This week a Phenom 100 business jet crashed about a mile from the Gaithersburg, Maryland, Montgomery County Airpark (KGAI) runway.
The jet plunged into a house with a young mother and two children inside who perished along with the pilot and two passengers. Annually, there are very few off-airport ground fatalities, which make these accidents dramatic and newsworthy. No matter how clinically we dissect the accident report, the human loss is tremendous. Dozens of lives, if not hundreds, have been painfully impacted—some disastrously. Our sincere condolences go out to all the families, friends, and co-workers.
The Phenom was on an IFR final approach although the weather was VMC. Scattered clouds were reported around 2,100 feet with 10 miles visibility and light winds: Easy day—right up until something happened. In such circumstances we try to make sense and understand for several reasons. We don’t know the details yet, but it’s looking like a rather basic failure of airmanship—our old nemesis—the stall. The aircraft was equipped with a flight data recorder (FDR), which the NTSB recovered and the answers will be forthcoming. These comments are speculative until the final report is released, but early information released by the NTSB points to a stall—no mechanical failures.
Getting well below ref speed invariably leads to bad things: The FDR preliminary data showed that about 20 seconds prior to the crash the stall warning annunciator and voice alert was triggered. There is also a stick pusher but it’s unknown at this point whether it activated. Vref speed for the Phenom was somewhere around 105 knots—the speed at which it should have been approaching with gear and flaps down. The FDR showed a speed of about 88 knots and witnesses saw the wings rocking followed by a reported pitch down.
So why does a pilot with approximately 4,500 hours and most likely considerable training in the aircraft and simulator wind up in this circumstance? Hard to answer. There is irony here because in March of 2010, the pilot had an accident at KGAI in his previous aircraft, a TBM 700. In that mishap the pilot lost directional control and initiated a go-around—the TBM stalled and crashed with no injuries.
Was the jet following another slower aircraft? Don’t know for sure about that yet but indulge me for a moment. (The following comments do not necessarily apply to this accident.) There is a natural tendency to slow the rate of closure on the lead aircraft in hopes that a second trip around the pattern might be avoided. It’s not unusual for larger, faster aircraft to make straight-in approaches. Things get complicated when smaller VFR aircraft are flying their normal patterns. While one might technically have the right-of-way in the slower aircraft, I’ve always felt it both prudent and courteous to let faster airplanes play through.
Some will bristle at the high and mighty getting priority but consider this: Stabilized approaches are all-important in any airplane. Because of inertia and maneuverability bigger airplanes need more room to get stabilized. It doesn’t take much for a C-172, Cherokee, or even a high performance single piston to establish itself. Twins, jets, and turboprops need time, space, and airspeed to get settled.
Tower and approach controllers will almost always vector or have a slower aircraft extend downwind to avoid the impossible aerodynamics that may have occurred here. Fast movers generally, but not always, appreciate it and should say, “Thank you,” when someone yields. At a non-towered airport like KGAI, straight-in approaches are not an entitlement in VMC, and pilots should be prepared for the go-around. CFIs, teach your students well to understand that the worst place to be is in front of a much faster aircraft on final. They’re distracted, you’re distracted, and they may not see you. You could be dead right and that’s small consolation. (Same thought process works well on the highways.)
When following another aircraft on final, set a minimum speed that is safely above the stall. Don’t let ATC instructions, snow, rain, or dark of night deter you from the lifesaving go-around when the deadly stall starts to steal your lift.
Local media has presented a balanced view up to this point, although interviews with neighbors concerned about flight operations are beginning to surface. The airport was built in 1959, and like so many it was encroached upon as incompatible land planning and usage lead to building residential areas in flight safety zones. This is not to sanction carelessness or complacency in any way on the part of pilots, but zoning boards should understand that they have responsibilities as well.
Stay tuned, fly professionally, and know that life is fragile in so many facets. We will be watching developments closely.
If it’s been awhile since you brushed up on practical aerodynamics, spend a few minutes with the Air Safety Institute’s “Essential Aerodynamics: Stall, Spins, and Safety” online course.
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