Going Direct: Why Deadly Southern California Cessna 414 Crash Is An Anomaly

Watch the center of the screen just above the horizon to see footage of the explosion.

The fiery crash of a Cessna 414 cabin class piston twin into a neighborhood in Orange County, California, on Sunday is horrifying. It was especially so to me, as I spent my college years and then some living right under the short path of the fated plane’s flight. The plane took off from Fullerton Municipal Airport and crashed a short time later in Yorba Linda. I lived in Fullerton for years on the border of Yorba Linda. While it’s a congested area overall, there are endless places the airplane could have crashed without injuring anyone on the ground. In this case, falling debris hit several homes, killing four people on the ground, who were hosting a Super Bowl party when tragedy struck. The pilot of the plane, 75 year old Antonio Pastini, was killed in the crash, too.

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One element of the crash that’s so unusual is that it killed people on the ground. This is something that very rarely happens, even when airliners crash. There have been similar crashes over the past 25 years, but they are rare. The so-called “big sky theory” holds that airplanes don’t hit each other in the air often simply because the sky is so vast. The same might be said about the ground. Despite the vast majority of fatal airplane crashes being into the ground and not the water, people on the ground are seldom killed or injured, a fact that is of zero consolation to the families of those who have been killed or injured, including the four people on the ground in Orange County this weekend. Why this is so is probably similar to the big sky theory in that, while there are a lot of people on the planet, there are a seemingly infinite number of places a plane could crash and not hit someone.

So far in Orange County there’s been little call to close the airport the plane took off from, though that is a common aftereffect of such tragedies. We know of no airport that has ever been closed as the result of a crash, but such tragedies certainly hurt our efforts to keep airports open in highly populated areas, where they are most threatened, like in Santa Monica, California.

The other really unusual thing about the crash is that the manner in which it happened. As seen on footage from numerous security and dashboard cameras, the plane emerged from an overcast already out of control. This is typical of loss of control accidents. In the vast majority of cases in which an airplane breaks up in flight, and this one was broken apparently before it came through the cloud deck, loss of control is the reason. There are other possibilities, everything from a midair (which clearly didn’t happen here) to structural failure, which, again, there are no signs of in this mishap. Typically, the cause of such crashes is loss of control and the pilot attempting a recovery that overstresses the airplane.

The cause of these kinds of crashes historically has been vacuum failure in IMC and the subsequent loss of situational awareness. Once the plane goes out of control the chances of any pilot getting it back under are very slim indeed. This is not to say that the Yorba Linda crash was caused by a mechanical failure. There are other explanations, and we hope the NTSB gets to the bottom of that cause, but with debris scattered widely, it has its work cut out for it. In these circumstances I’m grateful we have the best accident investigation organization in the world.

But the really unusual thing about this crash is that the plane burst into flames before it hit the ground. It looks to be at least several hundred feet, perhaps a thousand feet in the air, when it erupts into a fireball. This is rare but can be explained by fuel from a wing separating in flight igniting against the hot engine. It takes little more than a spark to make that happen.

Our thoughts are with the victims of the crash, as well as with investigators, who are on the scene still today trying to piece together the parts of a puzzling crash so their findings might help prevent future tragedies.

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Going Direct: Is Hand Propping Stupid Or Not Stupid?


I’ve seen it. You’ve seen. Our kids and grandparents and dogs have probably seen it, that viral video of a poor guy who hand propped a Cirrus SR22 and struggled against to odds to scramble back inside of it and stop it before it crashed into who knows what. Hangars? Porsches? Well, you know the punch line. Everybody lived and the Porsche stayed shiny and new. The same cannot be said for the Cirrus or the hangar it impacted at a goodly rate of speed.

Immediately the social media world started piling on. And if we know anything about social media, we know that when someone screws up in a big way, and this one was spectacular, the digital world isn’t shy about weighing in. I know one person who openly mocked the pilot for his lack of common sense and ability to foresee the outcome of his actions. Yeah, that was me.

But was there anything useful to be gained by the online burning at the digital flame of the hand-propping guy? (whose name I do not know and wouldn’t publish if I did know it). And the answer is, yes.

But did we have the right question? I’d say, the answer to that is, no.

