Fiction and film—most of it written by nonpilots—like to portray aviators as incorrigible rebels, always ready to take off drunk (It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World), land a Douglas DC-3 on a glacier during a blizzard (Exodus), or defy orders and buzz the control tower (Top Gun).
In fact, most who fly for a living recognize the value of consistent adherence to procedures and policies—and that disregard for either can bleed over into disdain for the physical principles that can’t be successfully challenged.
Late in the morning of Aug. 5, 2016, two workmen cleaning their tools at a small private airstrip near Indianola, Iowa, saw a small yellow airplane—a Piper PA-11 Cub Special—accelerate sluggishly along the grass runway. It appeared to be having difficulty building enough speed to fly, leading them to guess that “there might be something wrong with” the aircraft. It eventually lifted off but was largely unable to climb; after taking off to the east and turning back to the west, it “still appeared to be flying very slowly and having a hard time getting any lift.” After finally beginning to gain a little altitude, “the left wing dipped … the plane seemed to wobble back and forth with first the left wing and then the right wing dipping down toward the ground. This happened three or four times and then the plane dropped out of the air.” Two bodies were recovered from the wreckage.
The airstrip and the Cub belonged to an agricultural application company that employed both victims on its ground crew. The owner allowed certificated pilots on his staff to fly the Cub to build time and gain proficiency, and students were allowed to train with instructors among his staff pilots. This training was not intended to be a route to an eventual flying job with the company, and in fact it had no current or anticipated openings for pilots at the time of the accident. The pilot in command held a single-engine commercial certificate with about 260 hours of flight experience, and had recently put in time with a company instructor working on turning stalls, cross-controlled stalls, and spins. He was permitted to fly the Cub solo or with an instructor, but not to carry passengers. A few days before the accident, he’d been disciplined after making a low pass over neighboring properties and the airfield’s hangars.
The passenger apparently had some flight experience—details were not provided in the NTSB’s report—but the same instructor found that “his skills and knowledge were not in line with his stated flight time,” and the chief pilot restricted him to flying solely with authorized instructors. Until the wreckage was recovered, no one knew he was on board; the owner had last seen the pilot flying the Cub alone, doing “text book traffic patterns.” He recalled, however, seeing the passenger sitting outside the office talking on his mobile phone at that time, and concluded that he’d been coordinating things with the pilot.
Security camera footage showed the Cub taxi to the ramp and turn without shutting down the engine as the passenger boarded. He weighed about 285 pounds; added to the pilot’s 225 pounds, that was a lot of mass for the Cub’s 65-horsepower Continental to pull into the air. The company owner calculated that the airplane was nearly 10 percent above its maximum gross weight of 1,220 pounds during the takeoff attempt.The owner recalled that the pilot had been very contrite when taken to task for the low pass but admitted that “having fun clouds my judgement.” Respect for the conditions set by his employer and owner of the aircraft would have avoided that problem. We can only wish that the consequences of this lapse had been no more severe than the loss of a job and access to the airplane—and another chance to learn from that mistake.