• A file image of a Piper Lance. (Rob Myers)
    A file image of a Piper Lance. (Rob Myers)

– Jim Davis

Date of accident: 21 October 2008
Time of accident: 0609Z
Aircraft registration: ZS-JZF
Type of aircraft: Piper Lance PA32R-300
Pilot licence: PPL
Licence valid: Yes
Pilot age: 56
Total flying hours: 297
Hours on type: 176
Last point of departure: Rand Aerodrome (FAGM) Gauteng.
Next point of intended landing: Ficksburg Aerodrome (FAFB) Free State Province.
Location of the accident site: Wesbank Raceway, approximately 2km north of Rand Aerodrome
Meteorological information: Fine weather conditions, no clouds, temperature 18°C, wind 360/10.
Number of people on board: 1+5
No. of people injured: 0
No. of people killed: 1+5


On 21 October 2008, the pilot accompanied by five passengers took off from runway 35 at Rand Aerodrome at approximately 0609Z for the intended flight to Ficksburg Aerodrome (FAFB). The aircraft was fuelled to full capacity of 94 US gallons the previous day for the intended flight.

Shortly after the aircraft became airborne, the pilot retracted the undercarriage and executed a left-hand turn in a westerly direction. The pilot then made a transmission call on radio VHF frequency 118.7 MHz to the Air Traffic Controller (ATC) at Rand Aerodrome and requested permission to execute an emergency landing. There was no further communication. During the left-hand turn with the undercarriage extended, the aircraft lost height and the left-hand wing and nose wheel impacted a heap of rubble just prior to an open grass/sand area at the Wesbank Raceway area near Gosforth Park, approximately 1.9 km (1.1 nm) to the west of the threshold of runway 17 at Rand Aerodrome.

During the impact sequence, the aircraft cart-wheeled and burst into flames approximately 56 metres from the initial impact point.

The aircraft was destroyed by fire that erupted and all occupants on board were fatally injured.

Probable Cause

The aircraft failed to gain sufficient height after it became airborne, with the aircraft in a high nose-up attitude towards the end of runway 35. The pilot was unable to correct the situation by lowering the nose of the aircraft as there were obstacles ahead such as trees, high tension wires and buildings. Runway 29 would have been a better option since it is 5446 feet long, which is 646 feet longer than that of Runway 35 without any obstacles ahead. Contributory Factor: the aircraft was overloaded by approximately 260 lbs [118 kg].

Additional Information

High-compression pistons were found fitted to the engine. Turbo-charged engines are normally fitted with low-compression pistons.

The inner area of the exhaust outlet duct revealed severe wear due to high temperature exhaust gas exposure during operation. Investigation revealed signs of flaking adjacent to the original fracture. X-ray results showed that these areas exposed by the flaking, as well as the majority of the investigated area adjacent to the original fracture, were covered by exhaust residue with a high lead (Pb) content. This proves that these flaked areas were exposed to leaking exhaust gases over a period of time. The fracture surface from the original fracture shows some residue build-up as well as geometry comparable with a slow propagating fracture.

The total effect of a ruptured turbo-charger exhaust outlet duct on the overall performance of the engine, except resulting in higher noise levels, should be minimal.

Organisational and Management Information

Incorrect loading carries consequences for any aircraft. An overloaded airplane will not perform, climb or cruise as well as a properly loaded one. The heavier the airplane is loaded, the less climb performance it will have.

The pilot most likely found himself in a precarious situation as the aircraft became airborne at a latter stage on the runway with the aircraft in a high nose-up attitude. It was thus not possible for the pilot to lower the nose of the aircraft to gain more speed, with trees and high-tension wires and buildings ahead.

Jim’s Analysis

This is a very interesting accident that received a huge amount of publicity at the time. I say interesting because it is a classic example of an accident not having a single cause. Let’s have a look at five of the main factors at play. If any one of them had been different there probably would not have been an accident.

Overloading. The aeroplane did not need to be overloaded. It was carrying almost twice as much fuel as was needed for the return trip, including reserves. And I am sure that, considering the risk, they could have managed their business without one of the pax. The problem with that series of aircraft, the Cherokee Six, the Lance and the Saratoga, and even the Seneca, is that the cabin is so damn big and it’s very tempting to fill it up. I find it helpful to think about the fuel in the wings in terms of drums. The tanks of this aircraft hold almost two drums. If you imagine seeing two drums of fuel in the cabin, you would be inclined to say “Whoa, that is a hell of a weight to be carrying around.” So if you know it is hidden in the wings, then it’s time to reflect on that in addition to whatever you put in the cabin.

PPP – People Pleasing Pressures. Did all those people have to go to that destination on that day in one aircraft? The obvious answer is no. However, the pilot was under pressures, be they business, financial, domestic, face-saving, or whatever, to attempt a flight that he must have known was unwise.

Runway Selection. The pilot may have elected to use runway 35 because it was into the wind, or perhaps simply because it was the runway in use. But, since they were heavy, 29 would have been a safer choice. Not only is it considerably longer, but it has the all-important benefit of allowing the pilot to fly level, rather than climb over obstacles immediately after takeoff.

Flap Setting. This is a bit controversial. For a "normal" take-off, the POH calls for no flap. However, anyone who has experience on Piper’s low-wing, single-engine aircraft will know that they get off the ground a whole of a lot more easily and cleanly if you use one notch.

Pilot Technique. The best take-off advice I can offer any new pilot is that you should never try to pull an aircraft off the ground. Keep it on the ground and let it accelerate on the wheels. Then, when you do get airborne, let it continue to accelerate in ground effect until you have climb speed. This guy pulled it off prematurely probably because he was watching the wires he had to clear. The result was that he got behind the drag curve and couldn’t climb.

Apart from these considerations, there was an oddity to which the report seemed to give scant attention. The matter of the engine having the wrong pistons. First, how does a licensed engineer sign this out? This says a lot about the state of maintenance on that aircraft. And second, I would imagine that there is a good reason that high-compression pistons are not approved for a turbo-charged engine. I am guessing that they could include the possibility of pre-ignition and a loss of power.

On this aircraft the turbo-chargers were after-market add-ons that increase manifold pressure to 29.92”. This raises two points. First, the mod is not as simple as you think; you can’t just bolt on some more power. Second, they may have given the pilot a false sense of security. Although they boost the engine to sea-level power, they do nothing to compensate for the loss of propeller and wing efficiency in the thin up-country air.

Finally, the report is not clear on this point, but it seems possible that those on board may have survived the impact, but were unable to escape the fire through not understanding how to work the top door latches.

What Can We Learn?

  • Overloading is not only dangerous–and illegal–but it could well invalidate your insurance.
  • When you feel slightly uneasy, ask yourself whether you are only doing this flight to please someone.
  • ATC are not allowed to fly the aircraft from the tower; the pilot’s decision is always final.
  • It’s a good idea to think of the flaps as flying controls, and not things that you apply by numbers.
  • Building up climb speed in level flight after take-off is becoming a lost art; it could have saved this aircraft.
  • It is essential to give the passengers a proper briefing on how to work the door latches.
  • Turbo normalisation does not give you sea-level performance. It may also require other engine mods.

This discussion contains extracts from the SACAA’s accident report. It is compiled in the interest of promoting of aviation safety and not to establish legal liability.

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