Plane Crashes

Someone posted a bit of a rant on a facebook group today about how the general public views plane crashes, and how little they understand about them. This is compounded by the lack of understanding among reporters. One person responded with a link to this article. The plane had gone down between two trees that ripped the wings off. Media reported that the pilot had detatched the wings voluntarily. Laughable.

The original poster had pointed to this article, about engine reliability in small single piston engine aircraft. The author gives an example of a typical media report of a plane crash:

“A light plane crashed in an open field on Sunday, only 17 miles from a school yard where middle-school children might have been playing if it hadn’t been late July. The accident site was also only 235 miles from a nuclear powerplant that was closed in 1995. The plane, a single-engine Cherokee Skylane, made a successful landing as the pilot apparently remembered to extend the landing gear at the last second, but both propellers were nevertheless damaged. Both occupants escaped injury, and there was little other damage to the eight-seat aircraft (that wasn’t equipped with a parachute). The FAA confirmed the pilot had not received a weather briefing for his planned 78-mile flight and had not filed a flight plan, so he had no idea where he was.”

Lets run through this line by line.

A light plane crashed in an open field on Sunday, only 17 miles from a school yard where middle-school children might have been playing if it hadn’t been late July. – 17 miles is quite a ways, and whoever wrote this seems to be under the impression that the moment a plane’s engine fails, we no longer have any control over where the plane comes to the ground. The accident site was also only 235 miles from a nuclear powerplant that was closed in 1995. – Only? Really? That’s hours of flying time. This is not even relevant. The plane, a single-engine Cherokee Skylane, made a successful landing as the pilot apparently remembered to extend the landing gear at the last second, but both propellers were nevertheless damaged. – I’d like to see “last second” defined here. Also, extending landing gear creates drag – if the pilot saw he was on the edge of making his chosen landing field, it’s logical to leave the landing gear up as long as was safe, to make sure he made it to the field and over any obstacles. Both occupants escaped injury, and there was little other damage to the eight-seat aircraft (that wasn’t equipped with a parachute). – 747 passenger jets going across the pacific are not equipped with parachutes. The FAA confirmed the pilot had not received a weather briefing for his planned 78-mile flight and had not filed a flight plan, so he had no idea where he was. – Had no idea where he was? The grammar here implies that filing a flight plan provides the pilot with information on their current location, which is just not the case.

I think this report was made up, but it sounds familiar, and it’s things that have been seen in media reports of crashes. The general public is under some false impressions that the media reinforces. I’ll try and dispel a couple.

1: Small planes should be equipped with parachutes: People can rationalize that equipping a 747 with parachutes might not be practical for a number of reasons – if you’re bailing at 40 000 feet, you can’t breathe outside, and you’ll pretty much freeze to death before you hit the ground if you’re not in Gortek equipment anyway, and besides, they almost never crash, right? But small planes crash more often and their engines aren’t as reliable, so we need parachutes in them. But really, parachuting without training: dangerous. It’s really safer, unless the plane has lost a wing or something where the pilot can’t control the plane at all, to stay in your seat with your seatbelt on, and let the pilot deal with the situation. They’re trained to located the safest place to land within gliding range, and bring the plane down as safely as possible. We drill on that. It’s part of the flight test.

2: The engine stalling thing: When people hear the plane’s engine sputter and fail, they say the engine stalled. What they’re referring to is something that happens in a car. I suppose it could happen in a piston aircraft engine, but it’s very rare, because it’s most often caused by problems in gear shifting, and an aircraft engine doesn’t shift gears. It doesn’t have gears. There can be a lot of different reasons an aircraft engine might sputter and die, but there’s one reason that’s more common than any other: You done runned outta gas. Statistically speaking, the most likely reason that engine sputtered and died is the pilot failed to correctly calculate how much fuel they would need for the trip. A lot of them pilots hailed as heroes for making a successful forced landing with no damage to the plane or it’s occupants, really shouldn’t be called heroes – they’re the losers who didn’t fill the tanks before taking off. Aircraft engines, even those of small, general aviation aircraft, are phenomenally reliable. If properly cared for. That’s fuel and oil, everyone. This is why most plane crashes are chalked up to pilot error. It usually is. And this is why I constantly have “don’t be that guy” running through my head when I’m doing fuel calculations.

3: Engine fails, plane plummets from the sky: No. The physics of flight don’t automatically stop working the second the engine stops providing thrust. The plane becomes a fancy glider at that point. The pilot very much does have control over where the plane is going to touch down, though they’re limited to how far the plane can glide without power. We can no longer climb, but we can turn, and adjust our glide path with several different methods. The choice of field to land in is not random. We’ll make that choice based on what’s available, and depending on the time of year. In winter, it’s likely to be safer to land on a dirt road than in a field with an unknown amount of snow on it. We’ll avoid a situation where we’re having to overfly buildings or people, but also favour someplace that will get us walking distance from some habitation where we can go for help.

So, hopefully that helps clear some things up a bit. Or at least convinces some people that small planes are not just death traps. Or maybe convinces a reporter to get their article proofread by a pilot to make sure it, you know, makes sense, and won’t have every pilot who reads it laughing their ass off at the reporter’s lack of understanding.

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