An accident that involved a new pilot and an old Cessna 172 is in the news. The Cessna was seen to takeoff with 40 degrees of flaps, get to about 100 feet agl, stall, crash, and burn. The NTSB investigation shows the aircraft right at gross weight despite having four adults aboard. That means the fuel load was light. The runway was more than enough to get airborne—more than 5,000 feet—so even if they were a bit overweight (which we don’t recommend) that wouldn’t necessarily have caused the crash.
What will guarantee no climb, and almost certainly a stall, is a takeoff with full flaps. My bet is that the pilot, used to flying newer and different aircraft, extended the flaps on preflight and never verified that they were up prior to takeoff. It was a simple but critical lapse.
The old C172s did not require a preflight flap check. That’s a newer checklist item that I’ve never quite been able to understand. Some say it’s to “check the flaps.” Flaps are, by design, robust and I’ve never had a mechanical problem with them. Lucky perhaps, but for most aircraft full flaps forgotten is takeoff denied. I’ve observed, on a few occasions, a full flap takeoff about to be attempted. A gentle reminder on the CTAF has always saved the day, but that’s a long way into the accident chain. Checklists are important but fragile barriers. If you’ve never missed an item you’re better than most!
So what happens by not checking the flaps on the preflight? Several possibilities:
1) On Run-up pad: They won’t come down—if needed for takeoff, taxi back, and get it fixed.
2) On Landing: They won’t come down—not a problem unless it’s a short field in which case, find a longer runway.
3) Numerous other what-ifs can be conjured up, but flaps are not a primary flight control and non-essential for light aircraft.
4) Forgetting to raise them is an impossibility and accidents like this are avoided.
Just to be sure I wasn’t too far off into Wonderland, I asked around and got some interesting answers. A student admitted forgetfulness on a go-around and the aircraft didn’t climb well at all—that’s not directly applicable but proves the point—it was also a newer Cessna with only 30 degrees of flaps. Two old timers agreed with me that this creates more problems than it solves. A new CFI thought it was a really good idea and the codgers ganged up on her. She suddenly became reasonable (that’s a great political technique as well, but it doesn’t mean you’re right!)
The lawsuit that was just filed is complex since it involves family members suing other family members. According to the Detroit News: “….The son of one of four people killed in a June 21 airplane crash is suing the estate of the dead pilot—also his stepbrother—and the plane’s owner (flight school), for negligence….The lawsuit alleges both (the pilot and the flight school) never conducted a pre-flight checklist inspection of the aircraft, which would have included operation of wing flaps that should have been up or retracted prior to takeoff. The apparent oversight, subsequently taking off with the plane’s flaps still fully extended, caused a ‘lack of thrust or attaining altitude on takeoff,’ according to the complaint.”
No question that this is a tragedy, but I have trouble seeing how the flight school is responsible for the pilot failing to follow the before-takeoff checklist. The legal system will sort that out for us, at considerable expense for all concerned.
The other question is whether the new checklists are setting people up to forget. Yes, there are two places to check the flaps—right after engine start and before takeoff—but frankly more steps in a checklist, especially if they are superfluous, are more opportunities for mischief. Do you believe that checklists are always sacred—especially if poorly written? It is presumptuous of me to claim to know more than the aircraft manufacturer but too often, the legal tail wags the operational dog.
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