Comments on aircraft accidents

Builders,

I am well known in experimental aviation for speaking of the things we can learn from accidents. I have an entire section of my website devoted to this: Risk Management reference page . Very few people in our field do this. The reluctance of most companies to comment has nothing to do with protecting their work nor our industry, it is simply the unspoken acknowledgement that very few people are listening, and altering their actions as a result of findings. I have worked in experimental aviation for more than a quarter of a century, I was trained as an accident investigator at Embry-Riddle, and the focus of my work is teaching builders, and yet I have to concede that my fellow aviation business owners are actually correct, very few people in experimental aviation are willing to alter or improve their behavior over time. They may want to read about accidents and comment on them, but the statistics say that few people are learning and changing their actions.

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If you are an individual, it doesn’t matter that 90% of people are doing what 90% have always done. This statistic is a concern of the industry, but it need have no effect on you. It applies to people who behave like a herd, but not the individual. I write the following points with the assumption that I am speaking with an individual, but the acknowledgement that this will also be seen ( I don’t use the word read here) by people of the herd who will ignore, take offence at, or misquote it. I can do nothing about that because my craft is teaching aircraft mechanics, and if my goal was to control herds, I would have been a shepherd.

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For individuals who want to learn something, the following points are based on 26 years of continuous work with Experimentals:

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Know the ” WW 100 Rule “: If the prototype breaks or has an accident before anything is being sold, that is called testing and R&D, and that is what responsible companies do; If 3 or the 5 first prototypes have accidents before getting to 100 hours, there is likely an issue with the product; If 2 of the first 10 have accidents before getting to 100 hours, you are likely looking at something about people, not the product; if 20 of the first 100 people have an issue before getting to 100 hours, then you are certainly looking at a human issue because it logged 8,000 hours for people who used it properly, and I have plenty of evidence that more than 20% of people have no judgment around planes. Read : A visit to the insane asylum .

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There will always be accidents with every plane and product, even ones with several hundred examples. Fools would have you believe this a reflection of aircraft companies randomly producing a defective mechanical devices, and that is a joke. What it actually shows is that there is a large persistent group of people who think that transition training, following instructions, biennial pilot reviews, pre-flighting and spending money where it is needed, do not apply to them. This is not unique to flying, think of anything you engage in, boating, shooting, motorcycling, eating, breathing, whatever, there are at least 20% of people who also do these activities with a willful disregard for safety. The only difference with flying is that the results make better TV news.

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The fleet of flying Corvair powered planes is about 400-500 active planes. While my original builders may be as low as 5% fools, there are strong industry records that show second owners of aircraft are a very accident prone herd. They are drawn from modern societies’ Darwin award candidates, and they are often people who thought learning enough to build a plane was for egg heads who like books. Second owners have a very high percentage of people with the pre-flight motto “kick the tires, light the fires.” These factors produce a steady flow of accidents. In most cases, if the engine is a Corvair, I will get a call from the FAA or the NTSB within 24 hours of the accident.

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Remember Martha Stewart?; most people think that she went to jail for insider trading. She did not, she actually went to jail for simply misleading (not even directly lying to) Federal agents conducting an investigation. When a billionaire can’t hire enough lawyers to keep them out of jail after misleading Federal investigators, a reasonably intelligent blue collar guy like an aircraft mechanic concludes one should only say pure factual information to Federal agents. Not only because it is legally a good idea, but it is also the ethical thing to do.

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There are rules about what you can share before the preliminary report is filed. Now, just think about how many times I have been informed about what was found, but then read stupid speculation from people on the internet, saying things I already knew not to be a factor in the accident. In the last 25 years, I am yet to see a single speculator, who was later shown to be absolutely wrong, come back on the net and admit that their speculation was complete BS.

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Random Comments on the Net: Following an accident, there will be people who always comment, and in most cases, they will not use their real name. This may be the guys friends “sticking up for him”, but you are almost certainly looking at one of three things; 1) An on line know-it-all.  2) An axe grinder trying to do some PR damage by speculation. 3) A small business competitor. (The most famous cases of this were on the Matronics/Zenith list where there were it was later shown that many of comments following accidents originated from other aircraft companies.) Anything that doesn’t come with a guys name and address, from a known person is to be considered BS.

