By David Jack Kenny
Certain standard maneuvers are common to all powered aircraft. By definition, flight requires taking off from the ground, and is generally considered more successful if that takeoff is followed by a controlled landing. To that end, pilots practice both so habitually that “buzzing around the pattern” becomes an easy default for satisfying the urge to fly when no particular mission beckons. It becomes so comfortable and familiar that it’s easy to forget that the majority of accidents during personal flights happen while taking off or trying to land. Both operations require focus and attention, even for experienced pilots flying aircraft they know in gentle weather. Low altitude and airspeed leave little room for recovery if things get out of hand.
Even the National Transportation Safety Board couldn’t readily explain the fatal crash of a Nanchang CJ-6A on July 21, 2012. The pilot and his young son were on their way into the Spanish Peaks Airfield north of Walsenburg, Colo., to join three other pilots for a planned formation flight. The other three had already arrived when the CJ entered the pattern about 11:30 a.m. They were among six witnesses who saw it arrive from the north and enter midfield crosswind for Runway 8, turn to a “tight” downwind, extend the gear, and lower the flaps. As the airplane turned from base to final, it appeared to slow; the bank angle steepened until it rolled into what was variously described as a “spin” or “spiral” and crashed nose-first. The pilot and his son were both killed.
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Officially, the probable cause was “the pilot's failure to maintain airplane control while turning from base to final leg in the traffic pattern.” But there was no obvious reason for the 43-year-old private pilot to have stalled during the base-to-final turn. His medical application a year earlier listed 420 hours of flight time; investigators estimated that by the day of the accident, he’d logged about 500. He’d received his check-out training in the CJ-6A from one of the pilots waiting for him at Spanish Peaks, who described him as “proficient.” The transition training included practice in stall recognition and recovery with specific emphasis on traffic-pattern stalls. By the day of the accident, the pilot—a member of the Red Star Pilots Association—had accumulated some 50 to 60 hours of experience in the Nanchang.
Weather doesn’t appear to have been a factor. The nearest official METAR was recorded at 38 miles away at Pueblo, but there the conditions were clear skies and three-knot winds. A temperature of 90 degrees at a field elevation of 6,056 feet msl put the density altitude above 9,000 feet, but the Colorado-based pilot was presumably familiar with its effects. There was, in short, no obvious external factor that would have made pattern entry, approach, or landing unusually challenging.
It doesn’t happen often, but it happens: A capable pilot loses control of a familiar aircraft in fine weather. If that pilot’s not able to tell the story afterward, it may be impossible to figure out why. In this case, the only apparent clue is the description of his having flown the downwind leg unusually close to the runway. Overshooting the base-to-final turn is the classic set-up for an unrecoverable low-altitude spin as the pilot shies away from increasing the bank angle close to the ground, instead kicking into a skidding turn with extra rudder, then increases back pressure in an attempt to slow the descent. It’s possible the midfield crosswind entry didn’t help, either, since that left relatively little time to establish the downwind leg and configure the airplane for landing. This pilot’s previous experience in complex airplanes wasn’t reported, and while 60 hours is a fair amount of time in a new model, it’s probably not enough to make its procedures second nature.
Whatever happened, the little we do know reinforces an essential point: No aircraft operation should be dismissed as “routine.” Every takeoff, every approach, and every landing deserve complete attention.