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: Understanding Boeing’s Entry Into Urban Mobility

When Boeing announced last week that it had made the first flight of an autonomous quadcopter and had teamed with other urban aerial mobility players, the takeaway was obvious. Boeing was all in on the urban air taxi game. Or was it?

First, about the craft. The craft is named the Boeing Autonomous Passenger Air Vehicle, that is, “PAV” and not “APAV?” We have no idea why they left the first “A” off either.

Regardless, the craft looks at first glance like any of the many other multi-copter style designs out there. It’s a little strange in that the whole thing is built upon what looks like a pair of steel girders—ugly doesn’t begin to describe it, and, yes, we know they’re not actually girders.

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At second glance, however, a couple of different features stand out, namely, the wing and the pusher engine. Why have those? Don’t multicopters exist in order to get rid of those features, which are commonly found on fixed-wing planes, which I guess this one is, at least in part. The Boeing V22 Osprey tilt-rotor is another hybrid lift aircraft that uses both helicopter like blades and propellers to give it both vertical lift capability and good forward speed.

While Boeing isn’t bragging about the craft’s top speed, there are reports it’s targeting 150 mph, which is really fast for a small, electric craft that’s shaped like this, so fast, in fact, that I’m taking a wait and see attitude on this, as I took with Eclipse’s sales projections for its little jet and the supersonic claims Jim Bede made for his BD-10 homebuilt jet.

Still, the craft, which was built at Boeing’s Aurora facility in Virginia, is a testament to the company’s commitment to urban mobility, which means, well, if Boeing is behind it, it’s bound to happen.

Hardly. One of the nice things about being Boeing is that it can develop things like autonomous vertical lift capable vehicles with very little risk. It’s not that it’s free. It still costs a bundle to do a project like this, and if Boeing is saving anything in the process it’s only because they already employ lots of brilliant engineers who spend their days working on stuff like this anyways. So while they might stand to lose tens of millions of dollars if PAV doesn’t pan out, a few tens of millions of dollars is, as some rich guy once famously said, “rounding off money.”

And even if the autonomous passenger carrying future doesn’t come to pass, as we are pretty it won’t, the technologies developed for PAV will almost certainly come in handy with a number of other, more commercially viable business models, like carrying screen protectors and laundry soap from a nearby Amazon warehouse to your front stoop.

The benefit to little airplane pilots like us is that Boeing and others are unintentionally designing the future of small airplanes. Just think about it: a small craft capable of traveling 100 miles at 150 mph while carrying you and your loved one and a couple of Amazon-purchased travel bags and that runs on a few dollars worth of plug time. Yeah, sounds tempting to me, too. It’s less fun and more dystopian when you figure it’ll most likely do this on its own. PAV, in fact, has no controls, and the “person” seen in the video is a dummy. After all, who needs actual pilots when Boeing already knows the best way for you to get from Point A to Point B, kind of like Amazon knows what brand of dog treats you’re currently running low on.

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Going Direct: The Column I Hope Is Already Out Of Date

As the political back and forth was getting underway in the disagreement between Congress and the Executive Branch about border security funding that led to the government shutdown two and a half weeks ago, I decided not to write about it. I figured that like other similar funding shortfalls, this one would be a long angry weekend and then back to business as usual. That has not been the case. Now on Day 19, the shutdown is real, and there’s no sign in sight of it coming to a quick end. Again, I hope I’m wrong about that, but the signs are not good.

At this point, the impact on aviation has been minimal. But, as you’re no doubt read elsewhere, that’s in large part because essential workers still need to show up for their jobs, even though the vast majority of them are doing so without getting paid for their time. Until recently, they hadn’t missed a paycheck. Now, that’s no longer the case. Most of them have missed at least one paycheck, and for many families that depend on a single breadwinner and live month to month, that can be devastating. For many others, the buffer is there for a month or two, or maybe three. But once you get past that, the likelihood that workers will be able to weather the shortfall diminishes to almost no one very quickly. It’s just the nature of economics in 2019.

