Rip Van Winkle would have had a hard time sleeping through the media blitz last week that centered on “crash cam” footage of a Stinson 108 that crashed not long after takeoff in Idaho this June. Major media outlets picked it up including CNN Piers Morgan’s interview of one of the passengers who survived without injury.
Three things stood out:
1. The pilot badly overestimated the ability of a 165-horsepower aircraft to take off and climb out at an estimated density altitude of 8,800’ msl with four adult males on board.
2. The lead up to the accident was subtle if you didn’t know what was happening. Everything moved in slow motion right up to impact. Gradually rising terrain combined with a slight downdraft, according to the pilot, shows what happens when an aircraft comes to a sudden stop in the trees. That isn’t subtle.
3. On CNN, at least, Morgan was quite restrained and didn’t make any wild statements regarding the overall safety of GA. But these types of incidents do nothing to enhance the image of GA among the non-flying public. The crash cam reinforces the bad experience.
Comments by pilots posted on the video site dispel the myth that the system or the aircraft was in any way to blame. The close-ups of the badly injured pilot were gratuitous. But it makes the case for harnesses and airbags that should be retrofitted to older aircraft and likely would have prevented most of the pilot’s injuries. The FAA has largely resolved the safety retrofit impediments, so the perfect installation isn’t the enemy of the good.
The first upgrade that I installed to a 1965 Mooney I used to fly was shoulder harnesses. The value of head and face seemed more important than some of the other goodies that I might have rationalized to install first. Aircraft without front seat shoulder harnesses make me nervous.
Density altitude is an abstract concept until it is demonstrated. Take off and climb at a 50 percent power setting (because that’s about how much power you’ll have for real) from a long runway. You will be amazed at how long it takes to get airborne and how slooooowly the machine climbs. You won’t forget how even a powerful sea-level engine is reduced to wimpiness.
The Air Safety Institute has several resources to help pilots: the Mountain Flying online course, the Density Altitude safety quiz, the Decision Making for Pilots safety advisor, and the Do the Right Thing online course.