A hero flies the Cessna Caravan to Palm Beach

Tom Cruise is a pretty good pilot in real life and an even better one in Top Gun: Maverick, but my vote for pilot of the year goes to Darren Harrison, the passenger whose journey from the Bahamas is covered in “Air traffic controller guides passenger to safe landing at PBIA after pilot has medical emergency” (WPBF). The audio is available at liveatc.net (search for KFPR, then KFPR Tower, then click the “archive access” link and finally May 10 at 16Z. The action starts at 11:21 into the clip (the passenger’s full phone number is on the tape so you can text him congratulations!).

The aircraft is N333LD and here’s the path from flightradar24:

The passenger’s task was made more difficult by modern avionics. This ad for the plane shows that it is equipped with the Garmin G1000 flight deck. So the controller asked the passenger-turned-pilot to press the IDENT button, but there is no button labeled IDENT as there would have been with a discrete transponder. (With the advantage of 20-20 hindsight, what the controller should have said was “press and hold the button that has two arrows on it to tune the emergency frequency of 121.5” and then the talk-down wouldn’t have had to occur via mobile phone (good thing the passenger’s phone battery did not run out!).)

The turboprop-powered Caravan is pretty slow,, but it is not a beginner’s plane. Fortunately, the float gear had been removed! Here was what the plane used to look like:

What did he have to deal with at KPBI? The good news is that the big runway is 10,000′ long and there were just a few scattered clouds 4,200 and 4,600 feet above the airport. The bad news is that it is 10/28 (east-west) and the wind was reported from the north at 11 knots gusting 17.

KPBI 101553Z 02011G17KT 10SM SCT042 SCT046 26/15

A student pilot with 20 hours of training probably wouldn’t have been signed off by his/her/zir/their instructor to operate in that kind of crosswind.

liveatc.net also has the KPBI Tower archived (May 10 at 1630Z). Almost everything that we desperately want to hear was being said on a mobile phone call directly between ATC and the newly minted Caravan pilot. (Contrary to popular belief, the typical controller does not know how to fly a plane. My sources suggest that the phone call was between the passenger and Robert Morgan, who is a controller but also an FAA certificated flight instructor (“CFI”).) Perhaps worth a listen to PBI Tower starting around 5:00. At 8:45, a few minutes after the landing, we learn that the winds were 050 at 10 gust 16 (not quite as bad a crosswind as indicated by the METAR of 40 minutes earlier, but still more than a soloing student would likely be signed off for).

Update: interview with Robert Morgan… “a Jupiter resident”! (Trigger warning for Californians: the page shows Morgan and “the passenger” (still anonymous) without masks and less than 6′ apart.)

Loosely related, “you should be sitting back with your slippers and pipe”…

Garmin tooketh away to some extent with the G1000, but Garmin giveth back with Autoland, which would have been perfect for this situation.


  • Talk-down aircraft landing (Wikipedia), in which we learn that many of the people described by the media as “passengers” turn out to be either student pilots or rusty but fully certificated private pilots.
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Return of reasonably pleasant commercial air travel will devalue small airplanes?

The value of little airplanes has soared in the past two years, more like South Florida real estate than inflation in general. Planes that are reasonably good for transportation, e.g., the Cirrus SR22, are up 50-100 percent in value as used aircraft. There have been substantial price increases on the new ones, but it is unclear what they’re worth because they’re impossible to buy without at least a one-year wait.

If a Cirrus, which has no pressurization, no ability to climb over thunderstorms, no kitchen, and no bathroom is “reasonably good for transportation” what is “excellent for transportation”? JetBlue! At a price that is essentially free compared to operating the Cirrus, JetBlue has pressurization, the ability to fly over weather, a kitchen where coffee is brewed, and three bathrooms on every Airbus. In the unlikely event that JetBlue’s plane is broken, there are spares that are rolled out within a few hours.

