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Training Tip: Accidental learning

A flight instructor assigns a ground school class to attend one of two safety presentations: a lecture on density altitude, aerodynamics, maneuvering, and airport operations, or an analysis of a crash after takeoff from a grass strip.

Photo by Chris Rose.

Which would you choose?

Hint: They are the same presentation about a July 2020 crash that occurred when a 247-hour private pilot, 66, began his third passenger joyride of the day in a two-place homebuilt airplane from a private strip at an elevation of roughly 3,300 feet.

It was hot, about 86 degrees Fahrenheit. During takeoff, acceleration seemed sluggish, worrying the pilot about clearing power lines off the runway end.

About 25 feet above ground level the pilot started a left turn away from the obstacle—"when I was almost instantaneously no longer flying.”

Replaying it later when filling out NTSB paperwork, the pilot could only guess why the flight ended “in the corn.” It did not seem that the aircraft had decelerated, or that the bank angle—described as “5ish…no more than 10” degrees—had stalled it.

There were other details to weigh. Density altitude, which the pilot had disdained, was close to 6,000 feet; omitting an aircraft-performance evaluation was “absolutely an error.” 

Also, the pilot began the takeoff about 200 feet down the runway. Perhaps “those extra feet” would have eased the pressure he felt to turn to avoid the power lines.

Speaking of guesswork, the pilot said he would consider adopting a friend’s recommendation to install distance-remaining markers on his runway. (Do you follow the 70/50 rule? It recommends aborting takeoff if you have not achieved 70 percent of rotation speed when 50 percent of the way down the runway.) 

The pilot also noted commencing takeoff with the electric flaps set at zero, a deviation from his usual addition of “a little bit of flaps.” The airplane had no intermediate markings for flap settings. Could the different configuration create different handling?

Filling out the “recommendation” section of NTSB Form 6120.1, the pilot wrote that it provided a chance to “research and re-learn things” about the accident in which both he and the passenger suffered injuries and the aircraft was destroyed.

Other factors aside, the NTSB concluded that “inadequate preflight performance planning” and not using the entire runway “led to an inflight loss of control and subsequent collision with terrain.”

For a ground school class, accidents can show how seemingly dry textbook topics play key roles in flight scenarios pilots face every day.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz

Associate Editor Web
Associate Editor Web Dan Namowitz has been writing for AOPA in a variety of capacities since 1991. He has been a flight instructor since 1990 and is a 30-year AOPA member.
Topics: Training and Safety, Accident, Student
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