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Multiplying riskMultiplying risk

The question of when to allow third (and even fourth) parties to ride along during dual instruction occupies a somewhat uncomfortable corner of the risk-benefit envelope. Watching other people’s lessons from the back seat offers students the chance to recognize errors in technique and see how to correct them without the pressure of actually handling the controls. Bringing nonaviators along for the ride might inspire them to begin their own training, especially if that ride is a cross-country on a nice day. But having additional souls on board also increases the potential for distraction and broadens the exposure to whatever risk that flight might involve. Worse, it could degrade aircraft performance at exactly the moment performance is needed most.

The accident that killed four members of the Florida Institute of Technology’s aeronautics program last November is still under investigation, and probably will be for months to come. To date, the National Transportation Safety Board has only released a preliminary report, but a few facts seem well established:

The pilot in the left seat was a student in the program. He held a commercial certificate and about 300 hours of flight experience that included almost 50 hours of multiengine time, but hadn’t flown a twin in almost a year. His older brother, a graduate of the program who worked for the school, was in the back seat with another current student who held a flight instructor’s certificate. The CFI in the right seat was likewise an FIT graduate and staff instructor who’d logged almost 2,300 hours total time and 500 hours of multiengine time.

The four had flown a Piper Seminole to the Bahamas earlier in the day and had stopped at Palm Beach International to clear customs. Press reports suggest they also took on fuel. Shortly after their takeoff from Runway 10R, the CFI radioed the tower to report they had an engine failure “and needed to turn around and land.” The airplane began a slow left turn, crashed into Taxiway H, and exploded. Investigators found that it hit in a nose-low, right-wing-low attitude with the gear down and locked. They also found that the blades of the left propeller were “only slightly damaged,” but the propeller wasn’t feathered. The left engine’s fuel selector was found in the off position, only residual fuel was found in the left fuel pump and carburetor, and the left engine suffered much less fire damage than the right. Both throttles were open and both mixture controls were set to full rich.

It seems unlikely anyone will ever know how and when the fuel selector was turned off. We do know that the Seminole—an airplane not graced with breathtaking single-engine climb performance at the best of times—lost an engine at the worst possible moment, when it was low, slow, and heavy. The Seminole’s operating handbook unambiguously calls for closing the throttles and landing straight ahead if an engine failure occurs with the gear still down. Pilots who choose to try to climb on one engine are warned by the handbook that even after the gear are retracted, “In many combinations of aircraft weight, configuration, ambient conditions, and speed, negative climb performance may result.”

The CFI’s radio transmission suggests the pilot in command decided not to land straight ahead, although they were still over airport property when the engine quit. Whatever crew resource management the front-seat pilots undertook, they did not succeed in configuring the airplane for maximum single-engine climb performance—gear retracted and inoperative engine feathered—and climbing straight ahead to a safe altitude before attempting to maneuver back for landing. Their altitude and airspeed at the moment of failure aren’t known and may never be, so at this point it’s impossible to say whether the left turn was deliberate or the product of a loss of directional control, perhaps after airspeed decayed below VMC. Nor can we ever expect to know how closely four young friends actually followed the checklists, concentrated on their takeoff briefing, or maintained a sterile cockpit during their third departure of the afternoon.

One thing that seems beyond question, though, is that the extra weight of two more adults on board did nothing to improve the Seminole’s chances of achieving a positive rate of climb. There’s no certainty that being 200 or 300 pounds lighter would have changed the outcome; from the security of hindsight, landing straight ahead still looks like the better option. But a lighter airplane would have climbed faster, buying altitude to trade for airspeed and time to clean up its configuration, and if fewer voices on the intercom wouldn’t necessarily have led to a different decision, at least two fewer people would have been exposed to the consequences. The back seats are there for a reason, but it pays to think carefully about when to use them during instruction—particularly if filling them will bring the aircraft close to its operating limits.

ASI Staff

David Jack Kenny

David Jack Kenny is a freelance aviation writer.

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