Don't try it at home

WPR12FA062 

by David Jack Kenny

Air Safety InstituteFor even the most expert performers, low-level aerobatics require careful planning and near-perfect execution. Every possible measure is taken to make sure things go according to plan because the pilot can run out of options very quickly if they don’t. In December 2011, for example, an airshow pilot was killed while demonstrating a routine in order to renew his unlimited aerobatic competency card. By all accounts, he was a superb airman whose career included more than 5,000 hours of military aviation and a stint as staff pilot for the governor of West Virginia. For some reason, though, his Super Decathlon failed to pull out of a “modified cloverleaf-split S” in time to avoid hitting the ground. Investigators could only guess that despite his years of experience, he somehow misjudged the altitude needed to complete the maneuver.

The inherent dangers of low-altitude aerobatics to even the most expert and careful pilots ought to be self-evident—and more than enough to dissuade those less skilled or less prepared from giving it a try. Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case.

On Dec. 10, 2011, at least seven people camping in a state park near Mojave, Calif., saw a two-seat RV-8 fly low over their campground. One witness described the airplane as being “between two ridges,” while another estimated its altitude as 130 to 140 feet. The airplane performed several barrel rolls close enough to the ground that one witness recalled noticing that the pilot had gray hair and was wearing a hat.

After several rolls, the RV reversed course and began a loop. All the witnesses agreed that the sound of its engine remained strong and steady throughout, but it failed to pull out in time. Instead, it hit the ground nose-first, crumpling the fuselage into a ball. Two of the witnesses were firefighters and hurried to the accident scene, only to find the pilot dead in the wreckage.

The 65-year-old pilot was also the owner and builder of the RV, which had flown about 430 hours since its completion in 2005. He held a commercial pilot certificate with single-engine, multiengine, and instrument ratings, and his most recent medical application (filed two years and three months before the accident) claimed 2,800 hours of total flight experience. Beyond that summary information, though, the details of his flying career remain somewhat murky. Nothing in the NTSB’s report, the supporting docket file, or the news stories filed immediately after the accident provided any indication of what other aircraft he’d flown or what, if any, training he’d had in aerobatic maneuvers.

Though his medical certificate had expired, the NTSB did not cite any evidence of an underlying physical condition that might have impaired or incapacitated him in flight, and while the wreckage was badly fragmented, it showed no evidence of any abnormality prior to impact. When properly constructed, the RV-8 complies with the standards of the FAA’s aerobatic category, so the maneuvers attempted should have been well within its design loads. There seems little alternative to concluding that the pilot attempted the maneuver without sufficient altitude to complete it—or sufficient expertise to perform it at the altitude he chose. That was essentially the NTSB’s finding; it attributed the accident to “the pilot’s failure to maintain clearance from terrain while performing low altitude aerobatic maneuvers.”

Without knowing more about this pilot’s background, it’s hard to say whether his decision to attempt loops and rolls less than 150 feet agl was downright suicidal, or just a very bad idea. Sadly, though, it’s a bad idea that destroys a few more aircraft and their pilots every year. Accidents during attempted aerobatics aren’t common, but they’re almost inevitably fatal—and most of the pilots who succumb should never have been under any illusion that their skills were up to airshow standards.