Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Anatomy of an accident (Part II) - repost from June2010

Okay, as you see, we were able to walk away without a scratch. The "dawg" is fine too. I don't know if she'd been having nightmares since the accident; or maybe she's just an utter wacko. But she thinks she's much wiser having gone through the near-death experience.

Through the process of analyzing the accident, as we tried to determine what happened, we learned a few things that I believe would be helpful to others who may experience a similar situation.

A lot happened within minutes after the accident. I have to say that the fire department was extremely quick to respond. I think we were out on the wing when we heard the sirens. As rapidly as they arrived, they applied foam in order to prevent a fire from erupting. Oh, and of course, the "news" helicopter was very prompt. We were surprised how quickly it appeared overhead.

We knew that there would be investigators from the FAA and the local Police interviewing each of us. Not the dog, though. She was busy running around the brush checking for birds. She wouldn't have been able to tell the police anything; she can't talk, nor can she fly.

The Penn Township Police officers were very nice and took information and a brief account of the accident. They gave us a business card and said "if you need anything, let us know". The next "interrogator" was from the FSDO. Actually, it wasn't a bad experience at all. The people from the FAA know "things happen"; they just want to find out how it happened so they can try to prevent future accidents. Fortunately, John and I are involved with the Wings Program and we keep current. Flying makes pilots proficient. What makes us somewhat unique is we want to know why things happen so that we can make sure we don't duplicate the act.

We also knew we would be contacted by the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) within days after the accident, to get our accounting of the accident.

The same day following the accident, John and I started to reconstruct the sequence of events. The facts were: the winds were coming from the west. The layout of the runway and airport would be conducive to the possibility of winds coming from all directions. As best we could conclude, either runway would work.

After all the excitement had subsided, John and I walked the runway to find clues, such as brake marks. As we traversed the path of the airplane we noticed nothing unusual. The plane simply went down the runway, across the grass and over the hill. No skid marks which would indicate there were no brakes. We knew that because we couldn't get any kind of braking action toward the end.

We talked and we tried to remember everything. Should we have gone around? Well, that was the first question out of those who witnessed and watched as we disappeared over the edge. Why didn't you go around? Interestingly enough, those who would ask that question wouldn't even think of doing touch and goes at this airport and most instructors in the area will not teach touch and goes at this airport.

During the sequence of events, John thought of a lot of possibilities. Do a go around? During the roll out, John thought "if I try to take off, there isn't enough runway to be successful". "What if I try to ground loop it? No, we had a lot of fuel and what if we ended up rolling upside down and got trapped?" Ride it out? A lot was going through his mind in a very short amount of time. Thankfully, he made the right choice given the circumstance.

I can name a few accidents where pilots chose to go around, even though they were on the ground, and ended up with disastrous results. Once home, John started researching articles and found pretty interesting information. The consensus from experts is that, if you are on the ground, stay there and ride it out. An accident is much more survivable when you do that. The alternatives we all read about.

Day two brought a new day of questions; and more research. The burning question still lingered - "what happened; what could we have done differently?" We headed out to the airport, once again, to look over the scene seeking answers. We got word that someone from the FAA had looked at the plane and declared that we had brakes. Now that was very perplexing news to us because we were in the plane we know we "didn't have brakes." John called the repair station that was going to fix the plane. After explaining what happened and the conflicting causes, John asked that the brakes be torn apart. We wanted to see them and try to figure out, if we had brakes, what caused them not to work. They were going to take the plane from the scene within the next few days and transport it to Allegheny County Airport (KAGC). The more we ran through the sequence of events; we were convinced we didn't have brakes.

John agonized about whether he did the right thing. Most logically-minded pilots we talked to said that we probably did the right thing; the damage was very minimal and we walked away from the crash unscathed. It doesn't help for others to judge or second-guess this kind of decision. In a lot of accidents, some things are blatantly obvious that the pilot made poor decisions and should have done something different to get a better outcome. But we are more cognizant that accidents are where you can learn things and it's better to leave the judging to the contest judges.

Once the plane was transported to KAGC and the mechanics started to look around, we insisted that they take a look at the brakes. We wanted to know. Once they tore apart the brakes, it was quite obvious what happened. During the weeks before the accident, the Club members were required to be checked out in it by the end of the month. Having a number of members flying the plane in a short amount of time, add to it 1/2 mile taxi one way to the active runway where the plane is based, the brakes will experience wear. People don't realize it but they can tend to ride the pedals when they taxi a plane. The mechanic found that the brake pads and rotors were worn beyond minimum limitations. Pictures were taken and sent to the NTSB investigator. After discussions with the mechanic and looking over the pictures,

he came to the conclusion that we "didn't have brakes." The Probable Cause on the NTSB website was listed as "Excessively worn brake pads and rotors which resulted in runway overrun."

What has been reinforced to me from this experience is when we fly, we need to always have our "MacGyver" file with us - that little box of knowledge in your brain that we may need to retrieve at any given situation. The way to build that file and be able to access it quickly is to be proficient. Read, talk, share and verify with other pilots and gain from their experiences; attend safety seminars when you can. In no time, your file box will grow and may just be there when you need it to save your ASSets.

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