Risk Management, Judgement Error, money in the wrong place.


Below is a five-year old photo of a 601XL built by a great guy named Ken Lien in WA.  Paint job on the plane is super detailed, and it easily could have been a champion at Oshkosh.  The major impediment to that happening is that Ken is dead and the plane was destroyed on the very first flight.

Although I spoke with him many times, I met Ken in person just once, at the Arlington airshow. By coincidence, one of his life long best friends has a hangar 700′ from mine and is in my EAA chapter. He told me many times what a great human being Ken was. I don’t doubt him at all; after 25 years in aviation I fully know that when builders make a serious error, physics, gravity and chemistry kill them without taking any consideration of what kind of life they led on the ground. It isn’t fair, but they are ‘inhuman’ like that.

I will share the highlights: Ken spent 18 months and thousands of dollars painting the plane. When I saw him at the Arlington show, he told me that the plane did not run well. We went over a lot of points, but I was pretty sure is was his MA3-SPA carb. To eliminate any possibility it was ignition, I handed him a brand new distributor. When he got home he confirmed that it ran exactly the same with new ignition. From this point he had the carb on and off the plane many times. What he did not do was send it into D&G fuel systems like I suggested for a $500 overhaul. He ran the plane up and down the runway several times, but did not run a ‘two minute’ full power test.

On the day of the first flight, he may not have intended to go, He had not flown in years, had no biannual and had no transition training. He took off and flew away from the airport. The engine quit a short time later. He crashed in a school yard, running into a brick wall inverted. Fortunately it was a Sunday and the place was empty. There was no fire. The airframe was destroyed, but in the news photos you could clearly see the flowing checkerboard paint job, with all it’s detail.

It is later found that he reassembled the carb incorrectly. It had floated over to idle cut off on its own. If he had run a two-minute test it would have done this on the ground; if he had spent the $500 for the overhaul it would have been correct; if he had stayed over the airport, he very likely could have glided back. But those are all things someone exercising good judgement would have done, along with getting back into flying in a controlled way. Again, I am sure he was a great guy. There are many people who are great people who don’t make good decisions around planes. There are also people who are first class A-holes who exercise good judgement.  Like it or not, the later live a lot longer.

You can read more about the accident on-line, but I want everyone to know I am not slandering the dead here. I have a hand written 4 page letter from a friend in Ken’s EAA chapter describing how people there tried to get Ken to have a professional look at the carb. Long after the accident report, I heard from the guy who covered it, and he confirmed the probable cause. 

It is well worth pointing out that this accident has absolutely nothing to do with Corvairs;The carb was the exact same model that a Continental O-200 uses. Had Ken selected an O-200 instead, he would have had the same carb, and there is no reason to believe he would have done anything different, and he would have ended up dead in the same spot, just the same. And before anyone goes there, it isn’t the carbs fault either, because any other person with good judgement would have just put it together correctly or had a pro do it. This accident had absolutely nothing to do with machinery at all. It was a 100% judgement error.

Ken’s story is not unique, I can think of dozens of builders who I have counseled that a 5th bearing and a good carb are a lot more important than a fancy paint job, a great interior, or any avionics. Think people listen to me? Less than 50% do. In many cases I resort to sharing the Ken Lien story, but it doesn’t change many minds. When a guy who I have worked with is about ready to go flying and he has a Dynon panel, a $2,000 interior and a paint job, but a poor carb, and no 5th bearing, and didn’t set the timing with a light, he may tell people he learned a lot from me, but in my book he didn’t learn a damn thing. If after several years of working together he still makes decisions like that, he missed everything important.

Go to any other website you like and I really doubt that you will find stories like the ones I write. Search for words like ‘Dead’ and ‘Killed’ words that I have used in dozens of stories; smart people never write about this stuff because they know it is bad for buisness…..besides, most people are not listening anyway. But I never learn, I still talk about these themes with the hope of getting people to think. If you are one of the people I am giving a hard time over poor decisions, it is your right to think of me as an A-hole. I’ll live with it. I don’t need to be liked, I am not in this to hold the hand of people without judgement and listen to their rationalizations while they walk straight to the graveyard. -ww

From 2007:  

“We’ve recently received a number of photos from 601 builders nearing the finish line. Check out the progress of Ken Lien of Washington,  Ken sent us a half dozen photos of his very sharply painted XL. “

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: