Air Safety Institute’s Richard McSpadden Dies In Crash


Richard McSpadden, the senior vice president of the AOPA Air Safety Institute, died, along with one other person, in the crash of a Cessna 177RG near Lake Placid Airport in upstate New York Sunday. McSpadden was in the right seat. Russ Francis, a former NFL tight end and the new owner of Lake Placid Airways, was in the left seat according to the Lake Placid News. AOPA spokesman Eric Blinderman told AVweb early reports indicate the Cardinal had “an emergency on takeoff” from Lake Placid shortly before 5 p.m. “They tried to get back but didn’t make the runway,” said Blinderman. The nature of the emergency wasn’t immediately known. He said more information will be available on Monday.

McSpadden was a former commander of the USAF Thunderbirds air demonstration team and joined the Air Safety Institute in 2017. He was well known in the GA community for his analyses of accidents and the safety-related content he and his staff created for free distribution. He was also highly regarded by his many friends and colleagues. “We are beyond heartbroken,” said Blinderman. “This is the worst kind of news to process as a friend, colleague and fellow aviator.” He is survived by his wife, Judy, son Grant and daughter Annabel.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.

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  1. This is a huge loss for all of aviation but especially general aviation. He made a tremendous contribution to aviation safety and will be greatly missed.

  2. That is as unexpected a shock as it gets. I always looked forward to learn from Richard’s thoughtful accident analyses – now he ended up in one himself. Our lives are short, and can end abruptly when we least expect it. My sincere thoughts are going out to his family and friends.

  3. So sad, these top-notch fighter pilots (Snort Snodgrass too) getting killed in small private planes. A warning to all of us.

  4. Tragedy is right. Hoping it wasn’t the impossible turn and we all take the lesson to heart when a cause is determined.

    • Gut punch sums it up for me, too. So mild, warm, helpful in breaking down accidents and almost-accidents through analysis and interview.

      So sad. I was just up that-a-way myself.

  5. Sad news for general Aviacion.
    He was a great engine promoting accident analysis and prevention. His videos and columns are going to be missed.
    My heart is with his wife and children.

  6. I usually take crash reports analytically and try to learn from them. Having seen Richard speak in person several times this is different. Makes me rethink my 20+ years of flying and whether to continue.

    • I doubt he’d want anyone to quit. He’d want them to learn from this and prevent it as able. Keep flying, amigo.

  7. This is like losing a friend – even if we only knew him from his columns, we felt like we knew him. He will be missed.

  8. I am devastated. Richard was one of the very strong reason why, as a canadian pilot, I joined AOPA. His absolute professionalism set the standard for all of us to follow. My sincere condolences to his family. I will dearly miss his presence in our industry.

  9. I never met Rich but through his videos and a few email exchanges felt like I knew him. This feels like a personal loss for me. And on a wider scale, a loss for GA and the wider community. Truly heart breaking. Words can’t express.

  10. Often feel nervous as a supposed pure passenger with an obviously rusty PIC in THEIR aircraft but so far have made it home alive thanks to gently offering some suggestions at or ideally before critical moments. I wonder if things were just happening too fast here for Rich to do the same.

  11. And only yesterday, while taking the King Schools CFI renewal course… I was directed to watch the YouTube video in which Richard McSpadden demonstrates what the FAA now wants us CFIs to teach… how to make the “impossible Turn” in the event of engine failure after takeoff. Fate is Still the Hunter.

  12. Extreme shock and great distress at this moment. I am so sorry. Such a sincere man. It is heartbreaking news.

  13. He was the best – the very best… I believe what he would want for all of us is to learn from his accident and become the safest pilots we can be. I’m going to remember Richard every time I push the throttle forward.

  14. RIP. Condolences to family/friends.

    Also based at FDK, Richard was a regular on his bike visiting open hangar doors as well as having one himself. Though he had an extensive aviation resume, he did not make a point of highlighting his background, he just shared his aviation enthusiasm. A loss for us all.

  15. So sorry to hear about this crash – I never had the pleasure of meeting Richard, but I have learned a lot from his videos and podcasts. A very sad day for aviation.

  16. SAD news. RIP Richard, you will be missed dearly. I looked forward to meeting you one day.
    As a new pilot i learnt a lot from your “There i was” podcast. General Aviation has lost a true flag bearer.
    Heartfelt Condolences to Family.

  17. Another reminder of the risks we all face in GA. I will use this sad incident to review my training, procedures, and practices and adjust as necessary to make me a better pilot. I think Richard would have wanted that. Nickel in the grass.