Commercial airline travel in 2020 was perceived as unsafe. You were informed that SARS-CoV-2 would probably kill you. Commercial airline travel in 2021 was correctly perceived as unpleasant, with constant announcements regarding masks and a constant reasonable fear that a mask dispute would break out on the plane, potentially leading to a diversion and not getting to your destination on time. Maybe it wasn’t so bad to pay $1.2 million for a piston-powered airplane, endure the noise, vibration, and uncertainty about whether one would reach one’s destination (weather, mechanical, fatigue?). And the $10,000 per year hangar bill? A small price to pay to avoid a killer virus. Another $20,000 per year for data subscriptions, maintenance, and insurance? Where do I sign up?

Could a little downward nudge from the stock market decline combine with rediscovery of the pleasantness and practicality of commercial air travel to make people rethink whether they want to elbow their way past 15 other people and be the high bidder for a Cirrus, Bonanza, or turboprop? A friend who owns a jet charter business says, regarding airplane valuations, “they follow the stock market triple leveraged”. The market has already declined quite a bit in 2022 and it is unclear that his formula is in operation yet, but there might be a precedent for a General Aviation Winter caused by the airlines.

The glorious years of mass production for generation aviation were 1960s and 1970s. Upper middle class people thought it was a reasonable idea to buy a Cessna or Piper for family transportation. Gerald Ford began the deregulation process for the airlines and it was completed by Jimmy Carter in 1978 (history). By 1986, fares for leisure travelers had fallen dramatically and Cessna stopped making little planes. Part of the justification for the shutdown was liability, but there was a glut of small planes that lasted until roughly 1996 when Cessna started up again. Piper was similarly afflicted, but never shut down completely. See “Airplane production to resume June 1” (UPI, May 1986):

Floundering Piper Aircraft Corp. will resume production of its entire line of small airplanes June 1, having sold off more than half of its oversupply of new planes, the company said Friday.

Piper, which like other small aircraft makers has suffered from a severe downturn in sales since the 1970s, suspended production of eight of its nine models of small piston-driven planes in February and laid off 630 workers.

The company has laid off several thousand employees as it trimmed operations. It now has 1,800 employees, down from 8,000 a few years ago.

I’m not expecting a mid-1980s-type crash due to the restart of mask-free airline flights, but that’s only because the piston aircraft industry is already so tiny that it can’t shrink much. The question for this post is whether the return of reasonably pleasant $200 airline flights will cause small planes to revert to their historical values, adjusted for Bidenflation.


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Commercial air travel in the Mizelle Age

This is a report on a trip from PBI-DCA-PBI, April 21-24. Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle struck down the Biden Administration’s mask order on April 18. (Friends on Facebook have been continuously posting reminders that Judge Mizelle is “not qualified.” In other words, a confused 80-year-old is well qualified to be President of the U.S., but a sharp-minded 35-year-old cannot be a judge.)

The PBI airport still had a few “masks required signs”:

Most of the advertising at PBI was geared toward selling real estate to those fleeing the Lands of Lockdown:

I estimate that 15 percent of the waiting passengers were masked here in majority-Democrat Palm Beach County. Contrast to a friend who was simultaneously flying SFO to EWR (he’s been a righteous supporter of masks, Biden, lockdowns, etc., but somehow is still participating in COVID-19-spreading activities such as travel) who reported 85-90 percent voluntary mask compliance at SFO and only 10 percent masked in Newark. Being in the airport was, despite the lack of audio announcements and signs regarding masks, not as relaxing as it might have been. The PA system was freed up for frequent reminders regarding unattended baggage and TSA liquid policies.

We were welcomed onto the plane by an unmasked flight attendant. The Followers of Science row was directly behind me, but even though were going from mostly-Democrat Palm Beach County to all-Democrat Washington, D.C., only a small minority of passengers chose to wear masks. (In other words, they voted for politicians promising to impose mask orders, but when given the choice won’t wear a mask themselves.)

