One of my favorite movies is Flyboys (2006) by Tony Bill. Some of my favorite scenes in the movie are the ones where the pilots gather in the Ready Room, aka the pub. They celebrate their successes and remember their losses in a way that many non-pilots can’t truly understand.
Viper (Tom Skarret’s character in Top Gun) said it best: “A good pilot is compelled to always evaluate what’s happened, so he can apply what he has learned.” From outside the aviation world it may seem as though pilots are obsessed with death and accidents, and very callus about these situations. In one sense we are; from the day we start flight training, we are constantly exposed to aviation accident reports. Like most pilots with a few hundred hours, I know pilots who have died in an airplane, or been involved in a reportable event. More often than not the cause of the crash or event was Pilot Error.
Pilot Error seems to be the NTSB’s favorite phrase in accident reports, it appears in almost all of them. Sadly, it’s a legitimate statement in those reports far more often than not. This is why we read the reports; if that guy did it, I might do it, too. I have to pay attention to that. A well educated aviator might push the limits, but they know exactly where those limits are and how they affect the situation.
I am still in the planing phase of my aircraft build project but I am thinking about the Flight Testing phase. Before I can develop a Flight Test Program I need to have a good understanding of the Volksplane’s flight characteristics from other builders and pilots. I plan on asking a lot of questions on the boards and lists but if I want to ask intelligent and directed questions I need to know what to ask. My first stop in researching flight characteristics is the NTSB Aviation Accident Database.
According to the FAA’s Registration Database there are approximately 512 Volksplane variants currently registered in the U.S. Since the plans for the aircraft were made available in 1969 there have been 45 Volksplane accidents; 17 none/minor injury, 19 serious injury, 9 fatalities, they break down by decade as follows.
Not all data fields add up numerically, mainly because the NTSB’s data in not always complete so keep that in mind before you pull out that calculator. In the case of our accident pilots only 44 were reported with a certificate status, 38 had a pilot certificate and 5 did not. I broke down pilot age into three groups. The under 30 set included 8 pilots, in the 31-49 group we found our majority with 22, the over 50 group claimed 12.
Let’s take a look at total pilot in command (PIC) hours and hours in type.
Yes, that’s right. A couple of our intrepid certificateless pilots had reported over 100 hours.
A majority of the reports involved a loss of control in the air, 25, with several on the ground, 16. One (1) incident was due to weather and one (1) was due to a propeller failure.
18 incidences involved some kind of power failure, 8 from unknown causes, 10 from fuel issues, 5 of which were caused by fuel starvation, 2 of those from just old fashioned running out of gas.
There were 15 incidents of builders not installing parts, installing parts wrong, ground testing with known problems that ended up as unintentional in-flight problems.
Most of the mechanical stuff and incidents of pilots without certificates occurred in the 70s. The disturbing part is pilots with low total times and no time in type are more common in recent decades. It seems as though we have gotten better in the building part but more impatient about getting the bird in the air.
My conclusions from this basic data are that as a builder it is of the utmost importance to take your time and check everything thrice. As a test pilot, take your time, inspect everything, understand the flight characteristics of the aircraft, expected and otherwise, be current, in type if possible, and take each step of the test flight program with absolute attention to detail. Considering every flight as a test flight up to 100 hours is not a bad idea ether. There was only one incident over 100 hours. Attention to detail and planning could have prevented all of the 45 incidents with possible exceptions for 2 of them.
Did I learn anything I didn’t know? No. Did taking the time to do the research make me think a bit more about how to prevent failures and what might go wrong? You betcha! Will my standards in the build process be better than if I had not taken the time to do this research? Probably. How about flight testing standards? Yeah. I think I will be less ambitious with the test flight schedule.
Until next time, blue skies and tail winds,
BTW Just in case you are wondering, I have been known as FlyBoyJon since 2003.