Managing Risk – The Steve Appleton Equation

February 8, 2012 by Bruce Landsberg

The loss of Micron CEO, Steve Appleton, last week drew considerable media scrutiny and perhaps in the minds of some, reinforced the idea that general aviation is unacceptably dangerous. The early information is that shortly after takeoff  Appleton advised the tower he needed to return. It was reported that this was his second unsuccessful takeoff that morning. It was also reported that this was a turboprop version which is the latest kit from Lancair.

Two thoughts for your consideration:

1) The Lancair IV-P is one of the most beautiful and fastest piston aircraft ever conceived. The piston version cruises at 286 knots and has a wing  loading of somewhere between 36 and 32 lbs/ sq. ft depending on equipment. The Turbine Lancair claims 300 knots – no wing loading information is provided. By comparison the Piper Mirage, the only certificated pressurized piston single in production, has a cruise speed  of 213 knots and a wing loading of about 23 lbs/ sq. ft. The Mirage is a six seater compared to IV-Ps 4 seats. Stall speeds are listed at 59  knots for the Piper and about 65 knots for the IV-P. They operate in similar environments on similar missions but the safety record is quite different.

According to the FAA, the IV and IV-P have significantly higher fatal accident involvement due to loss of control than other comparable amateur-built aircraft. That is to be expected given the numbers cited above and should come as no surprise. Does this make Lancairs bad aircraft? Not in my view. But before flying one pilots must understand the nature of the animal they’re dealing with. The MU-2 Turboprop comes to mind. It had a pretty dismal safety record until the FAA, after some serious review, decided that pilots needed special training to fly it. The safety record improved significantly. In fairness, there are very few turbine Lancairs flying so it may be premature to lump them in with other models.

Is it time to think about something like this for the Lancair? The Lancair Owners and Builders Organization or LOBO  has long offered a special transition course for new owners. They claim that pilots who have taken their courses have a significantly better record than those who just try to wing it.  This seems to make more sense than some of the other solutions that may be proposed after this accident. However, remember that this is an EXPERIMENTAL aircraft with different rules and higher risks.

2) Steve Appleton was not your run-of-the-mill pilot. He had considerable experience in flying high performance aircraft.  He was involved in other high risk sports and had survived an aircraft accident several years ago. Risk taker? Yes. Unaware of those risks? Probably not. There are already calls for boards to look at whether CEOs and other executives should be allowed to fly GA.  Where does that line get drawn? There is a fine line between reckless and managed risk. The nuances are endless. It would be most unfortunate if this accident turned into a widespread mandate from company risk managers to limit executive and staff flying.

Appleton himself acknowledged that high risk was part of who he was and that it contributed to the success of Micron, his company.  How much risk one takes on should be a matter of individual choice so long as other people understand and have the option to get off. As we all know, pilots are unique people and many of them are significantly more successful in business and in life than those who choose to hunker down.

I never met Steve Appleton but suspect we’d have gotten along very well.

The Blog is traveling extensively for the next two weeks and will resume after that.

The image of the Lancair previously on this post has been deleted.


Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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8 Responses to “Managing Risk – The Steve Appleton Equation”

  1. Tom Bowen Says:

    Bruce,
    To be clear Mr. Appleton was flying a Lancair 4P Jetprop with the Walters engine. We no longer sell that product for many reasons including the debut of our newest kit design. Today we also produce a much more sedate turbine Lancair called the Evolution. The Evolution has substantially better low speed characteristics, 61 KCAS stall speeds and as a kit is sold with professional flight training included. I would appreciated it immensely if you would please differentiate the products in future references.
    Please call or email me if you need more information on our current offerings.

    Thanks and Always enjoy your articles and blog.

    Tom Bowen COO

  2. Bill Harrelson Says:

    Bruce,

    As a respected and experienced aviation writer I would have expected you to put a bit more effort into your “facts” before writing this piece. Your analysis mixes two completely different airplanes. The photo shown in your article is a Lancair Evolution which is, in fact, the ” latest kit from Lancair”. This is not the type of airplane that Mr. Appleton was flying. The Evolution is a completely new disign, different wings, different fuselage, different gear, different engine, completely different specifications and flying qualities. It is not a modification of the Lancair IV. The Lancair IV has been out of production for some time.