The flight was on time and passengers, except maybe for the two behind me and their brothers, sisters, and binary-resisters in Science, cheered when the flight attendant announced that masks were optional. I witnessed no air rage.

I don’t remember any real estate ads in the D.C. airport. Here’s one for the central planners, though. All that they have to do to beat inflation is picture themselves winning:

The percentage of masked passengers and workers at DCA was no higher than at PBI, despite DCA being located right next to the twin hearts of Science (Anthony Fauci’s office at NIH and Dr. Jill Biden’s office).

On the return trip, I noticed a legacy “face coverings required” sign at DCA as well as a depressing Chick-fil-A (closed due to it being a Sunday):

Once again, JetBlue was on time and everyone was in a good mood. The lady sitting next to me had moved from Bethesda to Florida two months ago “for the freedom”. She and her husband (in “wealth management”) had returned for a wedding. They were not wearing masks.

We’re still left with a big question regarding each masked traveler. If he/she/ze/they is concerned enough about COVID-19 to wear a mask voluntarily, why isn’t he/she/ze/they concerned enough to stay home? Nobody held a gun to his/her/zir/their head and forced him/her/zir/them to travel by commercial airline or, indeed, to travel at all. The answer can’t be “an N95 mask protects against all viral attacks” because (1) not all of the masked travelers are wearing N95 masks, and (2) countries that imposed forced N95 masking, e.g., Germany, still had exponential plagues (i.e., two-way N95 masking failed to stop COVID-19 so what hope is there for one-way masking?).

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Sun ‘n Fun 2022 report

We made a family trip to Lakeland, Florida’s answer to Oshkosh, i.e., Sun ‘n Fun. It was a great experience with much more manageable traffic, hotels, food, etc. The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds were the main airshow attraction and the USAF also brought a B-1 bomber, of which roughly 45 continue to fly. (Happy Tax Day and, if you’re one of the minority of Americans who pays income tax, thanks for your contribution to the B-1!)

The fun starts in the parking lot:

The Florida Air Museum’s Boeing 727 (converted to classroom and conference room spaces) was open for a walk-through, prompting the 6-year-old to note “We just came out of the plane’s butt.”

There were about 75 classic and antique cars just inside the gate, including one that is perfect for a Jacksonville Jaguars specialty plate”

A Jacksonville-based U.S. Navy unit also uses the “Jaguars” name:

The most unusual planes from World War II at the event were the Boeing B-29 and PBY Catalina. Both were giving rides and drawing crowds.

The B-1 cockpit was open for tours:

I wonder if these Harley-Davidson of Brandon, Florida hats are more popular in the Let’s Go Brandon age:

Try to go with a friend who owns a Cirrus because the company provides a nice lounge and observation deck. The Thunderbirds were awesome, but I wonder if they should kick off the air show rather than start at 4 pm when people have already been sitting since 1:30 PM.

One of the announcements during the airshow was from a person who said that she identified as a “Black woman” (however Ketanji B.J.’s team of biologists might define this term) and also that, despite what she characterized as an obstacle/hardship, she could fly an airplane. Within the crowd of 50,000 aviation nuts there were no doubt quite a few who were familiar with competent 12-year-old pilots. Thus, the effect of the message was that one should ordinarily expect a person who identifies as a “Black woman” to be less capable than a 12-year-old (I happen to disagree with this expectation, but if we do credit the expressed concept, why do we limit important jobs such as Supreme Court justice or Vice President of the U.S. to people in this category?). No other gender or race ID was advertised during the airshow as an obstacle to learning to fly.

At dusk people get ready for 7:30 pm night airshow (Kyle Fowler in the background of the center picture doing aerobatics in a homebuilt Rutan Long-EZ).

