By David Jack Kenny
While it’s possible that obsessive attention to detail can pass the point of diminishing returns (not everyone would agree), any reasonable interest in safety demands that the pilot be absolutely certain of a few essential items. Casually assuming that they ought to be OK can make life very uncomfortable if that assumption turns out to be wrong.
On the morning of Aug. 14, 2010, a Taylorcraft BC12-D crashed into the woods in southern Maine. The right wing hit a tree trunk about 50 feet above the ground, after which the nose dropped. The final impact was almost vertical; the 1946-model airplane did not have shoulder harnesses, so it’s not surprising that the 68-year-old private pilot in the left seat and the 73-year-old commercial pilot in the right seat were both killed. Half a dozen witnesses who saw the Taylorcraft flying also heard the engine sputter to a stop before the airplane dropped out of sight.
The reason it stopped was not mysterious. The investigator who examined the wreckage found a grand total of four ounces of fuel on board. There was none in the tank or the fuel strainer and a quarter inch in the carburetor’s float bowl; the rest was in the fuel lines, which remained unbroken. Pressure testing confirmed that the tank had not been breached, and the fuel level indicator—a cork attached to a piece of wire that could slide up and down in the fuel cap’s vent tube—worked properly when tested in a bucket of water. The engine produced compression and spark in each cylinder, and all damage appeared to be the result of impact.
The left-seat pilot owned the airplane. Earlier that morning, the mechanic who had done its last annual inspection saw him pulling it out of the hangar and pointed out that the fuel indicator wire was all the way down, indicating an almost empty tank. He said that the pilot replied that “it sinks, and he knew how much fuel he had.” If he ever actually unscrewed the cap and looked, no one saw him do it, and given how quickly the tank ran dry, it doesn’t seem likely. After a flight of 22 miles to pick up his friend, they made one pass around the traffic pattern before heading out across the countryside. The pilot in the right seat had told his wife that they expected to be gone about two hours. The engine quit 23 minutes after takeoff.
Other details were also disquieting. The ELT was found with its arming switch turned off, possibly one reason the airplane wasn’t found until 6 a.m. the following day. The mechanic recalled that when he had started its last annual inspection, there had been no ELT on board. While the ELT’s track record in helping to locate accident sites isn’t that impressive, turning it off could hardly be expected to help. And the investigation turned up the fact that the owner’s last application for a medical certificate had been denied by the FAA, which concluded that his “cardiovascular and endocrine conditions … posed a significant hazard to flight safety.” The Taylorcraft is one of the legacy models that qualifies as a light sport aircraft, but having had his last medical application denied left him ineligible to fly as pilot in command under sport pilot rules or any others.
The right-seat pilot’s medical had expired five years earlier, but he’d never had an application denied, and so was qualified to be PIC of a light sport airplane. Aside from the detail of whether he was current to carry passengers (neither pilot’s logbooks have been found), the accident flight itself seems to have been within the regs. But the solo hop that preceded it was plainly in violation. The owner’s medical problems wound up playing no part in the accident. His willingness to ignore them, though, seems like another expression of the casual outlook that led him to take off without bothering to check his fuel supply.