STOL Pilot Warned To ‘Lower Your Nose’ Before Crash

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FAA inspectors took part in a safety briefing that preceded an impromptu STOL landing and takeoff competition that turned fatal in late May. In its preliminary report into the apparent stall-spin accident that killed competitor Tom Dafoe, the NTSB also says the pilot was reportedly warned twice to “lower your nose” on the third round of the unofficial competition held as an optional event within the MayDay STOL Drag meet at Wayne Municipal Airport in Nebraska on May 20. The full report is copied at the end of this story.

An unspecified number of FAA inspectors, along with organizers of the event, met with pilots who had suggested they compete in the traditional competition after the STOL Drag competition was postponed due to high winds exceeding minimums for the tailwind landings that are part of drag competitions. The 15-knot northeast wind was, however, good for a landing and takeoff competition on the grass Runway 31. According to the prelim, after two uneventful landings and takeoffs, Dafoe was on final for his third attempt and was warned over the radio by a STOL Drag rep who coordinated the pattern operations to “Lower your nose. You look slow” 45 seconds before the crash and to “Lower your nose” 15 seconds before the accident.

“During the third approach with the accident airplane on final approach and following a Zenith STOL 701 also on final, the accident airplane descended and appeared to be lower than the airplane ahead. Subsequently, the pitch attitude increased, the airplane rolled to the right, and completed a 3/4 turn right spin and impacted terrain in a near vertical attitude,” the report said. 

Like all the other competitors, Dafoe had taken part in training and evaluation before the event and had been “signed off” by organizers to take part, the report said. The accident happened on the second day of the four-day event and the remainder of the competition was canceled.

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24 COMMENTS

  1. I am sad for the pilot, his family, the spectators, the STOL Drag officials, and the aviation community as a whole who truly wanted a family friendly, safe, fun event. Competition, by its nature, pushes many into a decision making process that often results in unnecessary risks taken simply for the show.

    That is the reason for vetting which should include technical inspections, in this case, of the flying machines, minimum safety standards including required basic equipment, as well as a stepped approach for demonstrating flying skills such as required in the airshow business. ICAS is an excellent example of how the airshow industry has matured. Like all competitions, it does not eliminate risk. But certainly goes a long way helping mitigating risk.

    SCCA racing, drag racing, motorcycle racing, off-shore boat racing, any kind of racing sports has skill level requirements for both amateur and professional. By design, they are there to demonstrate skills before allowing movement from basic to advance competition. At each level, one has to master good decision making along with motor skills necessary at each level.

    It is not unusual for relatively inexperienced people to have excellent motor skills. But competition really accelerates decision making requirements which can take longer to master than the motor skills. However, like landing an airplane, which seems to be the final determining factor most apply in evaluating a pilot’s skill level, STOL motor skills which result in a the best timeslip and shortest distance is the ultimate determination of that day’s champion. And a pilot can become champion of that day while demonstrating poor aerial decision making as long as his or her ADM does not cause the flight to exceed physics. Without vetting, it is just a short time before someone dies exceeding their or the airplane’s limits.

    STOL Drags including public STOL demonstrations are very new. Yet, becoming wildly popular with aviators and spectators alike. But the participant who died in Nebraska was flying a stock airplane built 76 years ago, with no safety equipment outside of a lap belt, flying a very light plane in a strong wind, successfully demonstrating demanding STOL performance at least twice before the accident flight, at both ends of arguably, the most hazardous portion of any flying, the take off and landing…for no other reason than to show he could do it. He was flying in the company of very purpose built airplanes, mostly flown by highly experienced competitors. That is a lot of pressure on decision making skills. How do you make a stock Cessna 140 look like a worthy contender amongst the highly powered, turboed, VG’d, straked, big tire, long suspension, liquid cooled, carbon fiber, uber lightweight Experimentals, equally highly modified factory airplanes that are a far cry from original specifications, and specifically designed, factory produced back country Carbon Cubs, Husky’s, Super Cubs, Scouts, etc.?

    I saw several of the videos produced by the Cessna 140 pilot at High Sierra. He flew in the STOL Drags several times. He spent most of the 2,000 foot drag race on the ground trying to get his airplane off into the ground effect with a very, very short flight followed with the signature wildly cross controlled slip, a hard touchdown, the tail high, heavy brake stop, and the almost ground looped turnaround to flog this poor air-cooled Continental for another full throttle, instant idle repeat. Then fly home over the mountains. Add more videos of back country adventure. That is a lot to ask of a Cessna 140, Continental, and its pilot.

