed, he hadn’t flown at all in more than a decade; the last entry was dated Sept. 19, 2003. In January 2014, the 60-year-old Coloradan logged 1.2 hours of dual in an AT-4 light sport aircraft, but did not receive an endorsement indicating completion of a flight review. 

On the morning of March 29, 2014, he made his first flight in the Sonerai, but quickly returned after noticing that fuel was leaking from the sight gauge in the cockpit—essentially just a piece of plastic tubing affixed to the instrument panel. He told a friend that he’d drained the tank and replaced the cracked, discolored hose with a fresh length of clear vinyl. After lunch he planned to fly again.

The Sonerai made its second takeoff at about 2:30 p.m. A dozen witnesses provided nearly identical reports. They described the airplane “struggling to stay airborne” at a very low altitude with the engine running badly. Approaching an open field, it crossed a set of power lines, and then rolled left and dropped nose-first in an apparent stall. Fire consumed the wreckage almost immediately. The pilot was already dead, killed by the impact.

This is another accident in which the underlying thought process is difficult to reconstruct. Begin with the sight gauge replacement. The pilot wasn’t the airplane’s builder, and he wasn’t an A&P. While experimental aircraft are specifically exempted from FAR Part 43, giving their owners broad discretion over what they choose to modify or repair, a degree of caution's not a bad thing when it comes to critical components. Yes, it’s just a piece of plastic hose—but it’s also part of the airplane’s fuel system, and avgas getting into places it doesn’t belong can make things very unpleasant indeed. The same friend he’d told about the original leak was out flying his own airplane at the time of the accident and encountered enough turbulence to make it difficult to tune his radios. He told investigators that “if any repairs were going to come apart … the rough air would have certainly contributed to it.” Officially, the NTSB found that the extent of fire damage made it impossible to determine the cause of the power loss. The friend's guess was that the newly installed sight gauge had come loose in the turbulence, dumping gas into the cockpit. The Sonerai is flown solo from the rear seat, from which the leak would have been impossible to reach.

Even if it was in perfect mechanical condition, though, the choice to fly an unfamiliar aircraft solo without benefit of any transition training would be dubious for most of us. Doing that after just one refresher flight following a decade of inactivity (and without completing a flight review) would seem reckless in a certified airplane—and the handling qualities of homebuilts aren’t nearly as predictable. Safely transitioning into a homebuilt essentially requires replicating the full test-flight regime, making the aviator who tries it a de facto test pilot. It’s wise to begin with a sober evaluation of whether your training and current skills really rise to test-pilot level. Do you have good reason to be confident of your ability to control the aircraft while managing a crisis? In this case the loss of engine power may have precipitated the emergency, but it was the stall and resulting uncontrolled impact that killed the pilot and destroyed the airplane.