  18. Stunning and sobering! If he couldn’t save the plane, what chance do the rest of us (average pilots) have in a similar situation?

    • Suggest that you reserve judgement on that. Very sad to say but they may have screwed up big time attempting the “Impossible Turn” .

      “Do as I say not what I do” department.

      • Other reports say this did not happen right after takeoff, and that McSpadden was in the right seat, not PIC.

  19. Richard you’ll be missed. This one is a double whammy for me. I just met and befriended Russ Francis four weeks ago at his FBO at Lake Placid airport. So kind and customer service focused

  20. Condolences to his family and extended aviation family, colleagues at AOPA. Richard was a great example of achievement and humility. He gave back to GA and we are all beneficiaries. A stunning reminder that this life is fragile, brief, and a gift.

  21. A shock and a tragedy for his family, my sincere condolences go out to them for their incomprehensible loss.

    This is also a loss for all of us in general aviation. This one will stick with me for a long time.

    I hope we learn the circumstances of the emergency some day.

  22. What shocking news to hear. A real punch in the stomach. I can’t believe this happened.
    Every Time there’s an aircraft accident out there I don’t watch any analysis but his. If it’s not out there yet I wait. He makes the best crash analysis anywhere hands down, let alone all the other contributions he makes to aviation. The way he speaks is calm and paused. Succinct and to the point. What a loss… Makes me so sad to hear this. I will miss Richard so much. What an inspirational leadership  God bless the family and friends. R.I.P.

  23. Sorry for loss of life of 2 Veteran pilots,
    We should all wait and see the official report, before rendering or blame any one for this tragic event. Flight instructors manual talks loud and clear about such undertaking. A reminder to any and all pilots to plan well in case of failures that occur during takeoff.

  24. Met Richard last March after his presentation at the annual Montana Aviation Conference and was impressed by his passion for aviation safety to help make all of us better pilots.

    Very sorry to hear of his passing and condolences to his family and friends.

  25. A real gut punch this morning. Heart felt condolences to family and friends. Clear skies and tailwinds Richard. I’ll wait for official analysis and unfortunately it won’t be from Richard.

  26. Extremely sobering and saddening news for everyone who had the pleasure to have had any contact with him, personally or professionally. Anyone with a passion and interest in aviation safety would have had him as their go-to person, just about anytime.

    The list of lost friends and contacts keeps growing and increasingly its hitting people I would have never ever (ever!) expected to end up dead in an aircraft. His death is a huge loss for our community and another LinkedIn contact gone mute. Unreal!

    Richard was humble enough to never be larger than life or better than anyone when it came to aviation accidents and their analysis. His perspective was always calm and organized, fair and based on lots of experience.

    Of course the cause for this accident will be revealed in time, giving the rest of us pause and some insight into what on gods green planet could have happened, that was bigger than him.

    May his family and friends find strength.

  27. Wow! I’m speechless at the loss of such a positive influence on the aviation community. My comment here is instead just an observation of the unanimously shared sentiments expressed in the myriad other comments to this article thus far. Disagreement being so common here, this is a rare and welcome thing in aviation forum, and I take it as a testament to Mr. McSpadden’s legacy. I am saddened by the loss of Richard and extend my heartfelt condolences to his family and friends, should their eyes ever gaze upon the comments here. Moreover, I am encouraged by the unification his tragedy has created in its wake.

  28. To the family and friends of Richard, we share your heartbreak. Richard was a wonderful person, who left us way too soon.

  29. So damned sad. Recreational aviation is no longer worth the risk. We keep pretending and talking around the issues, but the state of the industry, training, aircraft performance and limitations, not to mention the economic realities have changed my attitude 180 degrees.

    Before you pile on. I’m a former Naval Aviator with hundreds of carrier landings, and am well acquainted with and comfortable with risk management. Flying a singled engined, low performance, no redundancy, light aircraft does not bring enough satisfaction for the risk involved.

    Losing a safety advocate, former Thunderbird who came across as a consummate professional ought to be a wake up call for everyone.

    • I respect your experience with all the carrier landing you made, not to mention all the other training aircraft you flew, and possibly you were a flight instructor in the Navy at some point.

      But what exactly is the “wake up call” by this accident? The great Scott Crossfield didn’t die flying X-15s or the other exotic planes that really could have killed him. He died flying his C210 into the tail end of a weather front, partly due to controller error too.

      I flew my RV-7 yesterday, knowing full well that if the engine decided to quit at a critical phase such as takeoff, it could leave me with no where to go but into trees. So are you saying we all should quit flying private planes for recreational purposes, since there is some chance of a fatal accident? Could not the same be said for driving a car? Don’t drive anywhere except absolutely necessary. No pleasure trips.

