McSpadden Cardinal Crashed 440 Feet Short Of Runway


The NTSB says the Cessna 177RG carrying AOPA Safety Institute head Richard McSpadden crashed about 440 feet short of Lake Placid’s Runway 14 in a failed attempt to return to the airport after McSpadden reported an unspecified problem with the plane. According to the preliminary report (click link at end of story) McSpadden was in the right seat and Russ Francis, the owner of the plane and a former NFL player and Super Bowl winner, was in the left seat. It’s not clear who was flying when the aircraft hit an embankment about 15 feet below the brow of the plateau on which the airport is built. Both men died of their injuries in the Oct. 1 accident.

The Cardinal was No. 2 in a two-ship formation with an A36 Bonanza carrying a photographer to capture images for a magazine story. McSpadden was to take control of the plane when the photo shoot began. After the Bonanza took off, the Cardinal followed. “During the takeoff roll, a witness described that the engine sounded as if the propeller was set for ‘climb’ and not takeoff, then he heard the engine surge,” the report says. “During the initial climb, the witness further described that the engine did not sound as if it was running at full power.” As the Cardinal moved to join with the Bonanza about 300-400 feet AGL, the Bonanza pilot heard McSpadden on the CTAF say, “We have a problem and we’re returning to the airport.”

Examination of the wreckage didn’t appear to reveal any issues with the plane, which had plenty of fuel and an almost-new engine. Weather was clear and winds were light. Francis had recently purchased Lake Placid Airways, which ultimately owned the aircraft. McSpadden, a former commander of the Air Force Thunderbirds, was a highly respected accident analyst. He frequently published factual descriptions of high-profile accidents soon after they occurred with the intent of tempering the sometimes-speculative analyses of some social media influencers.

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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. that airport has homes to the north and forests to the south, both less than ideal places to land. returning to the airport, that is turning south, would be an appropriate course of action to avoid hitting homes. what I learned from this tragedy is to always always always assess the surrounding terrain for all airports along the chosen route and adjust the route accordingly. the ideal airport being one that is not surrounded by hostile terrain.

    • Good points. In some cases, it makes a lot of sense NOT to make the traditional straight-out initial climb. Veering to one side slightly could increase your options considerably should you suffer a failure like this.

      Not claiming that such a course of action would have made a difference in THIS case; I am not familiar enough with the area to make such a judgement. But I’ve flown from places where departing then easing the heading off by 20deg or so opens up far more options.

      Doing so can also reduce the amount of direction change required if a turn-back is attempted, as the return to centerline may be simpler.

      • A story like this invites thoughtful analysis and there’s a lot of that here. It also unfortunately results in intemperate speculation that inflames fellow commenters and causes a general degradation of the discussion. The comments I felt met those criteria have been deleted. You know who you are (one of you especially) so govern yourselves accordingly.

    • Bingo! With hostile terrain you have to especially plan like your life depends on quick and well reasoned actions. The hardest thing for me on such takeoffs is pre-planning that I just made my airplane expendable as soon as I lift off.

  2. On best glide. Best glide is just that, the airplane configuration that will give the longest horizontal distance per loss of altitude by keeping the airplane as clean as possible and at speed until the last moment.

    The aircraft was found with 10° flaps and gear down. Too early? Pilot error?

    • “The aircraft was found with 10° flaps and gear down. Too early? Pilot error?“

      That would be the take-off condition. Raising or lowering the gear on that make/model Cardinal RG takes about 12-13 seconds. And during a portion of that cycle the drag increases.

      I’m guessing they weren’t up long enough to raise the gear, much less time enough to lower it again.

  3. The witness testimony is new, but doesn’t add much to our understanding.
    It sounds like the airplane was producing partial power, which makes turning back make sense.
    Although of all the talk about the (im)possible turn, I haven’t seen anyone question the wisdom of attempting it at a runway with a steep slope at the approach end.
    It’s one thing to risk landing short on flat ground, but quite another to crash into a cliff.

  4. A story like this invites thoughtful analysis, but unfortunately the AOPA is not releasing any video nor audio that the have from this 2 ship photo flight. When a major organization pleads the 5th, then the analysis is CYA rather than open and honest discussion.