The question was, should we ever hand prop? Yes! I went through my seaplane rating at good ole Jack Brown’s in Winter Haven Florida without an electric system on the J-3 Cub on straight floats. It was a blast. And in case I need to point it out, no electrical system, no starter. So, it had to be hand started. I did everything but beg my instructor to let me go to the end of the float and hand prop it at least one time, but he was resolute. Insurance and his job were fairly big concerns to him. But the point is, if nobody hand starts an airplane without a battery, it isn’t going flying.

There’s nothing wrong with hand propping, and I have to admit, I’ve been educated these past several days about hand propping big bore engines. It works. I’ve never hand propped anything more than an O-200, and I believed the tale that big engines were impossible to hand prop and dangerous to even try. Well, apparently this isn’t necessarily true. I stand corrected.

Is hand propping safe? No! But then again, neither is flying! But it’s a blast. And without taking to the air, you can’t go flying. So without some risk, there’s no fun. Is hand propping a plane fun? It is. Should just anyone do it? No, just as not everyone should be a pilot.

With all that said, here’s the real question: is the way the sad sack video guy hand propped his plane smart? Duh.

So the right answer to the right question is very simply this. If you’re going to hand prop a plane, know what you’re doing and take all the appropriate safety precautions, of which precautions our unwitting video guy did none.

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Going Direct: Why Runaway Planes Happen

So far as I can figure, I’ve done about half dozen things in my life that I should not have survived, and, no, even though I have done both a few times, running marathons or climbing thousand-foot-tall granite walls are not on the list. The things I did and survived weren’t the ones where I trained for months or years and undertook only with a clear plan of action. The close calls were dumbass ideas I thought about for a few seconds and did anyway, despite the thousand things that could have gone wrong. Well, in truth, only one or two things could have gone wrong, but, one, the chances of those couple of things happening were, in hindsight, pretty high, and, two, the consequences of them happening were terrible, potentially fatal, such as the time I decided it might be a good idea to use a plastic bag to slide down an icy, snow-covered, steep, heavily treed slope in the Sierra Nevada. The snow was really sticky and I didn’t get far, thank goodness.

But what does this have to do with hand propping Cirrus SR22s? Everything. And not only that but so many other things we do while we’re flying.

Here’s the mindset behind such asinine antics. (And I only say this as someone who’s done a few of them, a couple in airplanes shortly after I started flying, many moons ago.) Before you do something like this you need to want something, a thrill, getting out of a jam, finding out some delicious tidbit of info, and that desire drives the entire decision-making process. There is, as clinical psychologists would say, a failure of the inhibition loop, that your smarter, more cautious side never weighs in on the issue because you’ve already decided what you want and reasonable side can’t help in that quest but only derail it. So why ask the wet blanket side of your brain. It’s never any fun.

That kind of thinking, which is closely associated with the defense mechanism known as invulnerability, or in other words, the “nothing bad could happen to me” mindset. First, wrong. It could. Second, did I mention how wrong it was and how those bad things could!

In the case of the hand propped Cirrus, I do not know the details and in a way don’t want to know them. I feel bad for the person, which I’m certain is prompting many of you to whip out your nasty note keyboard telling me why no one should feel bad for this guy. I get it, but I still do. Not only did he wreck a perfectly good airplane and who knows how much damage the runaway Cirrus did to those defenseless hangars, but he could have killed somebody. It was incredibly irresponsible. And unlike in some accidents, I have failed to come up with mitigating factors here. There was no good reason to do this. Call somebody to bring out the starter cart. Call the mechanic. Do something other than this.

But with any hand-propping of an airplane in which it feels like a really bad idea to hand prop it to begin with, one can safely assume the reason for the manual action was that the starter was kaput. Which is a bad feeling to have. After all, airplanes are for flying. One with an engine that won’t start isn’t really an airplane at all. Would I have hand started this airplane? No way! High-performance planes with high-compression engines are difficult to hand prop—so I was surprised to see the engine catch and delighted that the guy wasn’t ground up into mincemeat. Nobody deserves that fate.

So these impulsivity created accidents start with that desire to do that thing you really want to do. Get home. Not fly a missed approach. Get that engine started. Pack in those last couple hundred pounds of cargo.

The key with all of these is this. Stop. Think about what bad thing/things could happen? How likely is it that? Just how bad is that bad thing? And only after you’ve examined the risk, ask, how much do I need to do what I want to do, you know, the thing that’s inviting risk into the house. In short, is what you want right now worth taking the risk that you just calculated?

