Synopsis On October 18 2008 at approximately 1400Z, a pilot accompanied by two passengers took off from a private airfield at Tswana Lodge for an afternoon sightseeing flight. After the lodge was overflown twice by the pilot, it seemed to the only surviving occupant that they were coming in to land but that they were still too high and too fast.
The next moment they touched down on the runway very hard, but the pilot immediately lifted the aircraft into the air again, and it seemed to her that they were unable to land because there was no more runway available to land the aircraft on. Thereafter, they impacted trees before impacting the ground. A post-impact fire erupted, which destroyed the aircraft.
Probable cause The aircraft impacted with the ground after an unsuccessful landing and go-around attempt.
Additional information The pilot had had two previous accidents, one in 2004 when he lost directional control after landing, and another in 2006 when he force-landed a twin after losing both engines. If this is combined with a landing fixation it is bound to end in disaster.
From the evidence gathered on-scene and the witness statement from the only surviving occupant, it seems that the pilot came in to land but at too high a speed. He impacted the ground very hard and said, “Sorry julle (folks)”. It seems that he then tried to get the aircraft airborne again as soon as possible. The pilot most probably flew the aircraft on the wrong side of the drag curve. In the process, he stalled the aircraft, whereafter the aircraft impacted trees (about 200 metres past the end of the runway) and a post-impact fire erupted. The wreckage was found on a heading of 175°.
Although the report doesn’t mention it, there was a 10 knot wind from 30° behind the left wing. The runway was 1000m long and its elevation was 3965ft with a slight uphill gradient. At a temperature of 29°C, the density altitude was around 7000ft.
Jim’s analysis The remarkable feature of this accident is that it is so common. It represents the classic landing accident caused by approaching too high and too fast.
This was brought home to me the other day by a mate of mine. He is an experienced and current pilot with 800 hours. And he has just completed a bush-flying, short-field, Marlborough-smoking, course. He is particularly impressed by his own ability to touch down on the numbers and stop in the length of a billiard table.
He recently flew his C182 into an 800m tar runway that is used for ab-initio training. Next thing he was floating past the mid-point with 80 knots on the clock. Common sense eventually prevailed and he pushed forward the black shiny thing in the middle – thus saving his life.
My point is that he knew, before he was on short finals, that he was in trouble – but he did nothing about it. And we have all done it. Why? Ladies and gentlemen, it is because we have rocks in our heads.
I have been flying for 50 years and I personally only know of one light aircraft landing accident caused by coming in too slow and crashing short of the field, and that caused no injuries. The rest mainly fall into two categories. The first is loss of directional control, which is surprisingly common even on tricycle aircraft. It seldom results in anything more than broken nosewheels and wingtips. The second is a whole host of miseries ranging from bent egos to gory deaths, caused by being too high and too fast.
This type of crash has two main characteristics:
1. It is 100 per cent avoidable. By the time we are half way down finals we know things are going wrong, but we sit there – fat, dumb and happy – and do nothing about it. We have some vague hope that it will somehow come right.
If your favourite instructor was sitting next to you and asked, “What do you think about our airspeed?” you would reply, “We are too fast”. And if he asked, “And our height?” you would say, “We are too damn high”. And when he asks, “What are you going to do about it?” you have two choices. Either you can haul off the power, bang on full flap and get in the slot. Or you say, respectfully, “Sir I am doing a go-around”. And so saying, you smoothly take full power, level the nose and fly away to live another day. If they are a halfway sensible bunch on the ground, someone will slide up to you afterwards and say, “Congratulations, that was good thinking”.
2. It’s caused by undisciplined flying. You almost certainly got yourself too high by doing a shabby circuit that was too tight, or the downwind leg converged towards the field. For some reason this is particularly common at strange fields. Perhaps we all have a subconscious fear of losing the runway so we keep close to it.
What can we learn? First, go back to doing circuits like yo were taught. It is not just discipline for the sake of it – it makes a huge difference to your landings, and hopefully you will take pride in doing things properly.
Next, never get a landing fixation. This is about the most dangerous thing you can do on finals. Treat every approach as a look-see, and be prepared for a go around if you don’t enjoy the way things are turning out.
But there’s a more important lesson. Here it is in three words: talk to yourself. It will ensure that you initiate a go-around in good time. Here’s how it works. You speak to yourself, out loud, all the way round the circuit. “Okay, now I’m on downwind, I must aim for those trees. Now I’m a bit high…ah, too much power. Okay, I must do my landing checks. Whoa, watch that heading,” and so on. The best students do this all the time.
It’s particularly important on finals. Keep saying to yourself, “Get the speed back to 75. Now we are too high; throttle back a bit. That’s nice. Get back on centreline…”. And the one that applies to this accident – and to a thousand like it is, “This doesn’t look good – I’m going around”.
According to a shrink I know, it’s very important to say it out loud. It seems that commands that come through your ears are far more valid than those you just think about. You respond to your own verbal instructions as if someone else was telling you what to do. Give it a try next time you are on finals – you will be amazed how effective it is.
It’s like having your instructor there putting you right all the time. Of course, talking to yourself may worry your pax – but it sure beats killing them.
The purpose of this analysis is not to lay blame, but to look for lessons so that we all fly more safely.
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. Visit Jim's website by clicking here.