      I life well lived is full of risks. A good pilot always tries to minimize the risks. Maybe that is what you meant by a wake up call. Always be vigilant.

      • You have the right approach. The two folks in this mishap were very experienced, with a safety strong mindset and calm, professional approach. The lack of options in that type of flying still took their lives. Maybe it’s time to pause and think about what we’re doing.

        Wake up call in terms of a sober, sincere and objective re-evaluation of the risk vs reward involved in flying certain types of single engined light aircraft. Old airframes, old engines out of airports where there aren’t many options. We keep kidding ourselves that it isn’t extremely dangerous.

        Look at social media. You have kids flying with cameras stuck all over the cockpit, focused on self promotion, with flying an afterthought. While that isn’t an indictment of all light aircraft operation, it is an indication of a cavalier mindset that tenaciously holds on to too many pilots. That’s what I’m referencing.

        Is it worth it? For me, not anymore. Because of redundancies, I always had survivable options in professional aviation. Two engines, redundant systems, sometimes an ejection seat or bailout option. We still lost a lot of good aviators. I didn’t have those options while flying single engined aircraft described above, so it takes a very different approach and mindset. I’m sure McSpadden was doing everything right, but it still wasn’t enough.

        Be safe, and best wishes with your continued aviation endeavors.

        • I agree with you. If Richard can die doing this then what’re my chances? Risk v reward is the equation and everyone has their own. To your point, that’s only valid if we really look at the total risk, starkly and without the rose colored glasses.

    • Nope, GA is plenty safe. Ill get in my 72 Citabria or 73 C340 and fly feeling much less likely that I’ll be hurt or killed as opposed to driving my 2019 Ram to the hardware store which in MHO is much more dangerous. Always over reactions and hand wringers that want the impossible (some unrealistic safety margin built into everything we do).

    • That’s just backwards. Your skill sets don’t seem to touch on the reality of the situation that has more to do with things one needs no piloting skills to understand. Also, your culture as a naval aviator blinds you to the solution.

      Aviation is a very worthwhile avocation the pursuit of which brings knowledge and joy to pilots, passengers, observers, and society. It is worthwhile and valuable.

      The failure to make it safer is the problem, and that failure is to be blamed on the institutions which have done the damage. People who see the facts, and have that reaction are unfortunately yet systematically forced to change mindset or expelled from the ranks of Naval Officers. The Navy has spent millions trying to figure out how to keep the change agents they need in the ranks, and failed. The institutional mindset is rewarded and acts like white blood cells rejecting the needed persons like a virus.

      What you have here are two men with the material resources to afford the kind of aircraft we could produce today instead flying in a half century old plane powered by even older engine technology who most likely fell victim to its faults despite more skill than we should ever expect of a responsible civilian aircraft owner.

      We do not yet know the cause, but I suspect we will find that had they been flying in a DA20 or DA40 they could have made the turn or even survived the crash. Simply going by statistical probability they were better than half as likely to be in a fatal accident.

      Interestingly, the 177 Cardinal, like the Diamonds, was outsold by the 172, an even older design. The 172 is still the number one training plane despite the safer choices. Innovation in aviation airframes and power plants were not destroyed by an interesting and exciting conspiracy, but it’s still mysterious how they were.

      We should fix that, and not give up on our dreams of flight which are obviously obtainable.

  30. This is why I feel sick every time I see one of those comments about ballistic airframe parachutes, saying something to the effect that a properly trained and competent pilot should be able to fly the airplane to an emergency landing.

    Richard was about as competent a pilot as you could ask for. Russ Francis was pretty experienced himself. If they couldn’t fly the airplane to an emergency landing, I suggest that literally no-one could have.

    If the airplane had been equipped with an airframe parachute, they would almost certainly be alive this morning.

    I’ve done my share of high-risk flying, and these days I am not fond of flying airplanes that don’t have airframe parachutes. This kind of situation is why.

    Yes, airframe parachutes eat into baggage space and useful load. Most of us are flying airplanes that can carry 3-4 people but mostly we fly with 1 or 2 seats filled. Maybe more important, they’re expensive: they cost about as much as a new IFR GPS. Many of us just don’t have that kind of money, and that’s life. If you do have the money, though, don’t not have one because you think a “real aviator shouldn’t need one”. If Richard McSpadden could need one, might you?

    • I spent a lot of time arguing against the bad arguments thrown against CAPS even while not being a fan of Cirrus.