  3. Valerie Vaughn Says:

    The article neglects to mention that Mr. Appleton recently purchased the aircraft, December 2011. When an amateur built aircraft changes hands – statistically the accident rate goes up. I have seen examples of this in my own life.

  4. Doug Walker Says:

    Dear Bruce,

    As a builder/owner of a turbine Lancair Evolution I echo the comments of Tom Bowen and Bill Harrelson. An uninformed reader of your article can easily, erroneously infer the plane in question was an Evolution, not the IV-PT. This is reinforced by using the wrong photo. I would greatly appreciate your updating your blog to clarify the distinction between the discontinued product that was the subject aircraft and the Evolution.

    By the way, I would be delighted to have you fly my Evolution for you to experience first hand its flying characteristics.

    Sincerely,

    Doug Walker

  5. Charlie Branch Says:

    I watched Steve Appleton fly his red Hawker Hunter at Gunfighter Skies ’03, including a formation pass with his instructor Greg Poe (the red Chelton-sponsored Edge 540 as I recall). In January ’04, I spent a month at http://www.aerobaticcompany.com at 4SD flying Rich Stowell’s EMT with my PPL training, and either then or three years later (on another training stint), Steve crashed his Pitts while being filmed from the ground. We should never be come complacent, nor think we know it all.

    Sincerely,

    Charlie Branch (Aeronca 7, trained with 8KCAB)

  6. George Krueger Says:

    You guys who are focused on the differences between the Lancair IV-P Jetprop and the Evolution are missing the point. Both are very flyable aircraft in the hands of someone like Mr. Appleton. The real issue probably lies elsewhere. Why the first return to the airport? What wasn’t right? Why the second takeoff if uncertain the problem wasn’t fixed? We need much more information. A mechanical or systems issue could just as easily be a problem on an Evolution as a Jetprop. Don’t take unwarranted comfort just because you own an Evolution…or you could be the next statistic!

  7. John S. Says:

    I wasn’t there, don’t know many details, and will never second guess another pilot’s decision without some solid facts. Rest in peace, Steve.

    Being an experienced ATP, high-performance pilot, I would not hesitate taking my family for trips in a Lancair IV, if it weren’t waaaay out of my price range. The speedy beauty is my dream plane.

    Some of the accounts hints at a possible turn back to the airport. Don’t know; wasn’t there; not second guessing. Flight instruction continually emphasizes landing straight ahead when having a single-engine, no-go issue during initial climb out. AOPA recently reviewed the impossible-turn matter [1] and, with lightly loaded wings in stable aircraft in optimal circumstances, the minimal altitude is in the order of 700 to 1000-feet AGL.

    Another account hints at a possible asymmetric stall. Again, don’t know; wasn’t there; not second guessing. Flight instruction enforces assertively acquiring the proper glide speed. Especially in a high wing load aircraft, a departure stall could quickly become unmanageable. Aviate; navigate; communicate.

    Being my dream airplane, I’ve read numerous articles on flying the plane, and the demonstrating pilots unanimously avoid the left side of the envelope.

    Flying a sleek, performer like the Lancair IV requires knowledge, understanding, and discipline. Small-scale performance is the antithesis of stability and forgiveness, indirectly.

    As the Dirty Harry said, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

    Regards.

    [1] http://www.aopa.org/training/articles/2011/110519impossible_turn_practice.html

  8. Bruce Landsberg Says:

    First, thanks to all who commented. I always appreciate the positive tone we have established for the blog.

    John S. and George are perhaps closest to my current thoughts on this but as we always caution – it’s very early in the investigation so things can changes drastically as more details come to light.

    Valerie is also absolutely correct that new owners in experimental aircraft ( any aircraft for that matter) typically have a learning curve to go through. The higher performance the model, the more careful we have to be.

    LOBO has tried very hard to provide education and there is a robust owners group to assist people with transition training.

    Finally, the poll shows a clear preference on how people feel about mandated training in experimentals.

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