In contrast to an underwhelming experience with a coordinated drone show as Oshkosh, the one organized by Great Lakes Drone Co. for this year’s Sun ‘n Fun was amazing. There was also a powered parachute aerobatic night demonstration! Nathan Hammond in the fireworks-carrying Super Chipmunk was a favorite, but Manfred Radius delivered something new in a sparkler-trailing sailplane. The fireworks at the end of the night airshow made the typical city’s July 4th fireworks look like three 10-year-olds running around with sparklers (fortunately this is strictly illegal in Massachusetts, perhaps because there is too much risk that an “essential” marijuana supply will be ignited and thus put human health at risk until a trip to the dispensary). There is a massive fireball at the end. During the minivan debrief session, extended by only about 15 minutes due to the crush of getting out of the parking lot and out to the Interstate, the 6-year-old asked the 8-year-old if he’d seen it. “Of course I did,” was the response. “I’m not blind.”

Due to the fact that Lakeland, Florida is so far from the center of the U.S., there aren’t as many interesting airplanes as at EAA AirVenture. That said, if you have any reason to want to come to Florida in early April and you have any interest in aviation, Sun ‘n Fun is a rewarding destination. Budget two days to see everything and one more if you want to hang out and chat with people or take homebuilding seminars.


  • Sun n Fun (2014)
  • Sun n Fun report (2017)
  • combat history of the B-1 (bombing Iraq in 1998, about 30 years after development was funded; bombing Yugoslavia to help Kosovo separate into its own country; bombing Iraq some more in 2003; bombing Muslims in Afghanistan and Syria at least through 2018)
  • TBM 960 introduced at Sun ‘n Fun, a $4.8 million FADEC (finally!) turboprop that might be the first example of an airplane that can update its own navigation database via mobile data (like an Android phone circa 2008!): “It is also the first application for the Garmin GDL 60 data transmitter, which allows automatic database uploads and links with mobile devices.” (but maybe not? perhaps it requires the pilot-owner to download updates first to the phone or tablet?). The plane was introduced in 1991 for $1.3 million (Flying), which corresponds to $2.6 million in 2022 Mini-Dollars according to the BLS calculator. Thus the official rate rate of inflation since 1991 is 100 percent while the actual rate for anyone in the TBM market is 270 percent.
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Meet at Sun ‘n Fun this weekend?

Who else will be at Sun ‘n Fun this weekend in Lakeland, Florida? For those who are unfamiliar with this glorious event, it is a gathering of aviation enthusiasts that is a little more manageable than Oshkosh (EAA AirVenture).

To prevent a January 6-style insurrection within the family, I splurged on the $25 Preferred Airshow Seating for Saturday so that would probably be the easiest way/place to meet.

Pictures from 2014:


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12 Hours of Sebring, a perfect Florida fly-in destination

Since small aircraft are generally inferior to a 2009 Honda Accord as a transportation tool, it is worth celebrating the situations in which it make sense to fly. The Sebring, Florida race track is actually built on part of what was once a vast military airport and is now a medium-sized civilian airport. Therefore, if you are landing on Runway 1 you’ll see the race before even getting out of the plane. You’ll hear the race as soon as you’re on the ramp (remember to pack earplugs, though they also sell them at the race). After walking through the beautiful modern GA terminal you’re a 20-minute walk from the event entrance, but the kind folks at the airport run a shuttle so you’ll be there almost immediately.

The true fans, either of beer or racing, show up on Wednesday and camp:

Imagine Burning Man with no philosophy…

Here are a Corvette and Lamborghini in 1st and 2nd place (within their class) after about 2 hours. They ultimately finished in the same positions. General Motors (Cadillac) also won all three top spots in the fastest “DPi” class.

A Ferrari appears to chase a McLaren (but they’re actually in different classes):

There is a modest midway of manufacturers’ booths and food. You can develop some new respect for your neighbor with the Hyundai Elantra:

Feel better about your job… there is an actual human zipped into this outfit in the 90-degree Florida sunshine:

Although there don’t seem to have been any drivers who identified as “female”, there apparently was a competition that may have featured some who identified as “women”:

(With the kids in tow, I was unable to stay for this important event and therefore cannot supply photos.)

