Density altitude thwarts pilot

This May 2007 accident report is provided by the National Transportation Safety Board. Published as an educational tool, it is intended to help pilots learn from the misfortunes of others.

Aircraft: Piper Cherokee.
Location: Moab, Utah.
Injuries: 1 Minor.
Aircraft damage: Substantial.

What reportedly happened: The pilot was attempting to depart from a private airstrip on a hot day. The runway was soft dirt and the terrain uneven. The airplane accelerated slowly. The pilot became concerned that he would not be able to lift off in time to clear brush and trees at the end of the runway. He also realized that he was unable to safely abort the takeoff because he was running out of runway and would not be able to bring the Cherokee to a complete stop before hitting the bushes. The pilot jerked on the controls and forced the airplane into the air. It remained in ground effect but did not gain enough airspeed to climb.

The pilot maneuvered the airplane to the right to avoid the bushes. He turned toward a river at the end of the airstrip because of the lower terrain. The airplane buffeted. The pilot lowered the nose in an effort to arrest the imminent stall. The airplane descended into the river, coming to rest in shallow water. After the accident, the pilot estimated the density altitude was at least 7,000 feet.

Probable cause: The pilot’s failure to obtain and maintain an adequate airspeed that resulted in a stall/mush.

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