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Ready for take-off

Flight Training Accidents - low level flight gone wrong

Updated: Nov 17, 2020

Every take-off is optional. Every landing is mandatory.

It was 27 August 2015 when one of the worst nightmares to befall a pilot became reality for two young men who crashed a Cessna 172, ZS-NTR, on the side of the National Highway, the N2, at Winkelspruit, south of Durban.

I have looked for the crash report on the SACAA website. As of Nov 2020 there is still only an interim crash report. This is what I remember about what was reported at the time:

The pilot and his passenger, who was also a pilot, was about 26 years old, and had about 100 hours "under the belt". He was building hours towards his Commercial Pilot License, and on this fateful day was practising exercise 16, "forced landings" in the Durban General Flying Area, (Dbn GFA), which starts slightly inland at Amanzimtoti and ends at about the Umkomaas River.

Although I have been unable to find the photograph I saw on WhatsApp, a local pilot was on the highway at the time, and he sent a photograph of NTR flying very low, close to Power Lines, just above the highway. He said that he thought that flight was going to end badly when he snapped the pic. Sadly he was right.

As a Flight Instructor, this is what I think happened: I think that two young men, under 28, are likely to take unnecessary risks. Between 26 and 28 the brain finishes developing the "sensibility circuits" and people start becoming more cautious. This is the reason predominantly young men are conscripted for war, because, of course, they believe they cannot die, and so tend to take risks their older selves would consider with more caution. It is also why car companies don't hire cars to drivers under 26, or charge a risk premium for the privilege. Then we have TWO young pilots in the same cockpit, which begs the question, was there possibly some showing off going on?

There are a few danger areas in flying, two are around 100 hours and again at about 1000 hours. These are two regular milestones where pilots start believing they know what they are doing, and start pushing their boundaries. This is where that bucket of luck comes in to play.

The general rule is to recover by around 500 ft above ground level. The Dbn GFA is somewhat hostile territory with undulating hills and power lines. Power lines are almost impossible to see from above as they blend into the background, and one needs to look out for the pylons, which are also hard to see.

Common sense tells me this story, the recovery from the forced landing was a bit late... either because the pilot did not see the power lines till too late, or because he forgot to account for the increased inertia from the "larger than a normal approach" vertical rate of descent, which you experience in a power off glide with full flap. You can see the damage to the wing in the photograph of the burning wreck above. Now maybe the damage to the wing was too great to fly, but I think it more likely the pilot got a huge fright at the impact, and because of his proximity to the ground and shocked disbelief, he would have done one of two things:

  1. forgot to keep flying and just let the aircraft fly itself into the ground, OR

  2. he flew it, but at a higher speed than normal (which a damaged wing requires), and didn't have time or the presence of mind to switch off fuel and electrics to minimise the chance of fire on landing.

I do not know whether he flared and landed or plummeted straight into the ground, either way the aircraft caught fire and both young men perished in the inferno.

I sincerely hope they were at the very least unconscious when the flames engulfed the aircraft. The alternative is just too horrific to contemplate. There were signs of smoke inhalation, and the interim report says they died from this and severe burns.


Whether you feel it is hopeless or not, ALWAYS fly the aeroplane. NEVER GIVE UP. You can fly an aircraft with a damaged wing, you just have to fly a bit on the fast side, as the damage will cause the aircraft to want to stall at a faster indicated airspeed.

Remember that if the fuel tanks rupture, make sure the lights are off, and the Master Switch too. You do not want a spark from shorting wiring that runs past the fuel tanks or to the electric motor for the flaps igniting the fuel in the tank.

You want to isolate those fuel tanks ASAP. The exhaust up front is hot, and a rupture can cause a spark, which can cause a flame, you see where I am going with this...

First and foremost, rather err on the side of caution. Give yourself bigger safety buffers rather than smaller ones. Push the boundaries if you must, but with an experienced pilot on board. Always remember:

There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots, and height is your friend.

Jim Davis, who pioneered 43 Air School, and has authored many books and Magazine Articles, and appeared in Court to give expert testimony in aircraft accidents has written a book called "So Others May Live"about accidents and what we can learn from them to avoid the same happening to us. Feel free to arm yourself with this protective knowledge.



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