Chevy’s contestants in the mechanical beauty contest… a flat-plane crank engine and a cutaway Z06 Corvette:

If you’re coming down from Maskachusetts or New York and are anxious to fit in, you might want to take the Hillary, Biden/Harris, Black Lives Matter, #StopAsianHate, and “In this plane we believe…” stickers off the Bonanza.

See you there in March 2023! (the kids are already preparing!)

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Boeing 737 crash in China

Friends have been asking about China Eastern Airlines Flight 5735, the Boeing 737 (non-MAX) that departed Kunming and crashed nose-down near Wuzhou yesterday.

Without the flight data recorder it will be tough to determine what happened, but what I’ve been telling friends is that there are a variety of ways that an airplane can end up in an uncontrollable nose-down attitude.

In a conventional airplane, the wings lift up from just behind the center of gravity (CG) and the tail pushes down. If the horizontal stabilizer, which looks like a small wing near the tail, were to break off in flight, for example, thus resulting in a “no tail” situation, the airplane would nose-dive because the wings are lifting from behind the CG. See the following force diagram (source):

There is a substantial amount of overdesign in an aircraft and thus extreme maneuvers may result in a component getting stressed or cracked, but it is almost impossible for the horizontal stabilizer to come off. In the comments section below, a reader highlighted Japan Air Lines Flight 123, a Boeing 747 whose tail, and, more seriously, hydraulic systems, were damaged by the failure of a 7-year-old patch to the pressure vessel.

Is it possible to lose the downforce from the tail without parts of the tail becoming detached? Yes. This can happen due to ice accumulation (see NASA videos below). It seems unlikely that the accident Boeing got into severe icing at 29,000′ (where the steep descent began), however, because the air at that altitude is extremely cold and simply cannot hold much moisture. For the tail to stall while the wings were still lifting powerfully would likely require an unusual failure of the pneumatics, which take hot compressed air from the engines to melt ice off the wing and tail surfaces leading edges.

The horizontal stabilizer’s angle relative to the fuselage can be adjusted via the airplane’s trim mechanism. The runaway-trim-by-design is what brought down the Boeing 737 Max airplanes, but runaway trim can also occur in the non-Max 737, as in other planes. There are a variety of safeguards intended to prevent runaway trim (except in the Max where the computer actually held its finger on the “trim down” button in response to absurd data from a failed sensor), but if those safeguards fail somehow and the airplane is trimmed full nose down it might not be possible to recover.

An easy-to-understand cause of a nosedive is movement of the standard flight control surfaces, in particular, the elevator (just behind the horizontal stabilizer). This can be seen at airshows, e.g., in this video of Mike Goulian at Sun ‘n Fun (I’ll be there this year on Saturday and Sunday if you want to meet). Of course, Goulian pulls out of the dive by pulling back on the stick as he gets closer to the ground. If the elevator was stuck in the “stick forward” position does that mean that the pilots of the accident Boeing had the stick full forward? (i.e., the pilot suicide theory) No. Unlike in a lightweight family airplane, the flight control surfaces of a heavy jet are not directly connected to the pilots’ yokes/control columns. No human is strong enough to overcome the air loads of the wind rushing over the control surfaces. What drives the flight controls is 3,000 psi of hydraulic pressure generated by engine-driven and electric pumps (source):

(See also this thorough video explanation.)

