With Hurricane Isabel roaring along the eastern coast of the United States, we decided to search the ASF online database for general aviation accidents resulting from flying in or running from a hurricane. Not surprisingly, we found very few accidents relating to hurricanes, and none actually involving intentional flight into hurricanes.
But one accident related to Hurricane Bertha seven years ago proved that not all hurricane dangers are so obvious.
In July 1996, Bertha made landfall on the North Carolina coast with a torrential downpour of rain and 90 MPH winds, and left behind considerable destruction. A few days later, in the good weather that typically follows hurricanes, a float-equipped Piper PA-18 crashed about five minutes after takeoff from a canal near Gatesville, North Carolina. The owner/pilot, who was not injured in the accident, told investigators the engine had lost power during cruise flight.
The pilot was over flying a swamp adjacent to the canal on the way to a river about five miles away. But less than five minutes into the flight and at only about 500 feet above the surface, the engine sputtered and quit.
The pilot also told investigators of previous problems with water in his extended range fuel tanks, which had flush-mounted fuel filler caps. He added that those water contamination problems were particularly noticeable after rain.
According to the pilot's report, he subsequently examined the fuel system and found water in the gascolator, and in the fuel line between the gascolator and the carburetor.
To no one's surprise in light of Bertha's heavy rains a few days before the accident, the NTSB determined water contamination in the fuel system caused engine failure, and blamed the pilot for an inadequate preflight inspection. A factor was the lack of suitable terrain for a forced landing.
AOPA's Technical Specialists recommend that if your aircraft must be left outside during a hurricane, you should complete a thorough inspection prior to flying. In addition to a normal preflight, this inspection should include looking for wrinkles or dimples in the skin indicating structural damage caused by high winds, control integrity, any impact areas from flying objects, and a thorough draining of all the fuel sumps to ensure no water contamination.
For more information about fuel related accidents, see the AOPA Air Safety Institute's safety advisor, Fuel Awareness.
This accident report as well as others can be found in ASI's Online Database.