A horrific accident in Michigan in June 2013 underscored several painful lessons that have become all too familiar: the hazards of transitioning to unfamiliar aircraft; the dominance of primacy, especially among those without a great deal of experience to begin with; the increased risk of distraction while carrying passengers; and the danger of renting an aircraft to a pilot you don’t know well, particularly in our ever-more-litigious society.
Briefly, a 19-year-old who’d earned his private pilot certificate barely six weeks earlier rented a Cessna 172M to take three members of his family out for a flight. The Skyhawk wallowed into the air and climbed to perhaps 100 feet before the pilot radioed the tower to report that he was “a little overweight” and wanted to return to land. The tower controller cleared him to land on either the parallel runway or the grass, but as soon as the pilot attempted to turn the airplane it stalled and crashed, catching fire within five seconds of impact. None of the four escaped.
Investigators quickly determined that the Cessna wasn’t actually too heavy, though by their estimates it was loaded right up to maximum gross. Rather, the problem was that the pilot had tried to take off with the flaps fully extended. Any 172 pilot who’s ever forgotten to raise the flaps during a go-around knows that even lightly loaded, they’ll scarcely climb in that configuration. A pilot on approach in another 172 who had also flown the accident airplane noticed the error, but didn’t have time to report it on frequency before the crash.
Why the flaps were extended remains mysterious. Early speculation was that the pilot had checked flap extension during preflight but missed the checklist item calling for their retraction. However, the NTSB’s docket file includes the relevant excerpts from the POH for the same year and model, a 1976 C172M. The “Normal Procedures” section never calls for extending the flaps during the preflight inspection. The last item on the “Before Takeoff” checklist is “Wing Flaps – UP,” while it is also the first checklist item under both “Normal” and “High-Performance Takeoff.” The intensity of the post-crash fire made it impossible to determine what checklists, if any, the pilot had relied on for his own preflight and takeoff procedures.
Also somewhat mysterious is the extent of the pilot’s prior experience in Cessna 172s. The NTSB’s factual report states that he “had reportedly flown a Cessna 172 for a few hours when he was in Florida, but this report could not be substantiated.” He’d earned his certificate in a Part 141 university flight department that flew only Cirrus SR20s, the model in which he had presumably logged all or almost all of the 52.3 hours he’d claimed at the time of his checkride. Normal procedure in the SR20 calls for taking off with the flaps extended 50 percent, and the flap handle has detents for half and full extension. The flap control in the C172M is spring-loaded, requiring the pilot to hold it down until the desired extension is indicated.
The factual report and its supporting docket file are also silent as to what checkout procedures the owners required before renting him the airplane. It seems certain there must have been some; the notion of simply turning over the keys to a brand-new private pilot with minimal time in type defies belief. For that matter, it’s difficult to believe that the pilot—an apparently responsible young man who&srquo;d just won appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy—would have been willing to chance taking three passengers in an unfamiliar aircraft without benefit of some type-specific training. And of course if the NTSB had been able to determine that he’d had none, that fact could have been expected to receive prominent mention in the board’s report.
Still, the lack of information on the pre-rental checkout seems destined to remain a bone of contention for years to come. This being America in the twenty-first century, no tragedy is complete without a lawsuit, and other family members have stepped up to fulfill their civic duty. Since the estate of a 19-year-old isn’t likely to yield much compensation, the plaintiffs have followed the advice of counsel and sued the airplane’s owners as well, no doubt expecting their liability insurance to cough up more than the pilot ever could (ideally, in an out-of-court settlement). And this being twenty-first-century America, one thing all sides can be sure of is this: No one with any piloting experience or the faintest conception of pilot-in-command responsibility stands a snowball’s chance of being seated on that jury.