Just getting to the point where you need to ask yourself these kinds of questions implies that the answer is, don’t do it. Find an alternative. Yes, changing plans could be inconvenient. Ask the guy who got tossed from the Cirrus that wrecked into those hangars making him an instant internet star, just how bad a fate inconvenience is compared to that.

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Going Direct: Why Flight Sharing Is A Terrible Idea

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The gig economy is changing the world, for good and for ill. So why wouldn’t it work for private aircraft the same as it would for some guy’s Camry?

When you phrase it like that, the question kind of answers itself, right? Because as pilots we know that Toyotas and TBMs are very different kinds of animal. The TBM does better than 300 knots, and the Camry, well, it gets 25 mpg.

The issue has come to the fore after a congressional endorsement of ride-sharing services was shelved because of pressure from AOPA, says flight sharing company Flytenow (“Flytenow being a pun, I just now realized, on “right now.” Kinda cute, I’ll give them that.)

The issue, according to Flytenow is simply one of how pilots communicate with one another. And if that’s the only issue, we’ve got to agree with them. Right now the FAA deems it legal to advertise for sharing a flight by using a piece of paper, a thumbtack and a bulletin board at your local FBO. What you can’t do, oddly enough, is issue that same message via electronic distribution. We agree with Flytenow that it’s a silly distinction. It makes it sound as though the FAA is living in the 1950s. End of that commentary.

So here’s the scenario. You live in Seattle and you decide you want to go to Portland. (I’ll leave it to your Northwesterners to fight it out over whether that’s a good idea or not.) But except for you and a bag, you have an otherwise empty airplane. You put a message on the bulletin board (kind of a hassle when you think about it): “Going to Portland (PDX) tomorrow. Have room in my Piper Arrow for another one or two people. Call 555-555-5555 (that number is fake, by the way). And you return home and wait for a reply. Which never comes. Because not even three people look at that bulletin board.

The alternative is to use an electronic clearinghouse for people looking to share rides. Once people get used to that idea, well, it’s kind of cool to think you could hop a ride down to Portland just for the pro-rated share of the gas money. Well, that’s where things get tricky. Unless you’re a certificated charter company, you can’t charge for the flight, only share costs (And, please, I know it’s more complicated than that but that discussion will miss the point.) So if gas winds up costing $250 bucks for the flight down, which is about 150 miles as the crow flies, that would be roughly 80 minutes of flying in the Arrow, which say burns 10 gallons an hour of $5 fuel, so roughly $75 dollars for fuel, split in half equals $37.50. Seattle to Portland for less than $40? Who’s not going to take that deal? You can add a couple of other fees in there, the rental fee, if it’s a rental, the tie down at the destination, of course, and part of the oil consumed. But the cost to the pilot in a full flight would be minimal.

Maybe the bigger question is, who’s going to want to fly that flight, and there are two kinds of pilots who would, those who need to go to Portland anyway (to try out the coffee in that town?) and people looking to build time. The latter group is a real concern. Will these pilots, probably mostly young people looking for that magical 1500 hour number when you can get hired by the airlines, be in essence offering really cheap charter for the time building? I think this conclusion is unavoidable. And let me add that if the Arrow’s seats get filled, which you can do on such a short flight, then the pilot’s cost goes down even more.

But the larger concern behind flight sharing companies isn’t really how the word is spread but how the risk is addressed. The bulletin board limitation makes sense if you think the FAA might want to limit the scope of such flight sharing without changing its rules otherwise.

Who’s the bad actor in this whole affair? According to Flytenow in its online blog it’s AOPA that’s siding with big business, and “ignoring the interests of their own members, and departing from Europe’s GA success story.” In much of Europe flight sharing is allowed. Flytenow says it’s been done without any loss in safety. We’re skeptical of all of that.

Would a thriving aviation gig economy impact charter providers? Probably to some degree, but remember that most charter is done in airplanes that are too costly to operate to make sense to use for flight sharing to begin with.

In our view, the issue Flytenow raises is a red herring. AOPA doesn’t care, it says, and we think they’re being honest, how pilots communicate with each other, and it suggests in its official statement that Flytenow is conveniently ignoring another stipulation of the FAA’s cost sharing rules, that you need to be going somewhere with a common purpose. If you’re flight-sharing friends (customers?) are going to a wedding, you need to go to a wedding. In fact, some interpretations would read that you need to be going to the same wedding.

