• The Piper Seneca. (Piper)
    The Piper Seneca. (Piper)

Date of accident: 04.10.99
Time of accident: Approximately 1000Z
Aircraft registration: ZS-LWI
Type of aircraft: Piper PA34-220T Seneca
Pilot-in-command (PIC): ATPL, 34-years-old
PIC total flying hours: 3562.5
PIC hours on type: 3
Last point of departure: Lanseria Airport, South Africa
Next point of intended landing: Lanseria Airport, South Africa
Location of the accident site: On Runway 06 at Lanseria Airport.
Meteorological information: CAVOK
Number of people on board: 1
No. of people injured: 0
No. of people killed: 0

The pilot completed his conversion onto the aircraft type 11 days before the accident. He was used to flying large jet aircraft.

On the day of the accident he decided to do some circuit and landing practice. The air traffic controller reported that the aircraft bounced during the three landings the pilot carried out.

After the third landing, the pilot stopped and it was found that the propellers had contacted the runway surface, probably during the second landing.
This type of aircraft has a tendency to be nose heavy when there is only one or two persons onboard and the fuel tanks are close to full capacity.
Usually the aircraft loses elevator authority at low speeds and the nose would drop in these loading conditions.

The pilot said that when he, “put the nose down ………”. The pilot was used to large jet aircraft, which are flown in this way, but with small aircraft the nose is kept up until much lower speeds.

The pilot was used to larger jet aircraft and used the wrong technique when landing the aircraft

This happened 13 years ago and I bet the poor pilot is still blushing. He has 3500 and an Air Transport Pilot Licence, yet he smashed a perfectly good aeroplane into the ground on a fine sunny day. Why? Because he simply didn’t have the slightest clue about how to land it.

I have said this many times before, but let me repeat it. When a light aircraft crashes you can normally say that it was either the pilot’s or the aircraft’s fault. You can’t blame bad weather or slippery runways or crosswinds.

If it’s weather-related, then the pilot decided to put the aeroplane and its passengers in danger by subjecting it to bad weather or slippery runways or crosswinds, so the pilot is to blame. This is the case with most accidents. A few – very few, actually – are caused by mechanical faults that the pilot was not able to pick up during the pre-flight. So we can classify them as being the aeroplane’s fault – or, more accurately, the maintenance engineer’s fault.

So what can we say about this accident? Was it entirely the pilot’s fault? By my own reasoning it would certainly seem to be. But actually no – perhaps I have been cheating, because there is another category. Certainly this wasn’t the aeroplane’s fault – nothing broke. So who should be shouldering a big chunk of the blame? The idiot instructor who didn’t have the savvy to recognise that this pilot had no idea how to land this particular aircraft with a light load and a forward C of G.

I am not guessing – this is a proven fact. The pilot didn’t have the skills to land the aeroplane under these conditions, and yet he had the instructor’s signature saying that he was indeed competent. So the instructor was stone wrong. He failed to do his job, and if I were Mr CAA I would have a cosy chat with the lad and get one of my inspectors to fly with him to see whether he was fit to hold an instructor rating.

Of course, this doesn’t let the pilot off the hook. In fact, I believe he should share much of the blame. He had the maturity and flying experience to recognise that he did not have the landings buttoned up, but he still accepted the instructor’s signature. Now, doesn’t this seem a bit odd? The guy has an ATPL and all those hours, and yet he is somehow led to believe that his landings are safe, when we know by looking at the bent props that his landings were very far from safe.

Why doesn’t he recognise his own incompetence? And how come he is not familiar with bounce-recovery, and go-around techniques?
I have a theory about this, which may be quite wrong, but it fits the circumstances pretty neatly. What we have seen up to now are known facts. But I am now going to dig into the realms of guesswork. The only way I can see the pilot and the instructor both believing that the pilot could do consistently safe landings is if the aeroplane was loaded differently during the conversion.

A Seneca with half a dozen people aboard is an absolute honey to land. A Seneca with one or two up and plenty of fuel has the C of G near the forward limit and is a bastard to land until you have been initiated into its secrets. It is nose-heavy and it demands that the pilot is prepared for serious strong-arm tactics as well as plenty of rolling back of the electric trim during the round-out and hold-off.

Although I generally advocate full flaps for every landing, there are exceptions. And a Seneca with a forward C of G, on a nice long runway, is a hell of a lot easier to grease on if you use only two notches of flap. It makes your landing two or three knots faster, but who cares on a huge, long runway?

Okay, here’s my speculation. When the pilot arranged to do the conversion, he asked whether he could bring his family, or a few mates along for the ride. “Sure, why not?” his instructor would’ve replied. So I suspect that’s what happened. I also suspect that the instructor was slightly intimidated by the airline pilot’s hours, and the fact that he probably flew like an airline pilot – meaning professionally and accurately.

So they did all the upper air work, probably including single engine stuff – because the aircraft is turbocharged and can handle that sort of thing even at Johannesburg density altitudes. They then came back and did a few circuits and bumps, which also worked out just fine because that’s how a Seneca lands when there are folks in the back. They complied with the law and did their heavy-load landings, so the instructor signed on the dotted line and the pilot walked away with a new twin endorsement on his licence.

While I am in speculation mode, I guess that the pilot might have had a twinge of doubt about the thoroughness of the conversion and that’s why he returned to do the circuits and bumps on his own a few days after the conversion was signed out. Speculation mode off.

The other thing that worries me is that the pilot seems to have done the third circuit and landing after bending the props – which was apparently during the second landing. You have really got to do horrible things to a Seneca to stick the props into the ground. Doing another circuit after that doesn’t make any sense at all.

But I wasn’t in the aircraft, so perhaps I shouldn’t go down that road.

1. If you are an instructor, don’t be misled by your pupil’s hours or stripes – keep at it until you are satisfied. Let’s assume this particular pilot had been flying big jets since he had, say, 500 hours. This means he probably had only 700 to 800 hours of actual hand-flying time out of the 3500 in his logbook.

He has forgotten what the rudders are for, and he would have a hell of a job judging where to round out and hold off. He would also need continual reminding about throttle, pitch and mixture – which order to use them in, when increasing or decreasing power. And cowl-gills may be something he had only read about.

Finally, map and compass navigation would be a complete mystery to him. The only thing you can be certain about this type of pilot is that he is likely to frighten you. I mean it – ab-initio students very seldom pull a new trick out of the bag, but high-hour pilots are something else. The only students that have ever caused me serious grief are the ones with thick log-books.

The other problem is that one is reluctant to grab the controls from an experienced pilot, while it is quite acceptable with a new pup. Hear me instructors – beware of experienced pilots!

2. If you are on the receiving end of some dual, remember that you are the customer – it’s your bucks and your life. Only call it quits when you are happy – not when the instructor thinks you should be happy.

3. If you haven’t practiced the upper air work and circuits with both light and heavy loads, you haven’t finished your training.

4. If you haven’t practiced go-arounds and recovery from bounces, you haven’t finished your training.

5. If you do a seriously bad landing – stop. Call it quits. Taxi in to see if you have damaged anything, and to get some more dual time.

6. If a prop hits the ground, you are standing on the edge of a crumbling cliff. It may break at any second and the vibration will pull the engine clean out of its mountings before you have time to throttle back. It is also likely to have stressed the crankshaft, so a catastrophic engine blow-up is likely. Incidentally, if the engine is pulled out of the airframe you should have a gun or a knife handy to kill yourself. The C of G moves so far aft that you have no chance of controlling it – you are dead meat.

If you are an instructor, don’t be misled by your pupil’s hours or stripes.

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