By David Jack Kenny
Initiative is widely regarded as admirable, and having the gumption to manage one’s own education is one of the most widely admired initiatives of all. Whether the subject is a musician, an inventor, or a software designer, being described as “self-taught” only accentuates the brilliance of his or her achievements. But learning inevitably involves mistakes, and some educational settings are more forgiving than others.
Just after 8 p.m. on May 25, three witnesses in the vicinity of Newton, North Carolina, saw a small biplane in level flight. Each reported hearing the engine noise decrease just before the airplane began to spin downward; one said that the airplane stopped rotating about 300 feet above the ground, but its nose failed to come back up before impact. A second described it as having done “tricks or stunts” before the spin began. The third filmed the accident sequence. The footage showed the airplane completing seven turns in a left-hand spin before disappearing behind a tree line.
First responders found the airplane, an amateur-built Stolp Starduster Too, upright but broken in a wheat field. The cockpit was crushed, and the solo pilot—who was the airplane’s owner but not its builder—was dead. The autopsy attributed his death to “multiple injuries”; toxicology results were negative for carbon monoxide, alcohol, and drugs. Examination of the aircraft found no evidence of any engine, airframe, or flight-control failures before impact. The weather was benign; the nearest reporting station (at Hickory, 14 nautical miles northwest) recorded three-knot winds, 10 miles visibility, and a scattered layer at 9,000 feet.
The only official information about the pilot was that he’d obtained his private certificate on Dec. 11, 2011, and subsequently renewed his third-class medical certificate on Nov. 6, 2013, just over six months before the accident. At that time, he’d claimed 115 hours of career flight experience. FAA records also indicate that he’d bought the airplane in February 2011, some nine months prior to his checkride, from a salvage broker after it had suffered damage in an accident the previous year.
A flight instructor who’d had flown with him was able to establish a more detailed context. The Starduster’s owner had contacted him several times to request aerobatic training, but only if it was done in his own airplane. The CFI had provided one dual lesson in the Starduster, but broke it off early. Steep turns, stalls, and slow flight were apparently uneventful; he described the student’s skills as commensurate with his experience. However, a series of spins, including “power on/off and accelerated,” suggested that the student’s “correlation of … knowledge and skill level was just not quite there.” Landing the aircraft also left doubts as to whether the damage from the 2010 accident had been properly repaired. (Investigators later determined that the amateur-built airplane, first registered in 1971, hadn’t received an annual condition inspection since 2009.) The instructor decided not to fly the Starduster again until those doubts had been resolved. While the owner had contacted him twice more seeking additional aerobatic training, he’d also steadfastly refused to take dual in the instructor’s Decathlon. Instead, he’d apparently decided to take matters into his own hands. The instructor cited other pilots based at the same residential airpark as having described his goal of “self-taught aerobatics” – with corresponding discussion of “the probability of accidents.” The NTSB attributed the accident to “The pilot’s failure to recover from an intentional spin,” citing his “lack of adequate spin entry and recovery training” as a contributing factor.
Trying to teach yourself Latin or fly fishing or Microsoft Office is one thing. Even self-taught CPR is probably better than nothing. Self-instruction in the cockpit, however, risks crashing more than a spreadsheet.