Though it chooses its words carefully, AOPA is essentially saying that it’s concerned that widespread flight sharing will result in tragic accidents and put general aviation in the kind of spotlight it doesn’t need to be in, right now or ever. We agree.

Here’s AOPA’s response to Flytenow’s blog: “In order for this public transportation activity to be enabled, similar to other operations that transport passengers for compensation, we believe it must be done with safety parameters at the forefront, with pilot and aircraft standards in place to properly manage risk. If, however, that risk is not managed, the reaction and ramifications could do real harm to general aviation.”

Yup. Flight sharing sounds fine in general, and it will sound even more fine to the general public, who will not be able to distinguish between charter and the Uber of the air (a phrase FlyteNow seems to hate, by the way). A big part of our concern should be protecting folks who can’t tell the difference between Part 91 flight sharing and a California Condor.

We agree with AOPA that creating a gig economy around privately owned and operated light aircraft is a huge safety risk we’d all be well advised to avoid.

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Going Direct: ADS-B: Big Problems and a Bigger Upside

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The future of aviation is bright, which is good, because is it wasn’t so amazing at its core, it would be really hard to see it with all of the obstacles between now and the future. The roadblocks include high costs, especially fuel costs, expensive maintenance and overhaul, aging airplanes, lead in our avgas, restricted access to airport ramps in larger cities and the gradual, ongoing extinction of great GA airports in big cities.

What lies beyond those vexing and hard or impossible to solve issues is a future defined by two things: affordable digital goodness and lower costs.

We’re already seeing the computer part of it with new, low-cost panel mount avionics that our do more and cost less than ever before, thanks to a recent and long overdue alliance between the FAA and the GA industry that did something I’ve been advocating for years, ditching the prohibitively expensive overkill of certifying avionics for light GA planes as though the electronics were headed for a wide-body Boeing.

And one really cool thing in our immediate future is ADS-B, the benefits of which we’re been partially enjoying for years but haven’t yet gotten the full taste of. The FAA in its wisdom disables much of the traffic capability of ADS-B from aircraft that are not yet sporting certified equipment—the weather is the carrot, so I guess this was the stick part of the FAA’s drive to encourage ADS-B equipage. But things will change once ADS-B is fully implemented, well, kind of fully implemented—there are probably 100,000 airplanes not yet equipped.

Once the switch gets flipped we see all the traffic there is to see on ADS-B, we’ll be flying for the first time in our lives with a reasonable sense that we know where the traffic is, what it is, what kind of a threat, if any, it poses to us, and how we should modify our course or altitude in order to avoid the conflict.

True, there will be planes not equipped even after the January 1, 2020, deadline. In fact there are likely to be many tens of thousands of planes not equipped in time. They will still be able to fly, so long as they stay out of ADS-B mandatory airspace, which means Class G everywhere and then some. So if you’re on a long cross country heading from Pennsylvania to Ohio and cruising VFR at 6,500 feet, might you see non-ADS-B traffic along the route? Sure. But remember that that traffic will by definition have to take off and land from airports outside of the ADS-B veil (I term I might have just invented). And you won’t see any jets or pressurized turboprops without ADS-B, because it’ll be required for the flight levels. Even above 10,000 with few exceptions for flights in very high terrain, everybody will have to be equipped. So ADS-B will be the rule of the air for many of us the way we fly on a daily basis, and that means we’ll know where all the other traffic is, at last.

In addition to traffic, we get weather, of course, and ADS-B weather has gotten better and will likely continue to get better. Is it as good as XM-Sirius Weather? It’s not. But is it good enough for most of us if we don’t want to pay subscription? Heck yeah, though satellite weather is terrific and pretty affordable, too.

To the point, I for one am looking forward to 2020, not only because it’ll be fun to say 2020 Vision about everything—well, it’ll be fun for about 15 minutes—but because ADS-B makes a lot of sense.

And with a number of new, lower-cost ADS-B options available for small planes, the pain of equipping is less than I thought it would ever be. In terms of cost, it’s not painless, but what in aviation is. The idea is, the rewards make up for the pain, and such will be the case with ADS-B.

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