Two die after formation flight encounters heavy rain

These October 2003 Accident Reports are provided by the National Transportation Safety Board. Published as an educational tool, they are intended to help pilots learn from the misfortunes of others.

Aircraft: RV-8.

Location: Van, Texas.

Injuries: 2 Fatal.

Aircraft damage: Destroyed.

What reportedly happened: The accident airplane assumed the number two position of a four airplane formation flight departing toward Tyler, Texas. The pilot, who did not have an instrument rating, had logged 746 hours, including 18 hours in the RV-8.

The formation encountered an unreported layer of clouds at about 1,000 feet msl, climbed through a hole to get on top of the clouds, leveling off at 3,300 msl. The lead pilot reported visibility to be about five to seven miles with a misty undefined layer above. The broken layer below was well defined with lots of holes to see the ground. The formation flight turned northeast, then north, while still between the layers. The formation flight initiated a shallow climb through the undefined layer turning west, went in and out of clouds and into heavy rain showers. The pilot of airplane number two called lost sight, followed quickly by the pilot of airplane number four. The lead pilot told both pilots to “go lost wingman” as they briefed the previous day, get on the attitude indicator, and start a shallow descent. Several witnesses saw the accident airplane dive into the ground. Weather reports obtained from the vicinity reported visibility of six statute miles, cloud ceilings of 2,900 feet agl deteriorating to visibility of 1 1/2 statute miles and 1,000 feet broken.

Probable cause: The failure to maintain control of the airplane due to spatial disorientation.

Aircraft: Piper Cherokee.

Location: San Rafael, Calif.

Injuries: 1 Serious.

Aircraft damage: Substantial.

What reportedly happened: After the airplane was airborne, the engine started to “sputter” and the airplane turned back towards the airport. As the airplane touched down, the wing tip touched the ground and airplane cartwheeled. The pilot aborted his first takeoff because of a low fuel pressure indication. He then taxied back to the ramp area to troubleshoot the problem. He was unable to determine, or duplicate, the fuel pressure abnormality. He elected to attempt a second takeoff. This time the airplane became airborne but the engine lost power during the climb and the pilot turned back toward the runway.

As a result of the crash, the left wing separated from the fuselage and the outboard third of the right wing was folded over. The gascolator and left fuel tanks were breeched and no fuel was found. The first responders to the scene, including fire and police units, did not see any fuel, nor did they detect the odor of fuel. The accident inspector said there was no evidence of fuel in the remaining aircraft system components. A test run of the engine showed no anomalies. The last pilot to fly the airplane before the accident said he had refueled the airplane to capacity at a nearby airport. When he secured the airplane in his hangar, the left fuel tank was a third full, and the right fuel tank was 3/4 full. He said no one had flown the airplane since.

Probable cause: A loss of engine power due to fuel exhaustion.

Aircraft: Cessna 172.

Location: Sussex, N.J.

Injuries: None.

Aircraft damage: Minor.

What reportedly happened: During the approach and landing, the flight instructor was at the controls with the student pilot, and was talking him through the maneuvers. The airplane touched down about halfway down a wet runway. The brakes were applied and the aircraft hydroplaned and overran the runway’s departure end. The nose landing gear then encountered mud, and the left wing tip and propeller struck the ground.

Probable cause: The flight instructor’s failure to initiate a go-around.

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