    • Could add a lot of insight if pics/video of the accident progression exists from the lead photo plane, BUT: 1) It happened so quickly and the photo plane was in the lead so they may not have caught anything. 2) If there is photo/video evidence I would expect AOPA would want the investigators to see it first.

    • I doubt they had time to get set up for it. Sounds like the whole thing happened very fast. Also AOPA has suffered a great loss, I wouldn’t expect much from them. I have friends based at KFDK. McSpadden was often out riding around on a bicycle. By all accounts he was a open, friendly and a great person to be around. Everyone feels the loss.

    • There is no video or audio. I’ve been involved in hundreds of AOPA photo missions. There is never any audio other than wind noise and no video or stills until the subject airplane (the Cardinal in this case) is formed up on the photo ship, the Bonanza in this case. The photographer/videographer in the aft-facing Bonanza seat has no view directly behind, which is where the Cardinal Woolf have been. There were no cameras on the Cardinal.

      • I’ve been on many formation photo shoots and the thrilled owner always has a GoPro. I have to say that if the owner (or AOPA) had no cam footage at all then that is even more mysterious than the crash itself.

        • You’re talking to the former editor-in-chief of AOPA Pilot here, Arthur. He would know how AOPA runs their photo missions. Irresponsible speculation is disrespectful of those lost and adds nothing to the conversation.

          • And that attitude is why I stopped supporting AOPA 10 years ago; when a support group that was taking dues started “demanding respect” instead of listening to members concerns and questions. No thank you.

          • And I certainly do not have to “respect” a pilot that drives a flyable plane past safe landing areas and into a ravine! Having had several similar instances like this myself over the last 50 years, perhaps us people that do it right need a tip of the hat from AOPA instead?

  5. Fate is the hunter. An element of luck, however small, is inevitably involved in aviation. Even the world’s most experienced, skillful and safety conscious pilots need a little every now and then. Tailwinds and fly lucky.

  6. I’m m a 75 year old new aviator (285 hours, own an Ercoupe). I’ve practiced successfully an engine out return to runway at 500’AGL. I’ve also spoken to professional ATPs and others with tens of thousands of hours about the “impossible turn.” My final decision? No master what, resist the urge to return to the runway. It’s about doing my best to survive the crash. Do NOT return! Put it down in (hopefully) the best spot and hope to walk or crawl away. Always!

    • You’re talking about engine out, but apparently they had partial power which in that situation I think would make any pilot consider a return to the runway rather than crashing it straight ahead.

      • All I can say is commercial pilots with thousands of hours told me to resist the temptation to TRY to make it back. The failure and fatality rate is too high. A plane is replaceable. A life is not. If McSpadden couldn’t do it, that should give us all pause!

  7. To best honor Richard McSpadden’s legacy:

    1) Don’t speculate on the cause of this accident until we have all the available evidence.
    2) Commit to learn from whatever that evidence shows.

    All pilots know aviation has risks. Not all airports have good options for dealing with a propulsion problem soon after takeoff. The only way to eliminate the risks of those airports is to abandon them. The “impossible turn” isn’t necessarily impossible and can indeed be the best option. The only way to eliminate the risks of flying is to not fly. The likelihood that any of us would have been better skilled or prepared than Mr. McSpadden is almost certainly near zero.

    I will continue to fly and am already scheduled for annual recurrent training in my plane. I will continue to assess and then determine the risks and mitigation I’m willing to take to get the best utility from my aircraft. And I will spend some time looking through some of Richard McSpadden’s columns to see what I can learn.

    • I agree. The turn is ‘impossible’ if you’re too low for the wind conditions, pilot reaction, and aircraft.

      Glider pilots, even 13 year old students regularly practice rope breaks (PT3) as low as 300 feet agl successfully. The engine on the tow plane is much more reliable than the tow rope. Because of this risk you’d be hard pressed to find a glider operation in an urban or suburban area without adequate off-field landing options near the airport.

      But a ‘dirty’ Cardinal is not a glider.

  8. Enough time has passed to ask this, I think. mcFadden has enough experience & has reported in these kinds of accidents enough to intuit the likely outcome of the “impossible turn,” even with partial power. But suddenly he, like all of us I imagine, deferred to the PIC & became a mere passenger.

    Frankly, I don’t know how to overcome this tendency of all non-crew trained pilots (after some accidents, some asian airlines even had to retrain their Co-pilot to be more assertive with the senior pilot when they saw something amiss, instead of deferring to his seniority). You can’t fight for control of the plane.

