By David Jack Kenny
Student pilots are taught to leave nothing to chance. From fuel requirements to weather to the choice of route, the importance of having alternatives if something goes wrong is drilled in right up through the checkride. After that, it’s easy to get complacent. Since the aircraft has been hangared since the last time you sampled the fuel, do you really need to do it again now? Headwinds are forecast to be light, so you can probably skip the fuel stop and still land with a 40-minute reserve. And you’ve never had a problem with the engine—what’s the big deal about flying over the mountains at night?
Usually it all works out just fine—but when it doesn’t, it’s a little late to wish you’d left yourself more options.
On June 24, 2012, a 1946 Stinson 108E took off from Twitchell Airport near Turner, Maine, on a sightseeing and photography flight. The 60-year-old, 500-hour private pilot subsequently contacted Portland Approach Control to advise that he’d be flying northbound along the coast at altitudes between 500 feet agl and 1,000 feet agl. It was a fine morning to fly, with clear skies and northwest winds of about 10 knots.
Six minutes before noon, the pilot radioed Portland Approach to report that his engine had lost power at 500 feet agl and he was beyond gliding distance of shore. He was forced to ditch the airplane about 100 yards offshore and managed to get out of the cockpit, but without any sort of flotation device. A helicopter operating nearby dropped a life vest; he was able to retrieve it and put it on, but couldn’t get it to inflate. By the time a boat reached him, he was unconscious and unresponsive. Efforts to revive him failed.
The autopsy gave the cause of death as "Blunt force injuries of neck and chest with hypothermia and submersion." None of these factors should be a great surprise. The Stinson had never been equipped with shoulder harnesses, making it a near-certainty that the pilot slammed forward into the panel when the airplane hit the water. Injured—perhaps badly—he somehow extricated himself from the cabin, and the shore must have seemed tantalizingly close. But even in summer, the sea off the coast of Maine is cold. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that the average water temperature off Portland in late June is about 57 degrees. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, sudden immersion in water that cold can cause an immediate shock reaction that includes gasping, hyperventilation, and an accelerated heart rate, all of which can interfere with a person’s ability to swim. Progressively greater incapacitation may begin in as little as two minutes—and that’s in an uninjured person. Ironically, trying to swim (or simply thrashing around) actually accelerates the onset of hypothermia.
After the airplane was recovered, the cause of the engine failure was not hard to find. The skirt of the No. 3 piston had fractured; fragments had entered the bottom end of the engine and fouled the camshaft gear, throwing off the magneto timing. The pistons were original to the engine, first installed in the airframe in 1947, and while they’d been overhauled in the course of an engine overhaul in 2007, the A&P who had done the work admitted that he wasn’t overly surprised that a 65-year-old part had failed in service. (The NTSB attributed the fracture to fatigue originating at one of the holes machined in the piston during manufacture, not to any work performed in that overhaul.)
Flying antique airplanes is great fun and reasonably safe provided the limitations of the aircraft are respected. One of those limitations is their lack of safety equipment. There’s ample evidence that in an accident or even an off-field landing, shoulder harnesses can be the difference between a few bumps and bruises and severe, even life-threatening injuries. Without them, route planning that maximizes the chance of finding a smooth, unobstructed site for any emergency landing becomes particularly crucial.
Likewise, pilots of single-engine aircraft might prefer just to avoid overwater flights beyond gliding distance of land. If one does seem necessary or desirable, it’s a good idea to have flotation gear not just on board but at the ready. Investing in water egress training is probably wise for those who fly over water with any frequency, and if that water is cold, additional protective gear is a good investment. Above all, leave as little as possible to chance. In this case, the decision to fly beyond gliding distance of shore behind a 65-year-old engine in an airplane without shoulder harnesses or any survival gear proved to have placed too much trust in the assumption that nothing would go wrong.