Not every aircraft discrepancy has to be fixed right now, but they all have to be fixed eventually (or the offending component removed, if that’s legally and practically possible). And keeping track of the aircraft’s condition—by way of inspections at not less than the intervals mandated by regulation—is a matter in which enlightened self-interest should be a more compelling motivation than possible FAA enforcement action.
Of course, all perceptions of self-interest aren’t equally enlightened. Now and again we encounter owners who treat their aircraft like those $200 jalopies held together with duct tape and wire, improvising the absolute minimal repairs needed to keep the machines moving under their own power. We’ve encountered fuel sumps rusted shut, retractables flown gear-down after the retraction mechanisms quit, and fuel fillers taped over after the caps went missing—sometimes all on the same airplane. The word that compromises that might be excused in a car are intolerable in an aircraft has not reached everybody, and anyone who considers buying or even ferrying one of these machines should be urgently aware of the risks.
Late in the afternoon of Jan. 25, 2017, a friend saw a volunteer pilot add fuel to both tanks of a 1956-model Cessna 172 from a pair of plastic cans. After starting, the Cessna taxied “up and down the runway multiple times” before taking off from a private strip for the Grove Municipal Airport about 15 nautical miles to the north. The witness drove to the airport to meet the Cessna and give its pilot a ride home, but the airplane never arrived. A search started after he reported it missing, and a helicopter pilot found the wreckage lying inverted in a field less than three-quarters of a mile from its point of departure. It had apparently clipped trees attempting a forced landing, then hit nose-first. The airplane was not equipped with shoulder harnesses, and its pilot was killed.
Investigators found no nicks in the leading edges of the prop blades. They were free of chordwise scratches, indicating the prop had not been turning at impact. Six gallons of fuel were recovered from the right tank and two from the left; each tank’s unusable capacity was 2.5 gallons. The fuel selector valve was turned to the right-tank position, but when compressed air was blown into the main fuel line at the firewall, it came out in the left tank. The pin that should have secured the selector handle to the valve shaft was missing, so moving the handle did not change the position of the valve. Later, after replacement of various impact-damaged accessories, the engine ran normally in a test cell.
The last annual inspection recorded in the Cessna’s logbooks had been completed on July 3, 2008, eight-and-a-half years before the accident. It had flown less than 31 hours in that time; when those flights took place is not known. In August 2011 an individual had registered it in the name of a company bearing his initials. In 2015, he claimed a tax deduction for donating it to a nonprofit based in Texas. The tax declaration described it as being in “Fair condition in need of minor work and annual inspection.” The accident pilot, a retired pastor with a private pilot certificate and about 450 hours of total experience, was the administrator of the nonprofit’s aviation program. He’d made no application for a ferry permit for the accident flight.
The NTSB made particular note not only of the airplane’s “negligent maintenance” over the past eight years, but also of the lack of shoulder harnesses. The relatively low-speed impact fell into the range where harnesses can make the difference between death and survival and reduce the extent of survivors’ injuries. Like the FAA and the AOPA Air Safety Institute, they cite shoulder harness installation as the most cost-effective safety improvement available to small older airplanes.