Lethal lesson: Buzzing spree ends badly

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Climbs and descents, steep turns, stalls—all of these maneuvers play a key role in flight training. When performed in the local practice area, they tend to be fairly routine. When performed at dangerously low altitudes over a friend’s house, they frequently prove fatal.

On Sept. 2, 2007, the 23-hour student pilot of a Cessna 172 Skyhawk spent about an hour performing solo flight maneuvers. He then departed the practice area and flew low over his home town, circling and “buzzing” the homes of family and friends. The airplane stalled during a steep climbing turn, sending the Skyhawk into terrain and the student pilot to his death.

The flight departed Rosecrans Memorial Airport in St. Joseph, Mo., at approximately 1:45 p.m. Sky conditions were clear, visibility was 10 miles or greater, and the winds were light. The Skyhawk proceeded toward the local practice area, located about 10 miles west of the airport.

During a conversation earlier that day, the student pilot’s flight instructor had suggested he practice ground reference maneuvers, steep turns, and stalls. The student pilot likely spent the first hour of the flight performing these maneuvers in the practice area.

At approximately 3 p.m., however, the Skyhawk was spotted about 30 miles northeast of the practice area, flying low over Union Star, Mo.—the pilot’s home town. Numerous witnesses reported seeing the aircraft performing low-altitude maneuvers over several residences. One homeowner stated that the airplane circled his property at least eight times at roughly 150 to 200 feet above the ground.

Another witness said the Skyhawk buzzed his house four times, diving and climbing as it flew over. An acquaintance of the student pilot reported that she saw him throw something out of the airplane attached to a parachute or balloon. Authorities searched the area, but nothing matching the witness’s description was found.

The buzzing activity continued for several minutes. Then, during a circling maneuver, the student pilot attempted to climb while in a very steep left bank. The nose of the airplane abruptly dropped, and the Skyhawk plunged into terrain approximately 50 feet from a residence. The impact and post-crash fire killed the student pilot.

The NTSB determined that the accident’s probable cause was the student pilot’s failure to maintain airspeed and the subsequent inadvertent stall while buzzing residences. The buzzing maneuvers were cited as a contributing factor.

It’s tempting to dismiss this accident as merely the foolish behavior of an inexperienced student pilot. But the laws of aerodynamics apply universally, and buzzing has claimed the lives of high-time veterans as well.

In May 2007, for example, a 10,000-hour airline transport pilot crashed a Diamond DA40 into a lake while performing low-altitude maneuvers over a friend’s boat, killing himself and a passenger. Another 15,000-hour ATP used a Beech E55 Baron to buzz family members in a backyard swimming pool in August 2001. The twin-engine airplane clipped the top of a barn and careened into terrain as the pilot’s loved ones watched in horror. The pilot and passenger initially survived the crash and post-impact fire, only to succumb slowly to severe burn injuries.

Maneuvering flight has inherent risk, regardless of the circumstances. Indeed, nearly one-third (32.9 percent) of all fatal accidents in the last 10 years occurred during maneuvering flight. Intentional buzzing, in addition to being really bad PR for general aviation, compounds the risk and makes the margin for error razor thin. Wings tend to stall violently and unexpectedly during these maneuvers, and the low altitude makes recovery next to impossible. In aviation as in life, no amount of training can compensate for really bad judgment.