Monday, August 13, 2012

An Everyday Plane Crash

Click to view video
Most four-seat single-engine airplanes can't actually carry four adults with full fuel tanks, especially in the summer.

There are three "enemies" to small, single-engine, airplanes: heat, height, and humidity. A piston engine aircraft's performance severely degrades as these three factors increase.

The plane crash video, above, is unique in its clarity, first person point of view, and the fact that everyone survived.

The passenger in the right seat stated to the NTSB that the plane was unable to climb more than 60 or 70 feet above the ground before experiencing a down draft as it collided with the tree tops.

My initial reaction, when I saw this video, was that the plane was overloaded for the prevailing weather conditions. While drafting this blog post, my buddy, who's a commercial pilot / flight instructor, and I researched the airport and weather conditions as well as the aircraft's performance specifications. The key variable we didn't know was how much fuel was aboard the aircraft, for weight considerations, as we speculated the cause of the accident.

The airport that they departed from was 6,370' above sea level, "on a high mountain valley surrounded by mountains," and the temperature was about 80°F. It's possible that the airplane may have been climbing, relative to sea level, but the ground was sloping up faster than the plane was climbing. Also, after running some back of the envelope calculations, we figured that it would be very easy for this airplane to be outside its operating envelope for ideal conditions, let alone the conditions at the high, hot, departure airport. I'd be surprised if the FAA investigation doesn't mention these factors in its final report in about 12-18 months.

I experienced the high, high effects for the first time as I piloted my plane out of Las Vegas, last August, while carrying four adults. Fortunately, for me, my aircraft could handle these conditions since it was operating within its performance envelope. However, it was extremely obvious that I couldn't climb very fast. Air traffic control, who's used to seeing this type of degraded performance in the Las Vegas desert, simply had us circle a few times so we could gain enough altitude to get over the mountains on our way back to San Diego.

Plane crashes, like the one in this video, happen almost every day. Many are minor and most go unnoticed except by the local media. As a matter of fact, on the day this video was recorded there were six other plane crashes in the United States resulting in five fatalities.

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