Poking the Bear

September 25, 2008 by Bruce Landsberg

The loss of a Cessna Sky Catcher last week reminded me just how much we take for granted in the development of a new aircraft and how much risk there is in the exploration of the flight envelope. Early reports indicate that the prototype entered an unrecoverable spin as the test pilot was putting the aircraft through a full spin series.

Things did not go well in the stall under full power with crossed controls. This is not a good place for a normal pilot to be! Witnesses reported hearing a loud pop and seeing sparks that has been attributed to the firing of the BRS parachute system. The chute apparently malfunctioned and the test pilot bailed out. Talk about Murphy’s Law!

In the September issue of AOPA Pilot I had written about the importance of staying well within the edges of the flight envelope. Didn’t know that we’d have such a graphic demonstration so soon. Here’s a perfect example of what happens at or beyond the edges. It’s a tribute to Cessna’s experience in flight test that despite everything going awry, the pilot walked away.

There is both art and science to building a completely new aircraft. The record of manufactured Light Sport Aircraft has been good but as new airframes from a variety of manufacturers, foreign and domestic, enter the market it’s critical to the survival of this segment of the industry, and the pilots who fly them, that they be structurally and aerodynamically sound. And regardless of what machine you fly, going near the edges of the envelope is poking the bear.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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15 Responses to “Poking the Bear”

  1. Sydney King Says:

    I read all your articles and comments about flight safety and work hard to stay as far inside the envelope as possible. Your writing is good, interesting, and informative. I was, however, disappointed in this blog writing. You gave us nothing that was not already published up in the media as well as AOPA Pilot magazine.

    Give us some deeper insight as to what went wrong, comments by the test pilot, changes in design that are being made as a result of what was learned. It would also be of interest to me to know why the chute did not deploy when it was supposed to.

    Of even broader interest, was there anything learned that could be of use to those of us who fly plane old boring GA aircraft?

  2. Roy Fassel Says:

    I agree, we, most of the pilots, are well qualified to understand a more discriptive, technical account of all accidents. What did happen to the BR chute?

  3. Bruce Landsberg Says:

    Fair points – I suspect that Cessna, NTSB, FAA and BRS would really like answers . There likely won’t be anything definitive for several months.

    As for topics, If you’ve got some areas of interest email them to asf@aopa.org. Thanks for the comments.

  4. Tom Simmons Says:

    Testing the Aircraft for crossed controls stall is exactly what a GA aircraft test pilot should do. It is in a crossed-control condition on turning final (after overshooting final center line course) that has gotten so many pilots into the classic stall-spin situation over the entire history of flight. Spins and full stalls are no longer a part of the FAA basic private pilot GA training syllabus. (I doubt that many instructors are required to recover after a full three turn spin.) This is an even more serious oversight for LSA pilots and the planes they are going to fly. The idea of the LSA is that it will be easy to fly and require less skill than regular private pilots) In the case of the Sky Catcher ( and other new LSA aircraft) , perhaps anti-spin stall strakes can be installed under the rear fuselage to prevent an unintentional spin, but don’t say that GA / LSA aircraft should not be tested for such corners of their envelopes.

  5. Dave Keach Says:

    Does Cessna plan to certify their LSA for spins and, if not, why not? Full disclosure of design limitations for any aircraft is important, and Cessna should not presume that pilots, either professional or recreational, have no interest in every aerodynamic trait an aircraft may exhibit, accidentally or intentionally. Cessna’s engineering and marketing staffs should publish the truth about this catastrophic spin incident ASAP. Spin recovery is as important as gravity.

  6. Capt. Denis Murphy Says:

    I agree with Dave Keach comments. Up to this day, Cessna has done a terrible job with the SkyCatcher. First it was the Made in China issues, secondly the very unfair way the 2007 buyers at Oshkosh were handle by Cessnas Marketing Department. Let me explain, at the 2007 Oshkosh Cessna buyers were let to believe they were going to get their new SkyCatchers according to their buying position in the buying line, but now two years later those same customers are at the end of the line. The Cessna dealers are going to get the first production SkyCatchers. In my book thats not very fair. In my opinion Cessna is not being very honest about their new SkyCatcher. A training aircraft which enters a spin and is not able to recover is not an airplane that I want to buy for my flight school!!!!!! Please Cessna publish the truth!!!

  7. Chuck Not Yeager Says:

    I think Cessna is in an “unrecoverable flat spin.” It started with the SkyCatcher being built in China and now with the accident.

    NO airplane, especially one used for training should EVER enter an unrecoverable spin! There should be NO WAY to put a training plane into such a configuration. By the way, spin training is mandatory in Canada for the Private Pilot liscence.

    Chuck

  8. George Horn Says:

    For reasons of legality I doubt Cessna will publish the kinds of details we ALL want regarding this accident. The test pilot is probably prohibited by company from discussing it with anyone outside of company, and I wouldn’t be surprised if FAA/NTSB doesn’t go along with mfr’s regarding such “proprietary information.” What kind of accident investigation will they conduct? Not much. They’ll leave it to Cessna, where any information disseminated will remain suspect.
    George (formerly mfr prod test pilot)

  9. Chris St.Germain Says:

    The whole point of factory flight testing is to see what works and what doesn’t. Some comments above indicate the writers think that a prototype and a production airframe are the same.

    Why do you think Cessna or any other company tests a new aircraft? I seriously doubt if Cessna, of all companies, would release a trainer for sale that could get into a non-recoverable spin. It’s not good for the pilots, and not for their business, either. Now that they have discovered a problem, give them a chance to solve it.

    I have no interest in flying the SkyCatcher, as it’s Chinese-built, which rubs me the wrong way. But, some of the comments above aren’t being fair. That crashed aircraft wasn’t ready for selling, but it wasn’t offered for sale, either.

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