Lack Of Safety Enforcement, Competition Pressure Cited In STOL Fatality


An NTSB final report into the fatal crash at an impromptu STOL competition in Nebraska in May of 2022 suggests the FAA inspectors onsite could have prevented the tragedy by enforcing rules already established for the STOL drag race that was supposed to be going on. The accident occurred during an unofficial STOL competition that was organized onsite when gusty winds from the wrong direction forced postponement of the formally organized drag competition, a three-day event involving dozens of competitors.

FAA inspectors there to supervise the STOL drag racing meet approved the ad hoc STOL contest that was pulled together by competitors and event organizers. The NTSB said the inspectors didn’t apply flight safety conditions, such as wind limitations and mandatory training, set for the main competition, to the spur-of-the-moment event. “Had risk mitigations like those that were planned for the STOL Drag event been in place and adhered to by the event and the FAA personnel present it is possible that the accident could have been avoided,” the report says. Thomas Dafoe was setting up for his third landing of the ad hoc contest when the 140 stalled and spun from low altitude with no hope of recovery.

The report also says “competition pressure” felt by the pilot likely played a role in the accident. The 140 was behind a slower aircraft on final for the landing competition and the pilot appeared to be trying to maintain separation with the aircraft in front. If he couldn’t keep his distance, he would have had to go around. Another factor cited by the report is that the pilot didn’t use flaps for the third landing attempt although they had been deployed on his first two attempts. Flaps would have given him about five knots, according to the report. Investigators couldn’t determine if Dafoe forgot the flaps or decided not to extend them because of the gusty conditions.

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. ‘FAA inspectors could have prevented a stall-spin accident’.

    Hmm. The aircraft flight characteristics and pilot actions aren’t much affected by FAA interference.
    This situation (inadequate spacing on final) can and does occur regardless of whether there are people judging the landing.
    You can always go around:

    As an instructor, I’ve always encouraged my students to go around if they aren’t completely happy with anything, and then given them a pat on the back for doing so.

  2. STOL contests seem like a dangerous event that will only get more dangerous as pilots try to fly slower and slower

  3. Personally I think STOL competitions have gone from cool to crazy. It’s like who can do the lowest pass….

    • Sadly you are right. But most competitors have planes that are designed to do just this, they have no other practical uses. The 140 is hardly a stole aircraft and is definitely not one you want to be flying on the ragged edge on a gusty day.

      • True. The 140 is not an airplane one should be doing this with. But this was just one in a series of poor decisions by this pilot. To my way of thinking he owns every bit of the responsibility for his outcome. I’m sorry as can be it turned out that way, but when you make those decisions you get that result.

        I am not a fan of trying to say other than the above. We cannot place “blame” on the organizers, the FAA, the Airport, or even the weather. This was a series of poor decisions.

  4. The STOL “drag races” are just abusive to aircraft and epitomize careless and reckless operation. They held them in Buckeye AZ two years ago and were boring ( far too many brackets to determine a winner) and tied up the airport for folks trying to depart after the main airshow.

    The competitions like this held at Oshkosh or Valdez for short field Takeoff and Landing on the other hand are great demonstrations of piloting skill.

    Again the FAA shirked their responsibility mostly because few in the FAA really know what their purpose is.

  5. “Flaps would have given him about five knots…” Said no one who has any experience in a Cessna 140 sans flaps and with full flaps deployed.

    • Former 140 owner here – I agree. Flaps in the 140 are almost imperceptible. Honestly I never thought they did anything, but didn’t want to disallow it totally.

  6. The 1946 original ACA -309 on the Cessna 140 only stated limitations and not stall clean / stall dirty airspeed until further flight testing of the 140 came about by Captain Jack Sparrow and the resultant thin ” Owners Manual. ”
    3 mph differential used to cut it for me in my Cessna 140.

  7. …and try to fly 3 mph differential on a gusty day flaps up / flaps deployed …
    They are ” non factors ” until the 140A came on the scene…

  8. It’s hard to understand why the event organizers would allow themselves to be anywhere near an ad hoc impromptu event that seeks to do the same thing that had been ruled out due to weather. At the very least the organizers should have had every participant in the “not-really-a-STOL drag race” sign a waiver acknowledging they understood the risks and chose to participate in an event that had nothing to do with the original sanctioned scheduled event. And then GTH off the airport before the event started. Airport management would have benefited from signed waivers as well. Maybe they did have the participants formally acknowledge the risks, I don’t know. In any case, it seems like the most any FAA inspectors could do in a case like this is to say “Use your best judgment.” Could on-scene FAA inspectors pre-emptively shut down the airport?

  9. The FAA/NTSB and others continue to call this C-140 accident a “stall/spin” event. Perhaps later in this Loss Of Control event ( after rolling through 110 degrees of turn and the ground coming up fast), the pilot loaded the wing by increasing back pressure and the aircraft actually stalled. It wasn’t stalled when it rolled to the right initially (albeit it was close to a stall when it rolled). There was no “break”. If you have flown a Cessna 140 you will know they break significantly during a stall. This aircraft did not “break”.

    This was a loss of control, LOC, accident. No doubt about it. I would suggest looking at the video again. You will note the the Zenith was clearly “crabbing” into the wind from his left to maintain ground track. The 140 was not crabbed but tracking straight forward which means he was “side slipping” with left aileron and right rudder inputs. As the aircraft slowed (to gain distance from the other aircraft) the aircraft began to “roll” to the right from adverse yaw (drag from the drooped right aileron). When the C-140 rolled right it did so because the drag from the aileron was greater that the lift. When the roll increased to the right the pilot would have naturally increased the amount of left aileron exacerbating the roll to the right. As the left aileron input increased the roll rate to the right increased. Counterintuitive to pilots by any measure. Steer left and the aircraft rolls right….huh…….not natural so give it more left control input.

    I call this event an “uncommanded roll” for lack of any other term. It can happen in any aircraft at slow speeds because the aileron produces more drag than lift.

    The Draco accident at Reno a few years back was a similar uncommanded roll however this accident happened on takeoff. As pilots we all know that aircraft “weathervane” or turn into the wind naturally. Draco turned away from the wind and rolled-up into a ball….Draco turned away from the wind just like the Cessna 140 with left aileron input into the wind at slow speed…. Draco crashed for exactly the same reason as the 140.

    Adverse yaw is a big deal and not well taught nor understood. If you don’t believe me ask any new CFI what adverse yaw is. I have written extensively about the subject of uncommanded rolls. If you would like a copy of this chapter please send your email address to me at [email protected]

  10. Watched the videos before the crash and the crash itself. The pilot was really horsing the plane around. Take off was painful to watch. He had the tail up then slammed it down, the plane continued in a three point attitude before finally lifting off of the ground, or more accurately staggered off. Gusty winds also would justify some prudence. It was clear the pilot didn’t want to go around, he was doing S turns, going very slow in gusty conditions. It think his exuberance and low experience is what ended up getting him in the end. The plane stalled and went into a spin, there was no hope after that. From the noise of the crash and the pictures it hit very very hard and there was no hope for survival. Really sad and a lesson to all.

  11. I don’t think it’s fair to blame the FAA for this event. If the contestants had chosen to follow the previously agreed upon parameters, this wouldn’t have happened. We shouldn’t depend upon the FAA to require this compliance. This one is squarely on the pilot, IMHO.