      Given the success COPA has had with training for its use, are people still seriously attacking the chutes?

    • My understanding is that the CAPs system is only effective at 400 agl and higher. From the scant info on this takeoff, they may have been lower than that.

      Looking at the airport area, there is no good off airport area, and the airport appears to be on a bluff, so a return to the runway risks cfit, crashing into a cliff.

  31. “ If the airplane had been equipped with an airframe parachute, they would almost certainly be alive this morning.”

    Given the location of the wreckage near the runway end, it seems that the FBO-owned plane did not get far off the ground on the attempted takeoff. It’s questionable whether a chute would have deployed. The plane was nowhere near pattern altitude.

    Given that the new FBO owner was in the left seat of the FBO-owned plane, it’s unlikely that Mr. McSpadden was PIC in this very brief attempted takeoff.

    • Hi Craig,

      The plane flew for several minutes, and climbed at least 1,300′. It first appeared on FlightAware about 2 statute miles from the airport, to the southwest, tracking roughly parallel to the runway, at an altitude of just under 3,000′ MSL, or about 1,250′ above the field elevation. It then turned to the right, gaining around 150′ of altitude over the next 80 seconds or so, reaching a maximum altitude of 3,100′ MSL. Over the next 40 seconds it began a gradual descent until it was at 2,800 MSL / 1,050 AGL, decelerating and also descending at about 800 fpm which appears consistent with gliding flight. At that point the ADSB trace was lost, just about 3 statute miles from the end of the runway, slightly south of centerline, and tracking toward the northeast at not quite 90 degrees to the centerline. To get to the runway, it would have needed to glide at 15:1 over the ground, into a quartering headwind. I wouldn’t have guessed that airplane could do that; maybe they had partial power. They evidently thought it was possible – and they seem to have been almost right.

      From the news reports and Google Earth, it looks like the plane struck up-sloping ground just short of the runway threshold (the runway is on an elevated plateau). Just a few feet more, apparently, could have been enough. The last available bail-out option, coming from the west, would have been a golf course to the left of the approach, and the pilots would have had to commit to it by about a mile and a quarter short of the runway. At that point they may still have thought they had the runway within reach.

      This might have been a tricky call, with a chute: it may not have been clear that the airplane wouldn’t make it until very late in the approach; and the plane apparently came over the town of Lake Placid, which isn’t where you want to drop in on someone. But, with the chute, going into the trees west of town, or Mirror Lake, could have been an option.

      • The flight path you describe sounds like the last known flight of this plane on FlightAware.

        However, that flight occurred a week before the accident.

        There doesn’t appear to be any ADSB data from the accident flight. The airport is nestled in mountains so ADSB data even at pattern altitude tends to be spotty or missing altogether.

        All other reports are saying the accident occurred shortly after takeoff.

  32. So sad! Wonder how this kind of tragedy can be avoided. Fly safety involve the true airworthiness (knowing the condition of aircraft), the careful character and skill of the pilot, the weather condition, etc. May be we should be very careful to take the left seat on a non commercial airplane.

  33. Some may have missed it, but the owner, and pilot in the left seat was Russ Francis, a former NFL tight end and long time pilot and aviation enthusiast. 70 years old.

  34. Just an absolutely devastating loss.

    Rare for this site that there isn’t one dissenting opinion or armchair quarterback on this accident.

    Let’s try to give every unfortunate pilot the same courtesy in the future.

  35. My condolences to his family and loved ones. I purchased Cherokee 140 that I currently own from him in 2017, and was fortunate enough to get to fly for a little over an hour with him. He encouraged me to always continue learning and to follow the articles being produced by the Aviation Safety Institute as I progressed through my aviation journey, which I have done. To say that myself and others have learned much from his work is an understatement. He will be missed for sure.

  36. This is a helluva place to flog your book of pseudo-science, Ronald.

    I sincerely hope the moderator removes your insensitive and tasteless post ASAP.

    • According to the Lake Placid Airways website:

      “The new president [Russ Francis] has been a pilot for the last 49 years, owned and operated an air charter company in Hawaii, started that state’s first civilian air ambulance service, and owned and operated a scenic and charter helicopter service. He also owned and piloted his P-51 Mustang and Hawker Sea Fury British fighter.”

  37. My wife passed away two years ago in her sleep. It was her wish to do so for many years. She flew with me since 1968 starting in our C-140 and then progressing through helicopters including FAM flights in the military, our RV4 and even the Boeing 767 from which I retired. Our aviation adventures are countless and despite my age of 76, continue unabated to fly my airplanes. It’s what keeps me going to help with my loss and I know full well what Mrs. McSpadden will now experience in the coming years. She has all my sympathy and good wishes to cope with her loss.