How do the pilots of a heavy jet (or “pilot” if one is in the restroom) move a flight control surface then? Ignoring the modern fly-by-wire systems of the Airbuses, the standard technique is a cable that goes from the control column to a power control unit (PCU) next to the aileron, elevator, or rudder. The PCU uses the position of the cable to modulate the application of hydraulic pressure and it is the hydraulic pump that actually moves the surface. (more) Like everything else in aviation, these PCUs are almost perfectly reliable, but if one were to fail/stick it could lead to an impossible-to-control airplane. Here’s an NTSB report regarding an elevator PCU that got stuck in 2009:

On June 14, 2009, a Boeing 737-400, registration number TC-TLA, operated as Tailwind Airlines flight OHY036, experienced an uncommanded pitch-up event at 20 feet above the ground during approach to Diyarbakir Airport (DIY), Turkey. The flight crew performed a go-around maneuver and controlled the airplane’s pitch with significant column force, full nose-down stabilizer trim, and thrust. During the second approach, the flight crew controlled the airplane and landed by inputting very forceful control column inputs to maintain pitch control. Both crewmembers sustained injuries during the go-around maneuver; none of the 159 passengers or cabin crewmembers reported injuries. The airplane was undamaged during the scheduled commercial passenger flight.

An investigation found that the incident was caused by an uncommanded elevator deflection as a result of a left elevator power control unit (PCU) jam due to foreign object debris (FOD). The FOD was a metal roller element (about 0.2 inches long and 0.14 inches in diameter) from an elevator bearing. During its investigation of this incident, the NTSB identified safety issues relating to the protection of the elevator PCU input arm assembly, design of the 737 elevator control system, guidance and training for 737 flight crews on a jammed elevator control system, and upset recovery training.

See also this Wikipedia page on problems with B737 rudder and B747 elevator control due to PCU malfunctions.

So that’s everything that I know, which is to say… almost nothing relevant or helpful, unfortunately, just like everyone else on Planet Earth until and unless the flight data recorder and, perhaps, cockpit voice recorder, are recovered.

More on tailplane icing can be found in these NASA videos…

an older version…


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The latest and greatest in Personal Locator Beacons

The mobile data/voice network in the United States is spotty (in fact, there are plenty of places near our house in flat thickly-settled Jupiter, Florida where it is impossible to get data service from Verizon Wireless). This leads to occasional tragedies such as the family that died on a Northern California hiking trial last summer. For aviation and boating enthusiasts, the chance of being out of cellphone coverage in the event of a serious problem is rather high. Consequently, it makes sense to carry a Personal Locator Beacon. These are about the size of a mobile phone, but can summon rescue from anywhere with a clear view of the sky via a 406 MHz signal to a satellite network. They cost $250-400 typically.

The batteries expire after 6 years and by then it might make sense to get an upgraded version rather than send the old one back for replacement batteries and re-waterproofing.

My choice this year, which I’m definitely hoping never to use during flights over the Everglades, to the Keys, and out to the Caribbean, is the ACR PLB 425 ResQLink View. If you want to buy it straight from ACR, use “10OFFACR” to get a 10 percent discount (they sent me the code after I bought mine direct from them in order to be sure of getting the freshest battery and therefore longest life). This one is basically the same as previous ACR units, which are kind of a standard due to inherent buoyancy while being reasonably compact, but it has a small display that explains what the device is doing, e.g., “GPS Acquiring” and “406 Sent!”. The device also has a built-in strobe to help the Coast Guard find you at night in your Survival Products raft (Switlik would be better, but their rafts are too heavy and bulky for four-seat airplanes).

I hope this blog post inspires at least one reader to check the battery expiration date on his/her/zir/their PLB. If so, I will have potentially saved at least one life and therefore this post can be considered as effective as a mask order for 333 million Americans.

(There is a $50/year subscription service where testing the PLB results in some email and text messages being sent out. Potentially useful for peace of mind before heading out over the Caribbean, but the rescue process is the same if you don’t pay for the subscription.)


