We’ve had bad weeks before, but late August and early September were as bad as any in recent memory. There were 10 fatal GA accidents in seven days. We were on track to make an FAA not-to-exceed goal for accident reduction, but as we approach the end of the fiscal year it looks like we’re going off the end of the metaphorical runway. Damn!
There was no particular pattern as summer wound down except for two accidents that appear to have been caused by pilot incapacitation due to hypoxia. Both aircraft fell into the ocean and may never be recovered, so the probable cause is likely to be undetermined. My usual speculative disclaimer applies to this entire discussion.
This “spike” is unusual since GA averages about one hypoxia accident annually where oxygen deprivation is suspected. My suspicion is that many more mishaps occur because the pilot is semi-oxygen starved. The obvious cause may be a gear-up landing, a stall, or anything else, but the root cause is a semi-functional brain (of course we could say that about many that have nothing to do with oxygen). Generally, flying an unpressurized aircraft at altitude carries higher risk. In pressurized aircraft we might see one or two crashes per decade—maybe.
There are some sobering reminders: Both pilots were highly experienced but new to the model of aircraft involved. Both aircraft were nearly new. In the case of the pressurized aircraft, a TBM 900, the pilot noted a problem at FL280 and asked for a lower altitude. ATC provided a descent to FL250 and was working on lower with no further contact. The only drill at high altitude is put on the mask immediately, advise ATC that an emergency descent is needed, and then start down—fast. It’s not the time to troubleshoot or consider options—it may be only be a false indication, but incapacitation can take you out with stunning quickness.
ASI put out a rare safety alert last weekend with some recommendations.
With the other crashes—unfortunately it’s many of the usual suspects and we have few details at this point:
- Stall in a Lancair IVP after a catastrophic engine failure
- A near head-on collision in the traffic pattern in a Malibu that appears to have gone against prevailing traffic flow and resulted in a stall
- A heavily loaded homebuilt that may have suffered a power failure after takeoff and stalled
- Another homebuilt that crashed under unknown circumstances
- A Cessna 421 that was fueled with Jet A and suffered engine failure shortly after takeoff
- A banner tower that may have suffered engine failure shortly after takeoff
- A heavily loaded Cessna 172 that may have suffered an engine failure and stalled during an impossible turn maneuver
- A Cessna 180 that crashed in Canada
There are a lot of purported engine failures during takeoff, so that will bear some extra scrutiny. In the meantime, anticipate that the engine may fail during takeoff and plan your actions accordingly: Good maintenance, a plan to reject the takeoff, a place off airport (only 30 degrees or so from runway heading) for an off field emergency landing, and finally, a maneuvering altitude where a reasonable, not perfect, execution of a turn back to the airport will not result in a stall/spin.