Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Accident Lessons

I recently attended an RA-Aus accident course in Canberra and I would like to list some comments and perhaps some lessons some of us could learn.

Fire. One of our worst nightmares. We studied an accident with an in-flight engine fire where the pilot managed to “crash” land the aircraft. Exit the inverted aircraft and die of burns and exposure many hours later. There are a few lessons here if we look for them.

1. The engine fire was caused by a fuel pump with excessive pressure flooding the carburettor and dripping onto the exhaust manifold. What is sad is after this crash it came to light that there were previous minor instances of similar engine fires of the same engine configuration that were not reported to Canberra. If reported could it have prevented this tragic death?

How many of us look at our engines and consider what would happen if we had a fuel leak? Will we have petrol dripping onto a hot exhaust? Do we have an effective fuel shut off valve? Do we have an effective firewall? Do we have an effective fire extinguisher close at hand?

2. The pilot landed the plane in a small clearing but it flipped on its back. How many of us consider getting out of an inverted aircraft, let alone one on fire?

Will your seat belt buckle release with a load on it? Mine won’t, and I bet most of the car seat belt types won’t either. Try it and see what I mean. (Don’t turn your plane over. Pull real hard on the belt to simulate an 80kg or 100kg load and press the button). If the buckle is hard to release do we have a knife handy to cut the webbing?

3. There was evidence of pilot difficulty in exiting the enclosed cockpit. How many of us consider getting out of our aircraft if the doors jam, or we are inverted? Could we break a canopy or windscreen with our head or hands?

4. This pilot, with a lot of difficulty, managed to exit the burning aircraft with his clothes on fire. He was wearing flammable synthetic clothing. Investigators could follow the pilot’s movements by following the tracks of molten clothes remanets and burnt flesh lying on the ground.

Do we as pilots always wear non flammable clothing when we fly? Not just in recreational aircraft but also in commercial aircraft? Proper clothing would have gone a long way to help this pilot.

5. This pilot managed to douse the flames by rolling in a bush but was left badly burned with only a belt and boots left. All clothing was burnt or melted. The accident happened early in the morning not long after the flight started. He would not be missed until late in the day. No one knew he had crashed. No one would know he was seriously injured. The pilot carried an ELB but it was in the burning plane.

Would this pilot have stood a better chance if he had a mobile phone and an ELB on his belt or in his pocket? (In non flammable clothing)

6. This accident happened (from memory) at around 8am on one day and the search started late that day. It was suspended at nightfall and the pilot’s body was found about 4pm on the next day. There was evidence that pilot lived for a long time. Investigators could see depression and scuff marks where the pilot sought refuge from the hot sun under the unburned tailplane, and constantly moved position to keep in the shade as the sun moved.

Would rescue have come quicker if someone knew the pilots course and expected arrival time? Would the pilot still have lived if the search was continued at night and the pilot had a torch in his pocket?

My heart goes out to this man. We have a pilot who lived through an in-flight fire struggling to survive with serious burns, with no clothes and no water, who continually dragged himself around in the dirt under the tailplane to stay in the shade all the while hoping and praying? for rescue that would never come.

There are many lessons here for those of us who want to look for them.

John McKeown