LEARNING FROM MISTAKES: Skidding off the runway
CAA ACCIDENT REPORT SUMMARY: Piper PA-28-140
Date of accident: 02.05.99
Time of accident: 1045Z
Aircraft registration: ZS-FAC
Type of aircraft: Piper PA-28-140
Pilot Licence Type: Private
Licence valid: Yes
Pilot-in-command flying experience: Total flying hours: 98:20
Hours on type: 14:05
Type of operation: Private flight
Last point of departure: Brakpan Aerodrome (near Johannesburg)
Next point of intended landing: Cathedral Peak Aerodrome
Location of the accident site: On Runway 30 at Cathedral Peak Aerodrome S28°56,90’ E029°12,25’.
Meteorological information: CAVOK
Number of people on board: 1 + 1
No. of people injured: 0
No. of people killed: 0
The aircraft was flown from Brakpan Aerodrome and the pilot landed at Harrysmith to refuel. After the refueling operation he released the park brake lever, but the brakes did not release properly. When the pilot started the engine and applied power the brakes released.
They flew to Cathedral Peak (in the Drakensburg mountains) and joined overhead the runway to inspect it. When the pilot confirmed that the runway was clear he positioned the aircraft for a long final approach to the runway. He applied full flaps and landed on the grass surface runway.
The pilot stated that he applied brakes after touchdown, but experienced no braking effect. He stated that he applied the parking brake and the aircraft ran over unevenness on the runway surface. It veered to the right and impacted an embankment with the right-hand wing. The wing departed from the aircraft during this impact.
During the on-site investigation it was found that the aircraft touched down deep on the runway and the wheels skidded all the way to the point where it was found after the accident.
The pilot landed too deep on an unsafe runway with an aircraft that he was not very familiar with. The aircraft skidded off the runway and impacted with obstacles next to the runway.
This is an important accident because it is so typical of the sort of trouble that low-hour PPLs get themselves into. This is exactly why insurance companies put such a high loading on hire-and-fly. It is the period during which new young pilots, who have recently left the nest, start stretching their wings and start making decisions for themselves for the first time.
This pilot didn’t really do anything terribly wrong – he simply stepped outside his comfort zone. Let me try to put this in perspective with a mind experiment.
When you go for your first flying lesson you have a deflated red balloon, which represents the sum of all your aviation experience and knowledge. During the lesson the balloon becomes partially inflated. And during the next lesson it gets a bit more air in it, and so on.
Now, the trick is to always fly within the limits of that balloon. If you try to exceed the boundaries of your knowledge or experience you will fly into the edge of the balloon and pop it. So when you only have, say, two hours, if you try to do a steep turn you will mess it up, hit the edge of your experience and pop the balloon. And when you have 200 hours if you try to do low-level display aerobatics it is also very likely you will spike the balloon.
You can see where this is going. Anyone, at any level of experience and knowledge, who approaches the limits of his or her personal balloon is in danger of spiking it. And that’s just what happened here - we have a 100-hour pilot flying as if he had a 1000-hour balloon. He hits the edge, pops the balloon and that’s it.
Of course, the trick is to know where the edge of your balloon is.
Now, with this accident, we have a low-hour pilot with only 14 hours on type. His balloon is fine for nice big airfields, during the day, in decent weather, with mild crosswinds. But it doesn’t stretch to places like Cathedral Peak.
I have done a bit of research on that airfield and I find it no longer exists – they closed it because it was so dangerous. In fact, this very report calls it an “unsafe runway”. At the time of the accident, Runway 30 was about 650m long. The elevation was 4700ft and the surface was grass. So it doesn’t sound too bad, the problem is that it was a one way strip, meaning that, regardless of wind, you have to take off downhill and land uphill – with no chance of a go around.
So the whole thing doesn’t look very kosher before we start. But our hero pretty well seals his fate by coming in high and fast – which he must have done because the report says he landed deep.
Now, there is a good reason why high and fast happens so often at strange airfields. You are so relieved to find the airfield that you don’t want to let it out of your sight. This means you keep your downwind and base legs too close, resulting in exactly this sort of nonsense. You don’t have to believe me, see for yourself the next time you fly into a strange field.
Finally, he could probably still have saved the day if he had dumped the flaps the moment he touched down. This puts the weight on the wheels so you can do some serious braking. This lad had the wheels skimming across the grass with no chance of slowing things down.
His story about the brakes is a red herring. I have operated a lot of Cherokees over hundreds of thousands of hours, and none of them has ever had brakes that jam.
Besides, if the brakes were jamming, it would hardly be intelligent to continue with the flight – so it is not even a good face-saving lie.
What can we learn?
1. If you fly too close to the edge of your experience and knowledge balloon you are going to pop it.
2. Remember that whenever you come to a strange field you are likely to fly the circuit too tight and wind up hot and high on finals.
3. If you need serious braking, you have to retract the flaps. Prime yourself beforehand so that you don’t pull up the undercarriage by mistake.
4. When you chose to land on a runway where obstacles, or the slope, make a go-around impossible, a huge red flag should start waving in front of you and screaming, “You are closing your only back door – this is bloody dangerous, are you sure you want to do it?”
Jim Davis has 15,000 hours of immensely varied flying experience, including 10,000 hours civil and military flying instruction. He is an established author, his current projects being an instructors’ manual and a collection of Air Accident analyses, called ‘Choose not to Crash’.
Subscribe to Australian Flying to read more.