The numbers don’t leave much room for argument. In light airplanes, accidents are most common but least severe during landings. Of the more than 4,000 landing accidents over the past 10 years, less than two percent were fatal. And there’s little doubt that jets offer huge safety advantages over piston engines or even turboprops. In 2010, there was just one accident involving a certified passenger jet flown under Part 91. But landing a jet requires considerably more precision than setting down your typical piston single. They don’t slow down easily—after all, they’re designed to go fast—so exact control of airspeed, altitude, and descent path are all crucial to putting the mains on the intended touchdown point. An extra 10 knots may increase the landing distance by 1,000 feet. So can crossing the threshold just 50 feet too high. Coming in hot and high is a poor practice in any airplane; in a jet, it can eat up an awful lot of runway.
These facts were demonstrated to tragic effect on March 15, 2012. A Cessna 501 Citation I SP took off from Venice, Fla., shortly before noon. Three hours later, Atlanta Center instructed the pilot to maintain 7,300 feet and cleared him to switch to the common traffic advisory frequency of the Macon County Airport in the mountains of western North Carolina. The weather was perfect: clear skies, 10-mile visibility, and 3-knot winds.
Even in perfect weather, Macon County is not the easiest field to get into. The airport/facility directory notes “rapidly rising terrain in all quadrants.” The only charted instrument approach is a GPS-A on a course perpendicular to the 4,400-foot runway, which is oriented 07/25. The approach plate shows that within 10 miles, at least a dozen peaks rise anywhere from 2,000 to 3,500 feet above the runway. In a fast airplane, some could seem uncomfortably close.
The Citation pilot had made several trips to Asheville, but judging from his logbooks, this was his first flight to Macon County Airport. He held a private pilot certificate with single-engine, multiengine, and instrument ratings and a type rating for the Cessna 501, which he’d flown about 185 hours in two years. His total logged flight experience was 1,166 hours.
Two witnesses at the airport saw the Citation enter final for Runway 25 much too high. The pilot did a go-around and flew a left pattern back to the same runway.
His second attempt was also high, but this time the pilot lowered the nose and steepened the approach. About halfway down the runway, the Citation’s nose gear touched down, and then the mains. After it bounced, the engine noise abruptly got louder. The CJ banked right and the right wing hit the ground, rolling the airplane onto its back in the grass beside the runway. It burst into flames almost instantly. All five on board were killed.
Investigators didn’t find any clear evidence of mechanical failure prior to the accident, but they did find one anomaly. The right engine’s thrust reverser was deployed, while the left engine’s reverser was still stowed. The Cessna 501 operations manual notes that "Single engine reversing has been demonstrated during normal landings and is easily controllable." The NTSB report doesn’t cite any comparable reference on single engine reversing during go-arounds.
Cessna’s performance calculations suggested that with textbook technique, the Citation would have needed 2,180 feet to come to a stop on a dry runway in similar conditions. That assumed a landing reference speed of 99 knots. The first skid mark located by investigators was only 2,100 feet from the departure end, so by the time the nose gear touched down it was already too late to land. The steep descent suggests the aircraft was almost certainly fast as well.
The reason for the single reverser deployment will probably never be known. If the jet had been on speed at the correct altitude, however, the pilot wouldn’t have needed reverse thrust after touchdown. Cessna’s landing distance calculations assume the thrust reversers are not deployed.