The effect on aviation, again, hasn’t been big so far. The FAA gave permission to designated examiners to give checkrides. TSA agents are required to be at work. Controllers, too. And FAA maintenance personnel. But how long will that last? How long will it be before baggage screeners go looking for a job that pays them or that others find reasons to not show up at all, which has already been happening with some TSA agents, who are calling in sick. It’s apparently not a widespread problem, yet.

It’s only been one missed paycheck so far, and the disruption to the public has been minimal. But if the shutdown goes on for much longer, that will not be the case. We’ve already seen protests and demonstrations by affected workers and legislators from both sides of the aisle and the unavailability of basic services. And just think what things might look like in another two weeks or a month when large numbers of federal workers leave or just stop showing up for that demanding job they’re not getting paid to do.

Will aviation safety suffer as a result? It’s hard to argue that it hasn’t already suffered. Safety is a web of interdependent people and systems. As soon as you start weakening key elements of that system, the chances of bad things happening rise sharply. After all, safety isn’t about stopping an accident from happening, though that’s the end goal. It’s about short-circuiting the negative elements within a system and preventing them from taking root and leading to accidents. If you’ve flown into a Class B or Class C airport when the action of landing and taking off planes was in high gear, you know how finely tuned that machine is and what amazing work our controllers do. Now imagine cutting the infrastructure that supports that machine by 20 percent…or more. It’s a dangerous situation getting more so every day the shutdown continues.

From a practical point of view, what does this mean to us pilots and airplane owners? Well, any nonessential federal government business you might need to get done will have to wait? That could result in minor inconveniences or even big hassles, and how those will be resolved once the FAA opens up shop again, we’ll have to wait and see. Again, how negatively it affects pilots and owners will probably depend on how long this circus lasts. As for manufacturers, many are already stuck awaiting the resumption of FAA inspections and approvals on products they’re currently developing, and such delays endanger not only timely certification but customer contracts, all of which can cost plane makers big bucks down the road.

Is there a silver lining? Well, your chances of getting ramp checked right now are paper-thin. Enjoy that the next time you go flying. And while we’re at it, we should remember to thank a controller for their free service.

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Going Direct: The Theory Of Lift Is Dead

Paul Bertorelli recently published a piece on AVweb in which he copped to getting the theory of lift all-wrong. For years! And he rightly laid similar blame on flight instructors far and wide.

When it comes to the theory of lift, my sin was worse. Here’s my confession.

I’m not a CFI and don’t want to be one. I have tremendous respect and admiration for flight instructors. In fact, some of my best friends teach flying for a living. But I do write about aerodynamics, and I bring to it a perspective that aerodynamicists don’t have. I don’t really get the math. My brain is set up to crunch words and phrases and meaning to language, and math is a language that, perhaps because it’s so logical, makes little sense to me once you go much further than 10th-grade algebra. So when I write about lift and drag and their associated causes and effects, I write about it in a way that people more knowledgeable about it explain it to me. In a sense, I’m a science translator.

When it comes to the theory of lift, as well as a number of other theories, as a pilot, my approach has always been, “tell me what the FAA wants to hear on the written test and leave me alone.” It’s a horrifying attitude, I admit. But it’s the same attitude I have about software. I’m glad other people know how to write it.

Hear me out. The theory of lift is really important, crucial, critical stuff for pilots to understand because without knowing it, they would, umm, they could… errr…they might, uhhh…. Yup, I’m drawing a blank. What are the potential consequences are for a pilot who doesn’t get the theory of lift. The theory of angle of attack. Yes! Stall speed increasing as a function of G-loading. Gotta understand it. But the theory of lift? It has no practical use so far as I can see. When’s the last time an airplane stopped flying because the pilot just didn’t get Bernoulli?

And thank goodness they don’t stop flying, because as it turns out, what Bertorelli and not Bernoulli was saying was right on the money. The way we as an industry have been teaching lift forever has been wrong.