  • About the same price to buy, but $180 per year to maintain, the Garmin InReach lets you communicate via the Iridium satellites. (I don’t think this a substitute for a PLB because it requires charging and everything that can be discharged when you need it will be discharged when you need it.)
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Taxpayer-funded East Hampton airport reopens as a private facility for the richest

Today was supposedly the day that the East Hampton airport (KHTO) reopened as a private-only facility. More or less everything there was paid for with federal funds (raised by taxes on aviation fuel, not from the general treasury), but enough years ago that the town was free to wall it off from the public. (See “‘MEMBERS ONLY’: EAST HAMPTON AIRPORT MOVES TO PRIVATE USE” (AOPA))

It isn’t cheap to pave runways, so presumably the airport will be business-as-usual for Wall Streeters’ Gulfstreams (subject to big fees even when it was an ordinary public use airport). For peasants renting Cessnas and Pipers from regional flight schools, however, it may be another story…

From September 2020:

The FBO’s Web page suggests that the scheme is going forward, but with closure on May 17 and reopening on May 19.


  • “FAA ‘furious’ over East Hampton Airport’s privatization scheme” (New York Post): “East Hampton politicians’ scheme to close and then immediately reopen the town airport — and collect $10 million in surplus funds in the process — hit turbulence Wednesday” (i.e., it may be that enough Gulfstreams had landed over the years for the airport to accumulate $10 million in profit on the federally funded runways)
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Helicopter autorotation off Miami Beach

Friends have been asking me to explain the recent Robinson R44 autorotation off Miami Beach.

The incident, caught on surveillance camera:

If it isn’t an emergency and your machine happens to be equipped with fixed or pop-out floats and you’re practicing, it looks like the following video (throttle is rolled to idle to simulate engine failure and, due to a sprag clutch, the engine isn’t helping to maintain rotor speed).

Here’s one to a hard surface (cheating a little with a slide-reducing headwind that you can hear in the microphone):

Let’s assume that there was an engine failure in the Miami crash, which could be due to a mechanical problem, to running out of fuel, to someone pulling the mixture control inadvertently or turning off the magnetos (I always hate to see keychains on aircraft keys or, for that matter, ignition keys to begin with (jets don’t have them so you can’t turn off a jet with your knee)), etc. In that case, since we see that the rotor blades are spinning, the Miami pilot reacted correctly by lowering collective pitch and, probably, pulling back a little on the cyclic. This preserves rotor speed and enables the blades to windmill as the helicopter descends. The potential energy from being up in the air turns into a source of power to keep the blades turning, but that power can’t be used if the blades are at a steep angle of attack compared to the new relative wind (coming up from the ground).

The airspeed also looks pretty good. It is supposed to be 70 knots in an R44 (POH), but 60 knots is also sufficient for a reasonable flare and landing. What seems to have been missing in the Miami crash is the cyclic flare at the bottom. This maneuver, not that different from flaring a fixed-wing airplane on landing, turns the kinetic energy of the forward airspeed into a climb that cancels out the descent from the glide so that the net vertical speed is close to 0.

(At the end of the flare, if you want to get everything perfect and not damage the tail, you stick forward to level the skids and finally pull the collective to use the energy of blade rotation to cushion the fall from 5′ to the ground.)

Why wouldn’t the pilot flare? One thing that we tell people in training is to begin their flare at “treetop height”. This is tough to put into practice when there aren’t any good vertical references. Even experienced seaplane pilots have a tough time judging height above the water when the water is smooth (“glassy”). One can see from the top video, when witnesses are being interviewed, that there wasn’t a lot of wave action. Aside from the difficulty of judging height above smooth water there is, of course, the difference between training and the real world of surprise and shock that things aren’t going as planned.

Fortunately, nobody was killed in the Miami crash. Counterintuitively, the injuries might have been less severe if the helicopter had contacted pavement. That’s because the skids are designed to absorb much of the downward energy of a crash, but they can’t do this job when the machine smacks down in water. In order to meet FAA and EASA certification standards, the seats themselves also have to absorb downward energy by crushing and that, presumably, is what saved the occupants from being killed by the impact that we observe on the video.

It will be interesting to see what the NTSB can learn…


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