Flying in close proximity to the ground leaves little margin for error, which is one of the reasons why more general aviation accidents occur during landing than any other phase of flight. While these mishaps typically aren’t fatal, the potential for disaster is always present. Bringing a sleek, fast airplane in hot and high might not be an issue when there’s a mile of pavement ahead. But cut that distance in half—on a runway carved into a mountaintop—and the margin for error becomes razor thin.
On May 26, 2007, a Columbia 350 (now Cessna) crashed during an aborted landing at Mountain Air Airport in Burnsville, N.C. After approaching the 2,800-foot runway high and fast, the airplane bounced several times and careened into a row of parked aircraft. The impact ignited a blaze that consumed three aircraft, including the Columbia. The pilot and two passengers were killed.
The flight had departed Albert Whitted Airport in St. Petersburg, Fla., at approximately 8 a.m. Three hours later, the pilot approached Mountain Air, a private-use airport located atop a 4,400-foot peak in the Blue Ridge Mountains. According to witnesses, the airplane entered the traffic pattern and made all of the proper radio calls. As the Columbia turned final for Runway 32, however, witnesses observed the airplane coming in higher and faster than expected.
The aircraft touched down about a third of the way down the runway and bounced hard. Then, at roughly the runway midpoint, the Columbia bounced again, this time ending up in a 20- to 30-degree nose-up attitude with the speed brakes deployed.
Following the second bounce, witnesses heard the engine go to full power and saw the airplane veer left. As it headed toward a steep embankment off the left side of the runway, the airplane rolled right, scraping the runway with the right wing tip. Then, after bouncing off the embankment, it turned back toward the runway, crossed it, and slammed into a row of airplanes parked on an apron about 25 feet from the runway’s right edge.
The Columbia’s impact with a parked Cirrus SR22 caused the latter aircraft’s ballistic parachute to deploy and set the Cirrus ablaze. The accident airplane then careened into a Cessna 421, igniting a larger fire that quickly engulfed the intermingled aircraft.
An NTSB investigation found no evidence of preimpact mechanical failures or malfunctions of the airframe or engine. The board concluded that the crash resulted from the pilot’s improper recovery from a bounced landing, which led to a loss of directional control and subsequent impact with the parked airplanes.
Recovering from a bounced landing—particularly if the recovery involves a delayed go-around—can be a challenge in any airplane. The problem can be compounded in modern aircraft that feature sleek, light airframes and large engines.
According to accident data analyzed for the AOPA Air Safety Foundation’s recent special report, Technologically Advanced Aircraft: Safety and Training, technologically advanced aircraft (TAAs) have a higher percentage of landing (53 percent vs. 40 percent) and go-around (11 percent vs. 4 percent) accidents than the overall GA fleet. The report notes that with “slick composite fuselages and wings, some new-design TAAs can be difficult to slow down to the desired approach speed, leading to porpoising during the flare or long landings. While trying to correct the situation, or when initiating a go-around, torque from the high-powered engine can lead to directional control problems.”
Unfortunately, the Columbia pilot’s experience mirrors the report’s finding. Ideally, the accident pilot should have initiated the go-around long before his wheels ever touched pavement. If a problem develops during approach, especially at a tricky airport, it’s far better to make another trip around the pattern than to push ahead and risk a runway overshoot or loss of control, no matter what type of airplane you fly.