    One thing that I rarely have seen in primary training is how viscous a power on or power off stall can become when one stalls in relatively high winds and does not keep the nose into the wind. The wind in this accident was 15-21kts varying from 290 to 310 which would have made the pilot have to correct for a slight crosswind from the left. He was extremely slow, ignored two slow speed warnings from an experienced STOL Drag official, made a slight correction to the left, probably had a lot of right rudder in correcting for the relatively high power nose high attitude, and stalled. As soon as his nose departed a few degrees to the right the wind lifts the left wing, the right wing instantly becomes almost perpendicular to the relative wind, forward motion is almost stopped, and the airplane literally falls like a stone pointed downwind. This results in the nose swinging well past vertical, with the flight controls on all axis, virtually useless. It looks like a spin but one can see in the last frame, the nose is still well past vertical. Sort of an aerial ground loop. One sees this a lot at RC fields when a powered airplane or glider is dragged in during high winds and gets a few degrees off course instead of staying directly into the wind. These conditions can make the most stable, tame stalling trainer into a nasty handling airplane in a split second. Least expected in high winds almost but not quite lined up with the runway. Draco is another example of similar circumstances on take off. Think about that with spectators lining the fence line at a local show.

    I believe STOL demonstrations should have aircraft class parity, minimum safety equipment like shoulder harness and helmet, experienced ground spotters in communication with the pilots, limiting the number of participants in the demonstration, clearly defined pattern for each class of airplane, and a “landing signal officer”/LSO person capable of commanding a wave off when it appears the participant is not making good aeronautical decisions. I believe there should be a minimum tech inspection to make sure the airplane and pilot meets those minimum safety requirements. Lastly, having pilots demonstrate their skills at defined, consistent performance levels determined by aircraft class and peers who fly in that class rather than “run watcha brung” with qualifying for a new venue based on ya didn’t crash in practice or in a previous race so you are good to go. Yes, that will require some rulemaking, some collaboration among STOL groups to develop some basic standards. I hope AirVenture and/or ArkanSTOL does not become another showcase of questionable ADM because of the pressure of the “show”.

  2. Jim H., … Very thoughtful analysis. It’s ridiculous that such incomparables in aircraft AND airmen are promoted into competition against one another… a perfect set-up for the accident.
    Thank you Jim H. for putting it in such clear perspective.

    • “ It’s ridiculous that such incomparables in aircraft AND airmen are promoted into competition against one another… ”

      You can compete in such events with any type aircraft. Key word here: Compete.

      You can compete in a NASCAR race with a riding lawnmower.

      However, don’t confuse “compete” with “winning”. Just because you compete, doesn’t mean you’re going to win.

      Whether it’s a lawn mower, stock car or Cessna 140, you must operate your vehicle within certain parameters. Outside of certain parameters, no matter the mode of competition, could spell disaster.

  3. I have written extensively about low-speed un-commanded rolls caused by drag (adverse yaw) from the downwind aileron.

    Ailerons create two things, lift and drag. At critically slow speeds the aileron creates drag and no lift. Without going into great detail I am going to suggest that the 140 rolled to the right, vs stalling to the right. Roll that was created by left aileron input into the left crosswind wind at critically slow speed.

    Draco is a perfect example of an un-commanded roll toward the downwind created by right wing aileron drag (and other reasons). Another example is in the video of the King Air used for skydiving whereby full right aileron can be seen and the aircraft rolls left (does not break left). Further on in the video the King Air does completely stall and snaps hard to the right. The snap is a key indication of a stall and not a roll.

    I don’t have time to elaborate on this subject herein. If you care to learn more about this subject please send an email request to jeffwelch2426@gmail.com. I will send information to you.

  4. Agreed Jim, with much of what you say, however the section discussing stalls in high wind…. As soon as the…. perpendicular…forward motion stopped… etc.
    All poppycock. Yes, maneuvering in high winds close to the ground is disconcerting and sometimes challenging, since the site picture of the earth doesn’t move normally to the control inputs (remember turns around a point with a strong wind?) yet the same aerodynamic rules apply, as the airplane doesn’t “know” if it is in still air, a tailwind, quartering, etc… it is simply flying in an airmass.

    • But the airplane does “know” when it is flying from one air mass to another that is moving at a different speed or direction. We call that gust, or turbulence, or wind shear. The airplane “knows” because its inertia is relative to the outside world, not the particular air mass it is in at the moment. Anyone will understand if they’ve gotten dumped when the headwind they’re trying to land in suddenly disappears.

    • Agree completely.

      There was a bloke around here, might be the same fellow, talking about a wind shadow due to the pilot failing to crab into the wind, on the down wind wing causing less lift which resulted in a roll towards the right. It’s nonsense.

