The word “might” ought to cause any aviator to stop and think about what options would remain if they don’t ... and ideally revise plans to place less reliance on luck.
Now and then, however, we see someone attempt a stunt that could not reasonably be expected to turn out well, and usually for no compelling reason. The results are often spectacular ... and lethal. The silver lining is that nationwide, these accidents are extremely rare. The cloud, of course, is that they color the perceptions of thousands of people who never learn anything else about GA.
Shortly before 9 a.m. on Sept. 2, 2015, an amateur-built Van's Aircraft RV-8A touched down at the Twin Lakes Airport (8A7), a privately owned, public-use airport southwest of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The airplane was jointly owned by its pilots, brothers aged 68 and 71, who had acquired it not quite a year before. The older brother had served as U.S. Air Force instructor during the Vietnam War, held civilian credentials as an instrument-rated commercial pilot for single- and multiengine airplanes, and had logged more than 2,500 hours of civilian experience. The younger brother had received his private pilot certificate less than six months earlier, citing just under 80 hours on the application for his checkride. Both held current third class medical certificates. According to mutual friends, they’d brought the airplane over from Knoxville, Tennessee, for brake work.
They taxied to Runway 27 shortly before 2 p.m. after what was described as a meticulous preflight inspection. Witnesses agreed that the private pilot climbed into the front seat and handed his brother a tablet computer, saying, “You navigate.” The witnesses also agreed that the airplane’s takeoff performance was as expected. The RV climbed to about 700 feet to 800 feet agl and joined the traffic pattern—only to come screaming down final at what the onlookers estimated was 190 to 200 knots, overflying the runway no more than 300 feet above the ground.
Slightly more than halfway down its length, the airplane pitched down for a few seconds, then up again briefly before banking to the left. One witness recalled thinking, “Oh, my God, he is trying to roll it.” The RV’s pitch attitude fell to 30 degrees nose-down as the roll proceeded through inverted, then began to rise just before the airplane crashed into a small pond off the south side of the runway. Engine noise remained strong and constant until impact.
The same witness told investigators that while he didn’t know whether the commercial pilot had given his younger brother systematic instruction in aerobatics, he’d seen them use this airplane to fly “loops, rolls, hammerheads, etc. Everything was limited to positive Gs.” He added, “It was out of character for them to do what they did that day.” A second witness suggested that the accident sequence “did not look like a deliberate maneuver,” but no distress call was heard on the common traffic advisory frequency, and the wreckage showed no abnormalities beyond extensive impact damage. Both witnesses had themselves flown the accident airplane, whose rear seat was equipped with full flight controls but no throttle, mixture, or propeller controls.
Whether or not the roll was intentional, the lack of either a distress call or any obvious mechanical abnormality suggests that the high-speed, low-altitude pass was a deliberate act. If the roll was also deliberate, it still wouldn’t qualify as the most outrageously ill-advised stunt attempted in recent years. The Florida Cirrus pilot who crashed attempting a roll at just 100 feet agl (and without benefit of aerobatic training) still takes second place to the Georgia builder of a Van's Aircraft RV-10 who loaded four other adults into the four-seat airplane with him and took off some time after 3 a.m. Both witness accounts and radar data showed it zooming up and down at rates approaching 3,000 feet per minute, all below 2,700 feet agl, before smashing into the trees. (Those who tracked the progress of this investigation were disappointed to learn that the specimens recovered from the pilot—who’d never bothered obtaining a pilot certificate—weren’t adequate to support toxicology testing.)
But of course a decision doesn’t have to be the worst on record to be more than bad enough. In all three cases, the results were equally unfortunate.