How far should we go to modify an aircraft and—when the inevitable compromises are made—what should be considered acceptable? Should we get transition training with unfamiliar aircraft? Do you feel lucky? Never met an aircraft where one change or two didn’t result in about 15 other things going in perhaps less savory directions.
The NTSB just released the factual report on Steve Appleton’s accident that occurred in Boise in 2012. In brief, Mr. Appleton, CEO of tech company Micron, had recently purchased a Lancair IV-TP. After an aborted takeoff attempt where the aircraft got airborne to about 10 feet, Steve elected to land and taxied back to the end of the 9,680-foot runway to do some additional checks.
On the second takeoff the aircraft climbed to about 320 feet according to onboard flash memory cards in the avionics. There was a power reduction and the aircraft rolled to the left approximately 49 degrees and impacted the ground. It doesn’t appear to have been a mechanical fault but the NTSB will decide.
The Lancair IV-TP does not have a particularly good safety record according to the NTSB, “…at the time of this report, of the 57 Lancair IV-TPs that were registered (and presumably flying), there is an accident rate of 26-percent…” and 73 percent of those accidents were fatal. So, fully one quarter of the fleet has been involved with some nasty outcomes.
Lancairs are designed to do one thing really well and that’s to go fast. But to go slower on takeoff and landing (sort of necessary) is when the trouble seems to happen. Laminar flow wings tend to let go suddenly and may have a strong rolling tendency. At pattern altitude recovery is unlikely.
The NTSB noted that the FAA had issued a warning letter to operators in 2009: “The notice indicated that while Lancairs represented a little over 3 percent of the amateur-built experimental aircraft fleet, they contributed to 16 percent of all amateur-built fatal aircraft accidents in the prior 11 months…” Let me point out Lancair is not the only high performance experimental aircraft with aggressive stall characteristics. The FAA had also proposed a special training requirement as has been done on several other aircraft that had relatively high accident involvements. That has yet to be enacted.
The turbine mod to the piston aircraft enhanced performance but a former Lancair engineer noted that it destabilized an already sensitive balance. It further increased a high wing loading and changed the CG. This is not an indictment of Lancairs: They can be flown safely but require knowledge and respect because that tiger can bite—quickly if allowed.
The psychology of pilots is always interesting, and the more we can understand the thought process the more likely we are to make some sense of any mishap. People who knew Steve noted that he was a risk taker with active hobbies such as scuba diving, surfing, motorcycling, and off-road car racing. These are not inherently dangerous per se, but it’s not a Bingo game or bird watching. He seriously injured himself and totaled an Extra 300 when the ground intervened at the bottom of a loop. That brush with mortality might have encouraged a more conservative approach—but apparently it did not.
Steve was a highly experienced pilot with an estimated 3,600 hours total time, including a fair amount in turbine aircraft but only about 13 hours in the turbine IV-TP. He resisted getting transition training in the IV-TP.
There’s a strong case to be made for transition training. Pilots involved in accidents generally have less experience in make and model, often despite high total time. Airplanes have similarities, but some can be very different. Amateur-built and experimental aircraft may have widely divergent characteristics that depend on both design and construction. It’s the proverbial box of chocolates—you just never know what you’re going to get.