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A public tragedyA public tragedy

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By David Jack Kenny

It’s no secret that general aviation struggles to overcome some misperceptions. Nervous mothers and husbands regard flying in “those little airplanes” about the same way they’d view skydiving without parachutes. News reports rarely help; too many journalists think sensational stereotypes of jet-setting billionaires or adrenaline-crazed daredevils make better copy than all the freight and business and pleasure flyers who take great care not to make any headlines. This makes accidents during discovery flights and other public outreach events especially unfortunate. The extra attention means that the victims’ personal tragedies also add to public mistrust of GA—usually the last thing the victims themselves would have wanted.

On April 23, 2011, a CubCrafters CC11-160 Carbon Cub stalled and spun in just after takeoff from the Everitt Airfield near Parker, Colo. The impact killed both the 49-year-old airline transport pilot and his passenger. In addition to type ratings in three transport-category airplanes, the 9,000-hour pilot had logged 3,000 hours in CC11s. The accident flight was a demonstration for a group of Girl Scouts, and the passenger was the father of one of the Scouts.

Witnesses agreed that the Carbon Cub, a model celebrated for its short-field performance, needed only a very brief ground roll to take off into a stiff, gusty headwind. Once aloft, it pitched up to an aggressive deck angle—some observers estimated its attitude at more than 30 degrees nose-up—and slowed until it appeared to be hovering. It hung stationary at an altitude of perhaps 200 feet for a few seconds before the right wing dropped. The Cub’s nose began to come back up just before the right wing hit the ground, and the engine noise remained steady throughout.

There is no easy explanation for how a seasoned professional pilot came to stall an airplane with which he was intimately familiar at an altitude too low to allow recovery. All evidence indicates that the engine produced full power until impact. Examination of the wreckage found no evidence of a flight-control malfunction. A photograph in the accident docket shows the elevator trim aligned with the reference mark for the takeoff setting.

The Carbon Cub is a superbly capable little airplane. A modified example won the 2011 Valdez STOL competition with a no-wind takeoff roll of just 64 feet, and with the flaps extended (as they reportedly were during the accident) stall speeds drop below 30 mph. Its power-to-weight ratio enables it to climb at angles most piston airplanes could never attain; footage posted by the manufacturer suggests that 30 degrees nose-up is fairly standard technique during initial climb. Pushing a power-on stall to full break would normally require a determined effort.

The NTSB’s description of the wreckage is brief, but contains one interesting detail: The Cub’s rudder was found fully deflected to the right. Witnesses agreed that its right wing dropped when it stalled, though it’s more typical for a Carbon Cub to drop the left wing in a power-on stall. The nearest weather observations around the time of the accident gave the winds at 12 knots gusting to 26. Is it possible that during a maximum-performance climb with full right rudder, a drop in the wind following a sudden gust was enough to cause an uncoordinated stall? It seems unlikely—but then, the accident itself was unlikely.

While the loss of life dwarfs any other consequences, it’s also a shame that this invitation to share the joy of flight instead produced the opposite result. It may be too early to be sure that none of those Girl Scouts will ever enter flight instruction, but witnessing this accident surely didn’t help. That’s something any pilot who donates time and fuel to public outreach wants to avoid—almost as much as an accident itself.

Editor’s note: Witness statements included in the NTSB report and an earlier version of this account have since been disputed. This version removes the statements and conclusions that had been based on the now-contested accounts.