By David Jack Kenny
It’s no longer news that the Information Age readily blurs into the Misinformation Age. No matter what kind of factual error takes your fancy—conspiracy theories, historical revisionism, even support for a different political party—you can find plenty of Internet sources that encourage it. This has done nothing to tamp down innate tendencies toward impulsivity and stubbornness among those of us naturally susceptible to both.
About 11 a.m. Jan. 28, 2015, a professional fishing guide on Lake Texoma along the Texas-Oklahoma border saw a Vans RV-9A circling his boat. This was not a surprise. The pilot was the guide’s best friend, a fellow guide who thought he’d worked out a way to identify promising locations from the air by spotting flocks of birds preying on feeder fish. Earlier that morning he’d given the prearranged signal, orbiting the boat before flying off to circle where he’d seen the birds congregate. This time, however, the airplane didn’t leave the area. As the guide prepared to move the boat, his client’s shout alerted him to the sight of it crashing nose-down into the water. They reached the site before the tail slipped under, but couldn’t prevent it from sinking. The 51-year-old student pilot never surfaced.
The RV-9A was actually one of two airplanes he owned. He’d bought it the previous July, two months after acquiring the Grumman AA-1B in which he’d begun his training and received his first solo endorsement. According to his instructor, he found the Grumman’s handling “squirrelly” and thought the RV was easier to land. (His wife, who was also learning to fly, preferred the Grumman.) He’d received a fresh solo endorsement 12 days before the accident, and didn’t seem to suffer from the nervousness about flying alone that afflicts some students. Of the total of 37.3 hours in his logbook, only 15.6 were marked as dual instruction. He’d logged some 22 hours in the RV, 16 of them solo.
The time he had spent with his CFI had been enough to reveal a couple of patterns. He generally handled the airplane well in steep turns and turns around a point, but in the instructor’s view was that he was becoming “cocky.” In particular, he’d betrayed a fondness for flying low, something his instructor had warned him about “numerous times.” Those discussions had in turn brought out an argumentative streak in the student. The instructor told investigators that “The accident pilot felt as though he knew more about flying than the CFI and would often referred [sic] to YouTube videos as evidence why he wanted to fly a certain way.”
Data retrieved from a portable GPS found in the wreckage certainly confirmed the low-flying part of that account. Derived altitudes and positions from his last three flights, including the accident, showed him descending within 100 feet of the surface of the lake and making a series of low circles in the vicinity of his home. In the last few seconds before impact, the data describe a tightening circle with decaying airspeed beginning less than 150 feet above the water. Investigators concluded that this resulted in an accelerated stall.
Examination of the wreckage found no evidence of control failure. Fuel supplies were sufficient and uncontaminated, and there was no evidence of any engine malfunction. One discrepancy did emerge, however. The set screw that should have secured the carburetor heat cable to the actuator arm was missing, and while microscopic examination of the cable showed an indentation consistent with the screw having been there at one time, there was none of the smearing that would have been caused if it had been ripped loose by impact forces. The pilot’s son recalled him having mentioned that the carburetor heat wasn’t working and thought he’d had that repaired, but there were no such entries in the airplane’s logbooks. The chart in the FAA’s special airworthiness information bulletin on carburetor icing placed conditions on the day of the accident in the range “conducive to serious icing at glide power.”
The nature of the accident makes the potential role of carburetor ice impossible to determine. What’s beyond dispute is that aggressive maneuvering at low altitude remains the province of experts and fools ... and that students who trust online film clips more than their own CFIs should find new instructors. Their CFIs should insist on this even if the students don’t.