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Too much funToo much fun

By David Jack Kenny

While a few risks can’t be eliminated entirely—bird strikes, fractured crankshafts, and departing propeller blades all come to mind—most hazards of flight can be evaluated ahead of time and mitigated or avoided altogether. Realistic assessment and a healthy margin of caution are the buffer separating healthy excitement from Russian roulette. Among those who study aviation accidents, it’s widely acknowledged that the most serious are usually due to pilots demanding more from their aircraft (or themselves) than they could reasonably be expected to deliver. Some ask their machines to provide too much utility: lift more weight than they were designed to carry, fly beyond their ranges, or plow through weather they’re not equipped to withstand. Others just try to have too much fun.

In the late afternoon on March 8, two onlookers saw a Bellanca 8KCAB Decathlon fly over a private airstrip next to a lake near Kosciusko, Mississippi. One was the land owner on which the strip was located; the landowner was an aerobatic pilot active on the airshow circuit who’d retired from an airline career. The other was walking along the shore of the lake. Both described the same sequence of events: The Decathlon overflew the airstrip, then set out across the lake at a considerably lower altitude.  The airshow performer said the Decathlon pilot was smiling; the second witness described him as “grinning ear-to-ear” as the passenger waved at him through the window. He added that it wasn’t raining “or even windy.”

While the airshow pilot declined to estimate the altitude at which the Decathlon crossed the lake, it must have been low. The second witness described the crossing as “buzzing” and recalled that the airplane “pulled straight up” to clear a stand of 50-foot-tall pine trees on the far shore. The first agreed that the Decathlon began a climbing right turn before the left wing dropped in an apparent cross-controlled stall. Although the pilot made an immediate attempt to recover, lowering the nose, kicking in full opposite rudder, and opening the throttle, there wasn’t enough room. The Decathlon crashed in the pines, striking nearly 90 degrees nose-down and killing both on board. Examination of the wreckage found no evidence of any malfunction of the engine or flight controls.

The NTSB did not cite any logbook entries, so it’s impossible to know how much time the pilot actually had in the Decathlon. His logbook listed more than 1,600 hours of total time. His experience in aerobatic maneuvers likewise wasn’t reported.

The Decathlon’s owner—a good friend for whom the accident pilot had ferried the airplane back from Arizona and for whom he’d arranged hangar space—told investigators that he’d seen the airplane on the ramp but hadn’t known that his friend was planning to fly that evening. He guessed that the pilot and his passenger “were out just flying for fun.” The nonpilot who witnessed the actual crash told investigators that the airplane was performing normally and said that he thought the pilot “was just having fun.”

Fun is fun until it isn’t. The airshow pilot was certain the Decathlon never entered a spin; it just stalled from an altitude so low that even a capable aerobatic airplane flown by a competent pilot couldn’t recover. The choice to put that airplane into a position where a sudden pull-up was needed to clear 50-foot-tall trees—the classic set-up for a violent accelerated stall—was entirely the pilot’s.