Not 'ready for anything'

By David Jack Kenny

Any pilot, no matter how proficient, who claims to be “ready for anything” is probably exaggerating. Still, it’s a standard worth aspiring to. Unexpected things do happen in flight, and they can range from distractions to outright disasters. Real catastrophes may exceed the resources of any airman—once a wing comes off, it doesn’t much matter what you do with the flight controls—but the vast majority of the time the pilot’s response determines whether an in-flight abnormality becomes a genuine emergency, or an emergency results in tragedy.  The presence of mind to spot the problem hiding behind an inconvenience can keep an awkward situation from getting entirely out of control.  At the opposite extreme is flight planning that seems to be based entirely on the hope that nothing will go wrong.

About 5:35 p.m. on Nov. 4, 2012, a 1956-model Cessna 310 took off from the Monett Municipal Airport in Missouri on a short hop to a private grass strip near Miller. A 3,300-hour multiengine instrument instructor, flying from the right front seat, was acting as pilot in command. The airplane’s owner was in the left seat.  He’d bought it the previous January after a September annual inspection had found it unairworthy due to a collapsed nose-gear jack point and “a lot” of corrosion in the forward cabin bulkhead.  Its owner at that time had eventually secured a ferry permit that authorized a flight from Arkansas to Missouri “with the gear down only.”  A second annual performed in February 2012 in Miami, Okla., reached different conclusions.  The airframe log contained the entry "No corrosion of significant airworthy found," but did observe "buckling caused by improper jacking not airworthy condition." The FAA never received a ferry permit application for the flight from Missouri to Oklahoma. It’s not clear how the airplane returned to Missouri, either, but the logbooks of the two pilots showed it made eight different flights after the last authorized ferry.

Back at Monett, the owner contracted to have the right engine overhauled.  The Nov. 4 flight was the first since the engine was reinstalled; a test flight two days earlier had been postponed after the left main gear brake seemed “soft” and the nose gear strut had gone flat.  The owner asked the mechanic who’d done the engine overhaul to look at the nose gear, but decided to defer repairs after learning they would take at least a day. He’d already scheduled a corrosion inspection after the airplane arrived in Miller.

The owner and the instructor met another friend at Monett late on the afternoon of Nov. 4.  The friend had offered to give them a lift back from Miller after they dropped off the Cessna 310.  Their original plans had called for several trips around the pattern and a postflight inspection, but an apparent problem with the right engine’s friction lock delayed their departure until after sunset.  Perhaps because the grass field at their destination had no lighting, they decided to leave without additional delay. With the nose gear strut still flat, they also chose to leave the gear down; straight-line distance was only 21 nautical miles.  It was dusk by the time they took off; their friend followed close behind in another airplane monitoring the agreed-upon air-to-air frequency.

According to the pilot of the second airplane, the Cessna 310 initially flew a heading 20 to 30 degrees off the intended course. After he advised its pilots to correct, the 310’s owner reported “fuel or oil” coming out of the right engine and requested that a fire extinguisher be on hand for their landing.  The second pilot radioed ahead to the grass strip with that request. Shortly thereafter, the 310’s owner asked where the private strip was and was told he was right above it.  He then reported they were losing oil pressure and were returning to Monett; a minute later, he said they could not maintain altitude. After evaluating their prospects for reaching another airport four miles away, the MEI attempted to land on an interstate highway.  The second pilot heard the owner transmit “Oh, my God, I think we are going to crash,” followed by “We’re going to crash” before the airplane hit a stand of tall trees.  Autopsy results indicated that both pilots were killed by the initial impact rather than the fireball that followed.

Investigators found that the Cessna 310 had gone into the trees with the gear still extended and the prop feathered. They also found that the oil filter adapter for the right engine, installed under a supplemental type certificate, had not been reinstalled correctly after the most recent overhaul, allowing it to come loose during the accident flight.  The mechanic later admitted that he’d torqued its bolts “by feel” rather than following the STC holder’s instructions, and it wasn’t safety-wired.

Once the pilots responded to the loss of oil pressure by shutting down and securing the engine, the airplane’s owner’s manual suggested that perfect single-engine technique would have provided a climb rate of 566 feet per minute.  Leaving the gear down would have erased “about 400 fpm” of that, but the airplane would still have been able to manage a positive rate of climb.  Unfortunately, either the emergency wasn’t managed perfectly, or the left engine wasn’t producing full-rated power.

The first flight after any major maintenance should be approached with great caution.  The mechanic whose improvisation led to the emergency told investigators that he was surprised the owner was going to make an engine test flight at night. More surprising, at least after the fact, was that he decided to make an unauthorized ferry flight in an out-of-annual airplane to an unlit strip after dark—with one untested engine and gear he’d be reluctant to retract. We see many accidents whose chains of events might have been broken at several different points.  In this case, trouble was waiting if anything didn’t go exactly as hoped.