By David Jack Kenny
Among the perplexing challenges confounding general aviation safety is the fact that the most highly qualified pilots sometimes face additional risks compared to their less-exceptional neighbors. The scheduled airlines, corporate flight departments, and the uniformed armed services all safeguard their operations with multiple cross-checks and levels of redundancy that even the most conscientious and thorough general aviation pilots can’t replicate. They maintain those practices precisely because they sometimes detect anomalies that could otherwise develop into emergencies.
On May 23, 2014, a 24-year-old commercial pilot checked out a Grumman AA-1B from his flying club at the Columbus County Municipal Airport near Brunswick, North Carolina. The weather was benign: 8-knot westerly winds under clear skies with 7 miles of visibility. Three days later, the bodies of the pilot and his passenger were found in the wreckage of the airplane on the grounds of a private hunting club near Chester, South Carolina. The accident site was not quite 130 nautical miles west of the departure airport and about 110 nm short of their planned destination, the Heaven’s Landing residential airpark near the town of Clayton in northeastern Georgia.
The pilot was more than qualified to undertake a daytime VFR flight in a 108-horsepower airplane. He was a first lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps who’d been assigned to fly the MV-22 Osprey after having qualified in the Beech T-6B Texan II single-engine turboprop and the TC-12, the military variant of the King Air. The FAA had awarded him commercial privileges for airplane single-engine land, multiengine land, rotorcraft helicopter, and instrument airplane on that basis. His civilian logbook listed another 37 hours, all in single-engine airplanes with 9.5 in the accident make and model.
The Grumman went down in a forest about 400 feet short of a small clearing. The condition of the propeller suggested that it was not rotating at the moment of impact. A brief radar contact near the accident site indicated that this happened shortly after 1 p.m., about 90 minutes after the airplane took off.
Airport records showed that before departure, the pilot had taken on just under 12 gallons of fuel in addition to whatever was already in the tanks. (The club rents its aircraft dry.) Total usable capacity was 22 gallons, which would have been good for at least three hours at normal cruise power. However, both tanks were found undamaged but empty at the scene, and there was very little evidence of blighting on the surrounding vegetation. Disassembly of the impact-damaged fuel selector indicated that it was set to the left tank, whose cap was still secure. The right tank’s cap had been loosened by emergency personnel, but the NTSB investigators reported that it “was observed loose on the filler neck and exhibited no positive detent at the fuel cap stop and was unable to seal on the filler neck.” They also reported a streak of blue stains running aft from the filler neck that would have been plainly apparent on a preflight inspection and concluded that the leakage occurred in flight. The pilot apparently didn’t notice the fuel siphoning out from the loose cap, and the 1974-model two-seater wasn’t equipped with much in the way of warning systems. The only indicators of the quantity of fuel remaining were sight gauges on each side of the cabin walls.
The NTSB noted two other matters that might have affected prospects for survival and eventual rescue. Radar contacts were sporadic, but despite the clear weather none came from altitudes much more than 2,000 feet agl. More altitude means more time, more gliding range, and more options in the event of engine trouble. And because the pilot never filed a flight plan, the airplane wasn’t reported overdue for two and a half days. When the wreckage was eventually located, the Grumman’s ELT was found in the off position. It had also separated from its antenna. Investigators could not exclude the possibility that the ELT had been switched off by first responders, but noted that no ELT signals had been reported by other aircraft. The NTSB did not speculate on whether the pilot’s and passenger’s injuries might have been survivable had rescue efforts begun more quickly, but did point out that the lack of either a flight plan or an ELT signal unquestionably contributed to the delay. Whatever their prospects for post-accident survival, they could not have been improved by the wait.