    But this isn’t like the engine suddenly quit at 200 ft after takeoff. There were plenty of clues during the takeoff run that something wasn’t right.

    What would you have done in McSpadden’s place, as a near demigod of aviation knowledge, experience, & skill?

    • You are speculating on what happened inside the aircraft. No one knows that without a recorder of some kind in the cockpit. You can know what the aircraft did, but no one knows- as far as I’ve heard- what each person inside did as individuals and what role they played in words or actions.

      • I’m reacting to the dilemma every highly experienced pilot faces when they ride shotgun on somebody else’s flight. Human nature & civility vs experience. If you were a cfi, wouldn’t you have pulled the power & commanded ”my plane?”

  9. When I first heard about this accident it shook me up. McSpadden was the real deal and if he couldn’t make it back no one can. Really makes one think. From what I understand there are not a lot of options for an off field landing. With partial power turning back would probably be the best choice but sadly it wasn’t.

  10. NTSB: ” The accident airplane then made a gentle left turn while it was 300 to 400 feet above ground level to join with the Beech A36. As the accident airplane closed to within about 1,000 feet of the Beech A36, it suddenly made a hard right turn back toward the departure airport.”

    I wonder where they were when they turned hard right, and where it might have put them if they continued/tightened the left turn.

  11. I’m a contrarian on holding a gag order over ‘speculation’. I believe very strongly that mishaps, whether injury free or involving fatalities, should be discussed with much detail. While information is often not readily at hand the ‘what if…’ and ‘what about…’ speculations may offer very useful insights to those of us who might experience a very similar setup and potential outcome. I vividly recall discussions after the highly modified P-51 crashed into the spectators at Reno. Sure, some speculations were rabbit chasers. But, most still offered valuable insights.

    Moderators are SOMETIMES useful… as long as the outcome is not outright censorship.

  12. “Almost new engine”. Was just listening to a podcast by Richard about that being frequent time for a failure. Definitely going to miss him.

  13. The irony is that after an accident like this, Richard would be here, calmly assessing the events and helping us learn from it. For me, I learn that accidents can truly happen to the “best” of them.

    • I don’t know if he’d be HERE at Avweb, but he might well be doing one of his excellent Early Look analyses via AOPA. It takes a special person to do that the way Richard McSpadden did, and he won’t be easily replaced.

      Finding out the accidents can happen to the best of them is, indeed, a tough lesson to swallow. It would be great to think that if we had the proper training and experience, the necessary level of talent and skill, and proper judgement that we could always avoid an accident like this. But the reality is that Ernie Gann nailed it: sometimes fate is the hunter.

      Having said that, over the past 25 years, most of the accident reports I’ve ready have been avoidable. Fuel exhaustion, VFR-into-IMC, buzzing, godawful maintenance issues. We all know the litany.

      For my part, I’ll honor Richard’s legacy by being as prudent as I reasonably can, accept that there are still risks involved, and go flying.


      • Mr. Levy, when “experts” fly into thunderstorms, takeoff with seat belts on control sticks, or insist on returning to a runway, then it’s not fate.

  14. The weather quoted seems to be from the Saranac Lake airport which is a good ways, and several mountains away. I was in a boat on Lake Placid at the time of the accident, and I do not believe there was that much wind. It was a very calm day. There are likely web cam records of the lake water. Also, the glider pilots might have a better idea.

    Not sure how much that would have mattered for missing the runway, but maybe a few knots would have gotten them over that bluff? Is it flat grass from the bluff to the runway? Could it have been that close?

    Also, the plane was very old. The POH glide rating could be way off. Seems to me lots of those old planes are crooked from hard landings, but I’ve never heard of anyone refiguring the glide ratio to account for that.

  15. Absent some finding yet to be discovered during detailed analysis of the engine & wreckage, we’re likely to be faced with yet another accident the cause of which remains forever the subject of debate & conjecture.

    In the argument over to speculate or not to speculate I have to agree with my fellow John (T) and others who feel free & wide-ranging discussion is both acceptable and, in many cases, useful. Tolerating the occasional comment that offends the sensibilities of the reader is better than trying to stifle all discussion.

