By David Jack Kenny
Handicaps aren’t necessarily bad. Equalizing the competition between players of different abilities can make bowling, golf, and even chess more enjoyable. On the other hand, when the stakes are high, most of us want every advantage. That’s true in job-hunting, personal finance, and flight.
Just before 7:50 a.m. on Dec. 18, 2013, the pilot of a 2006 G36 Beech Bonanza completed a routine handoff to air traffic control at Tyndall Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle. The 5,000-hour airline transport pilot was nearing the end of a two-hour solo IFR flight from North Palm Beach County to Destin-Fort Walton Beach in fine weather: clear skies and unlimited visibility with 9-knot northerly winds under prevailing high pressure. The pilot confirmed that he was descending through 7,000 feet msl to his assigned level-off at 6,000 feet msl.
Fifteen minutes later, the Bonanza pilot came back onto the frequency, saying that “We’re losing ... oil here for some reason.” Twelve seconds later he reported a complete loss of engine power. He quickly determined that Tyndall, some 15 miles away, was beyond gliding range and was advised of two alternatives: the Sandy Creek residential airpark six miles ahead and “a long straight stretch” of Route 22 a mile to his south. The pilot opted for the air park, reporting it in sight as he arrived within two miles. Radar and radio contact were lost as he descended through 200 feet.
A search was initiated after the pilot failed to reestablish contact. The wreckage was found three-quarters of a mile short of the runway threshold and less than a quarter mile from the edge of the airport’s cleared overrun area. The airplane had come to rest upright and more or less intact after crashing through a series of small pine trees. The engine was undamaged with no sign of oil leakage; 11 quarts remained in the sump. However, the fuel selector was set to the left main tank, which was empty. So were both tip tanks. The right main tank was breached, but there was no sign of blighting or fuel stains on the surrounding foliage, and except for a small quantity floating on a puddle below the fuselage, no fuel was found nearby. All told, only two-and-a-half gallons were recovered from the site—less than half the six gallons the manufacturer defined as unusable. The airplane had been flown more than six hours since its last known refueling nearly four weeks earlier on Nov. 22. After recovery, the engine was run up to full power on a test stand without need of any repair.
Though the damage to the airframe did not appear catastrophic, the pilot didn’t survive. Rescuers found his body in the left seat but slumped forward and to the right. He was wearing his lap belt but not his shoulder harness, which showed no evidence of damage or strain. The screen of the airplane’s multi-function display was shattered. (Click here if you'd like to see a picture.) The NTSB’s probable-cause report noted that the damage to the MFD “was consistent with impact by the pilot’s head during the accident sequence,” and the medical examiner found that the cause of death was blunt force trauma to the head.
A 2011 NTSB study found that light aircraft accidents were 50 percent more likely to be fatal when shoulder harnesses weren’t used (pages 8, 82, and 98-103). The difference was even greater in accidents that didn’t involve fires or in-flight losses of control—otherwise survivable accidents such as forced landings.
Once an engine stops in flight, the pilot is likely to be busy. After trimming for best-glide speed and identifying a landing site, it might be possible to find 15 seconds to secure that shoulder harness, but this won’t be an issue if it’s been snugly fastened the whole time. (Never mind that this is already required by 14 CFR 91.105.) When it comes to choosing that landing site, there’s a lot to be said for one that’s unquestionably within range. And there’s little reason to endure the mental stress of flying right to the limits of your fuel reserves, especially with the airplane as light as it is on a solo flight. The Air Safety Institute has observed that airplanes built in the past 10 years suffer far fewer fuel-exhaustion accidents than earlier generations of the same models, perhaps due to improved monitoring and alerting systems. While fuel totalizers can be misled by data-entry errors, tank gauges and low-fuel annunciators are more accurate than ever before. But like any other information, that knowledge is only useful if it’s actually put to use.