    I don’t know Mr. McSpadden, but his unfortunate accident will not influence my decision to keep flying and doing what I love.

  38. Yes, it is a real shame, but only a year ago AOPA was making a video about doing the “IMPOSSIBLE TURN” and doing it in severa of their various airplanes. Sounds like that was attempted and it didn’t work out. Missed the AQP items over at “PROBABLE CAUSE”.
    Other than sorrow, regret and condolences, will be interesting to see how MB and AOPA attempt to spin this. May we all learn, fly better and safely as a result of these misfortunes. Stay ahead of the airplane and be ready for the “WHAT IF” scenario.

  39. I think when processing all this it’s important not to fall for the illusion of celebrity. Just because a person is well known doesn’t mean that a) they are immune from the risks that we all take when choosing to fly (e.g. JFK jr, Cory Lidle, Harrison Ford and his famous taxiway landing) or b) that we as pilots are any more prone to being affected by these risks than any well-known person. Physics is a great equalizer and if you’re certified to fly and current, you will have just the same chances as any famous pilot, even if you’re only famous to your dog.

    • Exactly. Remember Dale Snodgrass, famed fighter and airshow pilot, who died because he left the control lock installed. One moment of complacency is all it takes. On the other hand, some who did everything correct have crashed and died anyway.

  40. Too many assumptions by many people commenting. We don’t know anything yet, other than that they crashed, shortly after take off, and supposed eye witness account of a hard left turn. Based on the crash site, right at the end of the runway (there’s a steep drop off there) the plane never got very high. With gliding activity at the airport, there should have been plenty of eyewitnesses with aviation knowledge. No report yet on whether the engine was heard running, or if it indeed quit. Seems everyone, including the AOPA, assumes the engine quite and they tried to turn around. Could have been a number of things – a medical event, control failure, or indeed engine out. It happened low, and with the hard left turn report, perhaps a departure into a spin. There probably wasn’t any time for McSapdden to intervene.

  41. A huge tragedy for his family, the AOPA family and the community as a whole.
    Looking at some comments concerning the “impossible turn”: let’s see what an investigation reveals. But if I may speak freely – having experienced engine failures the last thing I would recommend is that turn.

  42. This was a gut punch. Reading these comments made me revisit why I continue to fly a single engine airplane, especially in the mountains. I’ve been flying for nearly 40 years. I’ve lost friends and even an instructor. I’ve had an engine out (made it to an airport) and my son had an engine out that ended in an off-airport landing (no injuries, thank God).

    I made a list of the accidents that haunt me the most and the factors that made them unsurvivable. The most common factor–by far–was that the accidents occurred at night. The second most common factor was engine failure at low altitude. I made a list of countermeasures I’ve adopted in response to these accidents.

    First, I gave up planning trips during nighttime hours many years ago. I keep night current, just in case, but I haven’t had to complete a trip in the dark for a long time. At first, it really ground my gears not to “be able” to fly at night because of the change in my personal minimums. I’m used to it now, and it no longer bothers me.

    Next, I changed my departure routines to increase the odds of a return to the field or at least making it to a landable spot. At one airport I regularly fly out of, I now do an overhead climbing 360 before departing on course. That makes a return to the runway easier and gives me close to 4,000′ of altitude before I am beyond gliding distance of the departure runway. At my home airfield, the standard voluntary noise abatement departure is a right crosswind over a neighborhood, and then over water, all sandwiched low below Class B. Instead of doing this, I ask for a right downwind departure and keep close to the field while climbing, before turning to cross San Francisco Bay along a highway bridge.

    En route, I try to follow highway crossings over the mountains instead of going direct. I still have a strong visceral resistance to doing this, but usually come around and follow the safer route once I run the time-en-route on Foreflight and realize that staying over the interstate costs me maybe 2-5 minutes on a typical flight.

    I’ve always been involved in maintenance on my plane, but work and other demands have kept me from being as on top of it as I want to be. This is the biggest area where I need to improve. It’s also the most critical, since I love backcountry flying, including a lot of places where there are no good options if the engine quits.

    None of this is intended as commentary on the tragic loss of Mr. McSpadden and Mr. Francis. It just prompted me to reexamine what I can do to keep it from happening to me, and reevaluate the stakes. Blue skies and tailwinds.

  43. Just a bit of info that I haven’t seen here. It was rather calm on the day of the accident. I wonder if that contributed to them not making the turn.