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When there is an accident, new builders focus on it, but the time spent learning about accidents, particularly when people are just speculating, would be far better spent studying the people who didn’t have an accident. I have seen countless new guys focus on what they ‘think’ happed in some particular accident, but they can’t name a single successful builder’s plane they have studied in the same detail. This is stupid. Their time would be much better invested in learning to emulate the success of another builder who isn’t having accidents. Good flying is about patterning your success after what is proven to work. Even if a builder had a god’s eye view of what went wrong in every accident of the type of plane he is building, this still doesn’t tell him anything about what is right, only what is wrong. Study success at least as much as failure.

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Keep in mind that when you see an accident, you are arguably looking at the guy who wasn’t following procedures nor exercising good judgment. If he comes right back and says, “I f^#*ked up, let me tell you the mistake I made”, he is the total rarity that can teach you something. but far more often, the person who had an accident says nothing because they didn’t know what they were doing, or still argue that they were doing nothing wrong. A person in that position has nothing to teach you.

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After an accident, out comes the guy who met him: In many cases this speculator is the guy who knew the guy from his EAA chapter, or knew him from an airshow. Invariably the guy will include a comment like “I thought his plane was nose heavy” OK, and this is based on? Notice the guy never says “I did a weight and balance on it personally and found it to be at the front of the CG range in the drawings” it is always some random judgment, often meant to express how his own personal plane is somehow better than the one in the accident. All of these guys “just want to share facts” but in realty they don’t know what they are talking about. Even well meaning guys who post a link and say “He had an engine failure” are jumping to a conclusion themselves.

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Do you know that the FAA lists running out of gas as a loss of power? I worked for several years with the late Jeremy Monnett trying to get a category called “Gross Pilot Error” to be included in the descriptive terms because we both thought that is a better description of running out of gas than calling it a “loss of power.”

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I have written countless times that any commentary on an accident, other than a PIC report or the actual accident investigation is nothing but speculation, But this never stops idiots from doing it. Consider that both this plane: Flying Zenith 750 w/3000cc Corvair, Doug Stevenson, California and this plane: New Zenith 601 XL(B), Conventional Gear, Jerry Baak, S.C. were destroyed in accidents.  If you search the stories on websites, you will find at least 200 random speculations about what caused these accidents, mostly centered on what a terrible engine choice the Corvair is. Ready for reality? Both aircraft were run out of gas.   I flew to California and proved this on video:

http://www.flycorvair.com/stevenson.html

  The Federal investigator agreed with the conclusion. Yet not one single speculator had the self-respect to go back on any list and say “I was wrong”. You can wait as long as you like and you will not see that on the internet.

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For people thinking of speculation on vague info, consider how stupid the TV news commentator feels today about reading the “Confirmed Names” of the pilots in the Asiana 214 crash:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L1JYHNX8pdo

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-ww.

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Above, a 2007 picture of the homebuilt of Ken Lien of WA state. The following year, he was killed on the very first flight. You can read the story I wrote a long time later here: Risk Management, Judgement Error, money in the wrong place. By an absolute coincidence, a life long best friend of Ken’s, named Denny Jackson became my neighbor at our airport in FL just after the accident. Denny was deeply hurt by his friend’s death, and finding out that I was the ‘Corvair guy’ lead to him angrily confronting me at our EAA chapter. He was 6’5″ and 325 pounds and not to be trifled with. Because I was part of the investigation, I already knew what Denny did not: It was caused by his friend putting his carb together incorrectly, it had nothing to do with Corvair engines, yet I could not say this to him, I could only ask that he withhold judgment. Months later, Denny understood the report, came and explained that he was just hurt at the loss of his friend. I told him I might have done the same thing. We ended up as friends, spent a chunk of time around the airport together. Denny’s picture is now on our EAA chapter wall, as he was taken by cancer 3 years ago.

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About William Wynne
I have been continuously building, testing and flying Corvair engines since 1989. Information, parts and components that we developed and tested are now flying on several hundred Corvair powered aircraft. I earned a Bachelor of Science in Professional Aeronautics and an A&P license from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, and have a proven 20 year track record of effectively teaching homebuilders how to create and fly their own Corvair powered planes. Much of this is chronicled at www.FlyCorvair.com and in more than 50 magazine articles.

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