Growing evidence suggests that flight reviews and transition training carry risks that may be overlooked by both the CFI and the pilot receiving instruction—especially when that pilot owns the aircraft. Instructors probably expect owners to know their own machines, while pilots expect instructors to know, well, everything. Both can be wrong.
At 9:20 a.m. on Aug. 7, 2010, a 1982 Model 58 Baron crashed into a house near Saltsburg, Pa., and was quickly consumed by fire. The resident of the house escaped with his dog, but the Baron’s owner and his CFI were both killed. The airplane had taken off from Latrobe barely 20 minutes earlier for airwork and instrument practice; several witnesses heard noises they interpreted as engines “sputtering or spitting,” then saw the airplane enter a nose-low spin to the left. Radar data identified a VFR target climbing through 800 feet agl about one minute after the Baron was cleared for takeoff. It leveled at 2,400 feet agl long enough to make left and right 360-degree turns, then climbed to 2,700 feet as its groundspeed decreased from 127 knots to just 70 knots. The last radar return came 900 feet from the accident site; investigators concluded that an inadvertent stall had progressed to a spin during either slow flight or a VMC demonstration.
Both the airplane’s owner and his instructor should have been experienced enough to avoid this. The 65-year-old owner held a single- and multiengine commercial certificate; he had at least 3,200 hours of flight experience that included more than 1,500 hours in twins. The 66-year-old CFI was also a designated pilot examiner with three jet type ratings, and claimed 23,250 hours of flight time on his last medical application. Neither had ever been involved in accident or incident or faced any FAA enforcement action. But unusual features of both the situation and the airplane itself reduced the margin that experience should have provided.
The owner had bought the Baron just four days before, but his logbooks showed hundreds of hours in that same airplane. How? He’d owned it for more than three years before selling it 22 years earlier. Since that time, it had been modified under two different STCs. The first, for vortex generators, reduced VMC from 81 knots to 74 knots, and a new airspeed indicator had been installed. Then, a decade later, it had undergone the Colemill FoxStar conversion that included the installation of 300-horsepower engines, four-bladed props, and winglets. This STC also increased VMC to 87 knots, but the Baron’s airspeed indicator had never been re-marked accordingly.
Of course, VMC demonstrations should be flown by visual references, not instruments, but it’s hard to see how a significant error in placing the red line could improve the safety of the maneuver. Whether that error was actually 13 knots remains uncertain. Each STC had been tested in isolation on an otherwise unmodified airplane. Neither certificate holder had any information about the combined effect of vortex generators and the Colemill upgrade, so the true VMC is unknown. It seems unlikely that it was higher than for the Colemill conversion without VGs, but that’s never been proven.
The owner might have felt more familiar with the airplane than he really was—and the instructor had little chance to prevent disaster by taking the controls. The Baron had a throwover yoke which the previous owners acknowledged was difficult to change in flight. The CFI hadn’t obtained the exemption required to teach in an airplane without dual controls—a regulatory nicety that probably didn’t seem important to two such experienced pilots, but might have created the final link in the accident chain.