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Few preliminary clues in fatal Lake Placid accident

AOPA's McSpadden died; NTSB investigation continues

A preliminary report from the NTSB notes that the Cessna 177RG flown by former NFL champion Russ Francis, with Richard McSpadden, the longtime leader of the AOPA Air Safety Institute, in the right seat, struck an embankment near the runway that the Cardinal was attempting to return to following a reported malfunction. Francis and McSpadden both died in the October 1 accident.

This satellite view shows Runway 14 at Lake Placid Airport, with the location where the Cessna 177RG impacted terrain 440 feet from the approach end circled in red. Google Earth image.

Witnesses told investigators that the Cardinal, which was planned to be the subject aircraft during an air-to-air formation photography flight with a Beechcraft Bonanza, took off about 700 feet behind the Bonanza. A witness told investigators that the Cardinal's engine sounded abnormal, as if the propeller was pitched for climb rather than takeoff, “then he heard the engine surge. During the initial climb, the witness further described that the engine did not sound as if it was running at full power.”

The Cardinal made a gentle left turn after climbing to between 300 and 400 feet above the ground, and prepared to join the Bonanza, with McSpadden expected to take control of the Cardinal during the formation photography portion of the planned flight. The Cardinal approached within 1,000 feet of the Bonanza before making a sudden, hard right turn back to the airport. During that turn, the pilot of the Bonanza heard McSpadden transmit, “We have a problem and we’re returning to the airport.”

The Cardinal attempted to return to Runway 14 with a tailwind. (A weather observation from an automated station 13 miles away indicated 7 knots of wind from the north and clear skies.) The Cardinal hit an embankment on airport property, about 15 feet below the crest, 440 feet short of the runway, and about 250 feet left of the runway centerline, the NTSB report states.

The preliminary report notes the engine had 36.7 hours since a major overhaul, and notes no significant findings related to the fuel system, ignition system, or oil. The landing gear was found partially extended, with the main wheels bent into the fuselage by impact forces. Impact damage made it unclear what position the landing gear selector was in, the report notes.

The report details examination of various aircraft systems and notes no findings of obvious significance to the apparent loss of engine power during flight.

The NTSB retained the wreckage for further examination.

The NTSB investigation is likely to require many months to complete. The Air Safety Institute is meanwhile gathering information and assessing whether an Early Analysis (a product that McSpadden pioneered) could provide insight that enhances safety.

Jim Moore
Jim Moore
Managing Editor-Digital Media
Digital Media Managing Editor Jim Moore joined AOPA in 2011 and is an instrument-rated private pilot, as well as a certificated remote pilot, who enjoys competition aerobatics and flying drones.
Topics: Accident

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