I know because I researched it for a piece in our series called Mysteries of Flight, in which we take a topic that’s controversial and dig until I’ve tracked down the most plausible answer. In the case of the theory of lift, the answer I unearthed was that lift is created in a way that combines both Newtonian and Bernoullian physics, taking into account theories that I don’t fully understand about how moving air and moving surfaces interact. In short, it’s too complicated for many pilots to understand. It doesn’t mean that it’s not important, just that it’s not practical knowledge, which was my view all along.

It might be frustrating to accept that a theory that so underpins what we do is too complex to be rendered into a sound bite, but that’s the fact of the matter. The same is true, however, for the way the atoms that make up the molecules that make up the alloys that make up our planes’ structures work. But thank goodness I don’t need to thoroughly understand quarks and neutrinos to simply go flying.

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Going Direct: When Reporting Is Hard To Do

I’ve been struggling with a story I’ve been working on recently, namely, the news of the disappearance of Kelsey Berreth, a young flight instructor and mother from Colorado, and there are no clues to where she went or if she’s okay.

This story doesn’t mark the first time I’ve struggled with writing something that’s hard to even think about, never mind to research and ponder. Aviation is an activity, sadly, that has more than its share of bad news. Some of it is horrifying to contemplate, too.

The sad fact is this: small planes crash quite a bit. The old saw about the drive to the airport being the most dangerous part of the trip is only true if you drive it on a motorcycle at high speed in traffic. Smart pilots do a lot to cut their risk, but the risk remains.

Plane Wreck

How I wish it weren’t so. Being from an aviation family, and one that ran airport businesses, I was around airplanes from the get-go, and I remember bad news early on. When I was eleven years old a B-25 owned by a group of warbird collectors known as the Damn Yankee Air Force crashed at an airport in Orange, Massachusetts, not too far from where we lived. The guy flying, a former WWII Mitchell bomber pilot named Roger Lopez, got killed when he tried to go around and the airplane was destroyed. He was flying the airplane solo and hadn’t had any time in type in eleven years. Sometimes we pilots don’t mitigate our risk.

And there were others. When I was a teenager an employee of our family run business, and a family friend as well, Cindy Rucker, got killed when she crashed when she spun the Decathlon she was flying into the ground during an aerobatics routine at an airshow. My parents were there when it happened, and I would have been too, had it not been for another commitment.

I could go on for several pages about the people I’ve known or been close to in other ways that have died in airplane crashes. All of us pilots are affected by it. We’re a close family. And everyone handles it differently. People grieve in their own and we need to let them do that. Sometimes we hurt when accidents happen that have nothing to do with us. And it’s hard to know how you’re doing to react when bad news does hit. I wish I had some way of knowing, but I don’t. And even looking back after the fact, it’s largely a mystery to me why some accidents hit me hard and others I take in stride.

As an aviation journalist, it’s tougher than it is on most people because I write about crashes as part of my job. And I hate doing it. I hate that people crash and get hurt and get killed. But it happens. In 2017 347 people were killed in general aviation plane crashes in the United States in 209 fatal accidents. It’s a part of the story of aviation.

Luckily it’s a story we’re changing. Last year was the safest year in GA history. But that news is hard to get too excited about because the numbers are still way too high. How many fatalities in GA is too many in a year? One. And 347 is 347 too many. So I wind up writing stories about fatal crashes of pilots who didn’t deserve it, which is every one of them regardless of what the details of the crash might be. Every single word I write is hard.

Thankfully, I also write about ways we can fly with reduced risk and greater awareness, and that matters. I’ve saved lives. I have no doubt about it. Every aviation journalist I know has saved lives as well. Those numbers are impossible to record, because, well, how do you count up things that never happened.

I have no details. How many lives have I saved? I have no idea, but I do know that it’s at least one, because I’m still here to write this piece. And I celebrate the fact that you’re here to read it. Let’s strive to keep it that way until we all get very old and very gray.

Getting back to my original question, why has Kelsey Berreth’s disappearance affected me so strongly? In part, it’s surely because I fear for the worst. For every day she stays missing the chance that she has come to harm increases. And while there’s nothing that indicates her disappearance was aviation related, she, like us, is a pilot, and we stick together. I’m rooting for her just as much as I’m rooting for us all.

Fly safely, friends.

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