It Seemed Like A Good Idea

April 11, 2012 by Bruce Landsberg

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?

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • John

    “…a systemic fault where we, as an industry, failed to advise and educate?”

    Seriously? For an ATP? I think that might be a bit of a stretch.

    The interesting part (for me) is the statement that “the airplane became inverted and impacted the lake.” So, that would seem to indicate that one of two things happened – either a stall/spin situation (in which, I guess it could be argued that the misjudgment of altitude was a contributing factor, since the pilot may have been able to recover if he had more altitude)… or, what if the passenger was merely trying to brace himself as the plan came out of the hammerhead? I mean, if the plane is pointing straight down, maybe the passenger was bracing himself by pushing on the stick. Even if the pilot was able to yell at the passenger and get him to let go of the stick, they would’ve lost a crucial second or two in the process…

    Just speculation, of course.

  • Lee

    Perhaps other questions to include are:
    Does aviation attract risk takers?
    Do air shows stimulate stupidity in pilots?
    Is there a way to mitigate stupidity in risk takers?

  • Steve Phoenix

    Maybe we worry about it too much. Motorcycle magazines do not have sections dedicated to analyzing guys that wheelie across the parking lot and hit a car and kill themselves. Doesn’t seem to hurt the motorcycle market. But airplane magazines have pages upon pages of hand wringing experts and analysis of stupid pilot tricks. Say, how are those sales?

  • Bruce Landsberg

    I suspect that some of this comes from constantly trying to equate GA to the airlines. I’ve commented on the futility of that in September.

    Reasonable safety vs. absolute safety is what it’s about and it’s as safe as you – the PIC – choose to make it.

  • Mark C

    Steve makes kind of a good point, but, there are some basic differences between airplane pilots and cycle jocks. The biggest one is, the non-riding public doesn’t have an irrational fear of motorcycles landing on their children’s heads and killing them. When a cycle jock wheelies across the parking lot and eats a pickup truck, the neighbors don’t start a petition to close the parking lot, and every TV station within 100 miles doesn’t send a camera crew to show the crash site, and interview “experts” for days afterward to milk the story for all it’s worth. Recreational pilots can’t afford to just ignore the stupid among us, because non-pilots are just waiting for a chance to jump on an incident. That said, maybe the aviation industry experts should go on TV and just say “you can’t account for stupid”. If nothing else will keep people from doing stupid things with airplanes, maybe the fear of posthumous humiliation will do it.

  • Bruce Landsberg


    Good point and you’ll see some online resources for everyone to use on what to say and what not to say to the media after a mishap. Were also putting together a downloadable program that anyone can use to tell what GA is ( and is not).

    Reference the article from September above – too many in GA perpetuate the myth that GA as a whole is as safe as the airlines ( most dangerous part of the trip is the drive to and from the airport).

    As for calling out stupidity – I think you’ll see the community’s tolerance decreasing on that front. Thanks for the comment.

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  • Michael Coviello

    Stupidity is the number one cause of death and out scores all other causes of death combined.

    Regardless of what the NTSB concludes, it appears clear the ATP was overconfident in his abilities and failed to consider all of the risks, not the least of which was probably the effect of a fear inducing maneuver on a passenger who was not “pre-flighted” for the maneuver. I am also willing to bet he uttered to his passenger those famous and most common last words of all: “Watch this!”


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