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Almost beyond beliefAlmost beyond belief

By David Jack Kenny

Initial reports that a pristine North American P-51D Mustang had crashed into Galveston Bay 10 minutes after takeoff baffled the aviation community. The airplane was operated by a respected museum, which maintained it meticulously. The October weather was perfect: 3-knot winds under clear skies. It was under the command of a 51-year-old, 11,300-hour airline transport pilot, a former Naval aviator whose experience in vintage warplanes included more than 100 hours in P-51s. He held instructor ratings for single- and multiengine airplanes, instrument airplane, and gliders, and had received a first-class medical certificate the previous month.

The Mustang took off from Galveston’s Scholes International Airport at 11:20 a.m. on Oct. 23, 2013. At 11:30 a.m., a witness on a fishing boat saw it make a slow descending turn from a southerly heading to north before hitting the water, wings level. He thought the engine was running at full throttle throughout. Radar data showed the airplane descending from 3,500 feet before contact was lost at 2,800. The force of the impact shattered the airframe; even though the water was only four feet deep, significant portions of the fuselage were never recovered.

This accident might easily have remained unexplained, classified as “a failure to maintain aircraft control for unknown reasons.” However, an explanation did eventually emerge. It proved even stranger than anticipated.

During the 1960s, the 1944-model fighter had served with the air force of El Salvador, where it was converted to a two-seat training configuration. The tandem set-up was preserved during its subsequent restoration. In addition to flying it in airshows, the museum offered rides in the Mustang as a fundraiser. The October flight was a gift to the passenger on the occasion of his wedding anniversary.

The airplane was equipped with an audiovisual recording system that included two digital video cameras, one in the cockpit aimed back toward the rear-seat passenger and one mounted on the tail aimed forward. It also captured the radio and intercom communications from the audio panel. The investigative team was able to locate the system’s storage card; despite the damage from immersion in salt water, the NTSB Vehicle Recorder Laboratory eventually succeeded in recovering the files recorded on the accident flight.

Two minutes after takeoff the passenger commented that it was “an amazing sensation ... the noise, the vibration, the smell.” The pilot agreed. Three minutes later, after demonstrating left and right turns at 30 to 40 degrees of bank, he asked, “You want to fly it?” The passenger replied, “Uh, yes, I do, if you’ll guide me through it. I’m not a pilot.”

The pilot explained the basic functions of the control stick, and then had the passenger start a left turn. As he rolled through 40 degrees, the airplane’s nose began to drop. The passenger commented, “Very responsive,” and as the pilot had him roll into a right turn, he gestured for the passenger to add back pressure. The bank reached nearly 90 degrees and the nose sliced down through the horizon as he explained, “As you roll, you’re gonna lose lift, so you gotta pull back on the stick. Go ahead and roll level.”

The footage shows the wings returning to level, but the nose had only just begun to come back up before the recording ended. The actual impact was not captured due to a delay in the recording system, but up to the moment the system lost power neither man seemed to show any awareness of the impending collision.

The NTSB concluded that “the pilot’s focused attention on instructing his passenger contributed to his lack of recognition” of the situation, and also noted that the water was glassy, making proximity more difficult to gauge. Probable cause was given as “lack of situational awareness while instructing the passenger.”  

If true, it was an utterly uncharacteristic lapse from a pilot described as careful and conscientious—exemplary in every way. But lapses do happen, sometimes even to the best of us. Any time a flight seems so straightforward as to not require your complete attention, it’s worth remembering that momentary lapses have ended the careers of better pilots than most of us will ever be.