In the “It’s never too early to speculate” file, but relying upon what reliable witnesses observed, the only fatal accident near Oshkosh (OSH) during AirVenture 2011 appears to have been the result of some really bad decision making.
According to the NTSB’s preliminary report—with all the caveats and edited here for length, “A Piper J-3 Cub crashed into Lake Winnebago following a loss of control while performing an aerobatic maneuver. The ATP and the passenger onboard were both fatally injured.
The Cub departed OSH along with another Cub for a local sightseeing flight over Lake Winnebago. The pilot and the pilot-rated passenger in the other airplane stated both airplanes flew down the coastline at altitudes varying between 1,000 feet and 1,400 feet…the accident pilot performed a maneuver described as a Hammerhead. The airplane pitched up, climbed, and yawed to the left, entering a descent. During the course of the maneuver, the airplane became inverted and impacted the lake.”
Here’s a not-so-minor detail: Lake Winnebago’s elevation is reported as 741 msl, so the height above ground, or water level, is somewhat less than 300-700 agl. Not exactly a recipe for success in aerobatics unless you’re a pro with a waiver. However, the preliminary report doesn’t specify msl or agl although most pilots set their altimeters to msl.
This will likely be logged as stall/spin and the root cause in my preliminary review is extremely poor risk management/decision-making. “Preliminary” is italicized because it is plausible, not likely, but plausible that there was a control malfunction. The factual report will make that clear and we’ll revisit if anything is different.
If these assumptions are correct, does anyone wonder about the pilot’s thought process and whether the passenger had any understanding of the risk involved? The next question is if a 47-year-old ATP doesn’t understand that low-level aerobatics is more than just a bad idea, is this a systemic fault where we, as an industry, failed to advise and educate? Or, is it an individual fault where all the right information was provided but the pilot elected to show off? Either way, GA gets another black eye. Should this show up in the annual “accident” tally or should it be characterized as something else? How should we address this? The same question could be asked of any accident where low-level aerobatics turn out poorly. In a similar vein, how should we look at VFR into IMC where the clouds were clearly present?