  16. Russ Niles and others.
    For about a year now I have been talking about new research I have that explains some of these plane accidents. This one is no different other than it involved a noted pilot, Richard McSpadden who we would have expected to have been an excellent pilot. This accident shows that there are forces out there that have not been realized before. There was a front all the way from the Dakota’s, and north into Canada and down into New York that day. And the High Velocity Overhead Jet stream was all over the place changing directions that day. As I cannot put any figures in this reply if you read my new book titled: Science About How Tornadoes And Vortexes Form And How They Are Causing Planes To Crash (Including MH370) available from Barnes & Noble and Amazon, you begin to understand just what is causing a large number of these planes to crash.
    Ronald B Hardwig, Professional Engineer

  17. I problay should order the book by Mr Hardwig.Coming in close to stall speed,some convective activity,sudden wind shift,etc,it could get me

  18. According to Dan Gryder of Probable Cause, the aircraft was flown at a low altitude to the south end of Lake Placid’s East Lake, then turned around for a STRAIGHT IN on RWY 14 (NO IMPOSSIBLE TURN). The distance from the south end of the lake to the numbers on RWY 14 is approximately 2.5 miles. So, if all this is correct, it probably flew for about 2 to 3 minutes before crashing perhaps allowing for several radio transmissions explaining the situation. May Russ Francis and Richard McSpadden Rest In Peace.

    • Yea, Dan is a real wingnut, but at least he’s unchained form all parties involved who have other interest to protect. That includes Avweb and other corporate owned media who want to control discussion.

      The picture I drew from Dan’s mapping and presentation of available data was the age old trap of trying your best to save the plane without even getting a scratch on it. When it’s damn near doable is when it’s most seductive.

    • I wonder why that hasn’t been discussed more. Seems a departure turn around is what everybody is discussing.

      • The flight track reinforces that notion and dropping the gear confirms the idea of them really not wanting to put scratches on the plane. I can understand that. Unfortunately it looks like they were on the hook with that notion till they were trapped too low and too slow….. and then the hook was set.

        • I was unaware there was a track. Previous discussions revealed the track on record was from a previous date. Now I’m confused.

  19. Part of the irony is that Richard had multiple guests on his AOPA podcasts who experienced partial power situations. If you listen to them the question is always asked as to whether to continue on partial power or if it’s better to shut the engine down. There is no clear answer, but the question is a good one since partial power may be a less desirable option leading you to less desirable choices made.

  20. Rich, you will be missed. Thanks for the opportunity to discuss how the Air Force flew missions compared to what we did in the Corps. My friend I was brokenhearted when I heard about your accident. RIP ole buddy we will meet again.

  21. The prelim states that the engine driven fuel pump outlet fitting was not tight. Is it possible that this caused power loss.
    Something in the prelim does not compute. The location of the airplane is easily identified on satellite view. The location is to the RIGHT of the runway centerline NOT to the left as stated in report.
    Discussion in report about landing gear indicates that the gear was in transit. No mention of gear handle position.
    The turnaround discussion is interesting. AOPA did turnaround testing with a variety of airplanes. The difference between different but similar airplanes found in that report is interesting. I have been doing practice turnarounds for decades. never had to do a real one.

  22. The loose fuel pump fitting and other issues indicates the POSSIBILITY that the engine overhaul was a real shade tree event. Loose fuel pump fittings as well as other firewall forward fittings can easily result in a fire.

  23. Sunrise Aviation at John Wayne Airport teaches turnaround maneuver to pre solo students. There is no good place to go at that airport with engine failure on takeoff. Sunrise has an excellent video of simulated turnarounds in a Cessna 172.

  24. Almost new engine?
    My almost new had an issue with insufficient throttle arm clearance to give full power. Not evident on run up. Solved with a spacer washer.

  25. Richard was always kind to me. He sent a company hat to me a few years ago out of kindness. Every time I wore that hat I thought of Richards’s gentle kindness. Tonight, just like 3 weeks ago, I am thinking about Richard’s family. I feel their pain and their loss. My own father left in an airplane (Merlin IIB) that didn’t return. I was 19 and my hero/mentor was gone . Just getting by after the accident was difficult. This fitting 4 line verse was scratched on a newspaper and handed to my brother and I at my dad’s funeral….you may have seen it before

    Ask not how he died,
    But how he lived.
    Not what he gained,
    But what he did give.