In our ever-more-litigious age, it’s refreshing to learn that some among us still hold others in sufficient respect to operate on trust. Unfortunately, they may learn the hard way that trust can be subject to abuse. The victims aren’t just ill-informed taxpayers gulled into mailing gift cards to scammers posing as the IRS, either. Business operators need to be at least as vigilant as individuals.
In July 2015, a 33-year-old applicant responded to South Carolina flight school’s advertisement for an instructor. He was hired late that month and assigned eight students. One was a rising college junior whose father engaged the school to teach his three sons to fly in the family’s Cessna 150. To facilitate this, the new hire joined the father on a short ferry flight from the airplane’s home base to the school, which was located at a field closer to the son’s campus. The owner later recalled his son’s new mentor claiming “over 650 hours of flight time” with experience in Cessna 150s and 172s, adding that he hadn’t felt the need “to cover anything about the airplane … because he held a flight instructor certificate.”
The 20-year-old student plunged into his training during the second week of August, scheduling lessons on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday. The first two lessons apparently progressed uneventfully, but the initial takeoff of the third flight did not go well. Three witnesses, including a line worker and an instructor for another school, saw the two-seater struggle off the ground, wings rocking from side to side. Despite maintaining a very shallow pitch angle, it was unable to build either airspeed or altitude. As it neared the trees at no more than 100 feet above the ground, it began banking left, perhaps in an attempt to return for landing in the opposite direction. Instead it stalled straight down, hitting the ground a quarter mile beyond the runway’s departure end at a nearly 90-degree angle. Both occupants were pronounced dead on the scene.
The CFI who witnessed the accident told investigators that the Cessna had begun its takeoff roll with the flaps extended their full 40 degrees. That would certainly explain its inability to climb; however, the flaps were found retracted in the wreckage. The possibility that someone had managed to retract them before the crash could not be excluded, and no other abnormality was found in the engine, airframe, or flight controls—except a broken spring that should have returned the flap position switch to its neutral position. The switch’s electrical contacts functioned normally.
Other aspects of the investigation turned up bigger surprises. The owner of the flight school told investigators that he’d never seen his new employee’s résumé and didn’t know how much make-and-model experience he had, but did recall his claiming to have trained at Atlanta’s Falcon Field and the Florida campus of Embry-Riddle. When asked, the owner “was unable to produce a copy of the accident pilot's flight instructor certificate from his files and subsequently stated that he never saw a paper record of the accident pilot’s instructor certificate.” The “instructor’s” logbook contained an endorsement for the CFI-airplane practical test dated June 4, but no record that the checkride had ever been attempted. His career flight experience totaled about 350 hours—barely half what he’d told the student’s father—with no record of Cessna 150 experience during the seven years that logbook covered. The NTSB’s docket file contains no evidence that he’d flown a 150 even once before the ferry flight.
With no practical experience teaching students and no recent experience with the 150’s quirks, he would have been ill-equipped to deal with any abnormal situation, particularly one involving degraded climb performance and compromised control authority. A two-hour student couldn’t have provided much help with either the flying or the troubleshooting. Financial pressure presumably led him to take that risk—the school’s owner quoted him as saying that “his wife was a teacher and they needed more money”—but it’s difficult to imagine allowing him to do so without first verifying his credentials and conducting an evaluation flight.
Inevitably, this wound up in court. Five months after the accident, the young man’s parents filed a wrongful death suit seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages. And the tragedy didn’t end at the airport. The day after his family hosted a memorial gathering, his best friend was involved in a head-on traffic collision that killed a 17-year-old high school student. It’s another reminder of the ripple effects that make safety culture more important in flight training than almost any other industry.