      Unless the pilot was inputting a wing down rudder opposite side slip, which wasn’t visibly evident, then the aircraft doesn’t know about the cross wind whatsoever. Inertia has a minor effect on a light aircraft, especially given the wind conditions present, given proper speed margin.

      Aileron drag and asymmetric stall is an issue of the aircraft began to depart, and the pilot countered the roll with opposite aileron. It’s a standard incipient spin entry, to counter, at the first indication of loss of lift, the pilot needed to neutralize aileron and unload immediately, to reduce AOA. At that altitude, it didn’t matter.

      It’s probably safe to say that side slip is misunderstood by most pilots. If you are going to fly in these events, it is of great importance to understand angle of attack and sideslip, what inputs aggravate the latter, and what the effects are.

      If you believe that crabbing causes wind shadows and asymmetric lift in coordinated flight, then you really shouldn’t be participating. This accident was caused by excessive angle of attack, probably exacerbated by control inputs after departure.

      I’m not sure these events are worth the risk, all things considered. Prima facia evidence is the loss of a husband and father. It won’t be the last.

  5. As also being pilot who also flies RC, I didn’t see S-turns, but I did see a pitch attitude that wasn’t being controlled. Just before the departure, you can see the plane pitch up, taking the energy away from already being behind the power curve. While the nose dropped in response, the damage was already done. Gusty winds cancelled the competition status, but the main thing I saw in the video was a lack of pitch control. I wonder if target fixation is also a cause here. And I totally agree that the Cessna 140 is a very poor choice for flying in this manner. And I agree that this isn’t a stall-spin, it’s a stall with one wing departing flight and gravity taking over. There was no rotation once the wing dropped to vertical other than the predictable turn of the unstalled wing toward the stalled wing, which yawed the plane to the right. An approach stall at low energy, low airspeed, high angle of attack. No shoulder harness should be disqualification for participation IMHO.

  6. This is not about a Cessna 140 – it just came down to poor piloting. Simple as that. I am not bashing the pilot – but it’s abundantly clear what happened to anyone that watched the video – and this article about being warned about being to slow and nose high just clarifies it more. It’s really not about the plane. And your point about the engine in the stol drag at high Sierra and flying over they mountains. That is nonsense. They all fly to and from that event and they are all flying over mountains. I would be way more comfortable in a rock solid continental- then a tricked out jet ski or snow mobile engine – that has been tuned for high hp with nitrous and high compression pistons. I’d take the continental everyday of the week and twice on Sunday if I was flying over the mountains.

    • Agreed. The 140 doesn’t know that it’s is a STOL competition any more than it knows what day of the week it is. The laws of physics don’t change because it’s Sunday or, you’re attempting a short field landing.

      The aircraft must be flown within certain parameters. No matter what day of the week it is.

  7. I fly radio controlled model sailplanes, SEL (wheels and skis) and SES from 40 hp Taylorcraft to C185 and am no by any means a top level STOL pilot. The famous downwind turn/crash problem is heard much more in the RC flyers than in SEL flyers because the RC flyers are standing on the ground and fly with reference to the ground and themselves. If the STOL pilots are flying with reference to the ground and and not AOA then wind speed does indeed have magical effects.

  8. Everyone “knows” the dangers.
    Everyone “knows” not to be nose high and mauever in that situation.
    Point is that we already “know” (so making broad new requirements or regs will not eliminate anything).

    These siuations show us “why” we don’t ignore what we know.
    Don’t be that guy.

  9. Doesn’t the airspeed indicator tell the driver his aircraft’s speed relative to forward motion, cross winds or not? I don’t fly fixed wing. My rotorcraft rating counts on maintaining rotor speed and attention to maximum cross winds at low speed that will overcome tail rotor authority. Airspeed means little to me since the moment lifting off the ground into a hover means I’m flying in place. Airspeed begins the moment I move in any direction but only moves the needle when the pitot tube is pressurized from forward motion. With a fixed wing, airspeed is crucial to maintaining vertical lift. I would imagine airspeed drops with any cross wind component and keeping airspeed above minimum maneuvering speed places a pilot worth his certificate at a higher stress level. STOL piloting in competition must place a higher skill level on pilots. An example of a skilled STOL pilot may be Mike Patey with a highly modified Scrappy, a CubCrafters Carbon Cub EX3 bush airplane. All went well during demos at various meets. It was unfortunate in the last event when he chose to takeoff in strong cross winds rather than choosing the runway into the wind when leaving the airport at the end of the day to return home when a gust blew his stol plane over. Skills? ADM was lacking at that moment. Pilot errors occur across the entire spectrum from beginners to high time pilots.

    • No, the airspeed indicator does not always indicate forward speed of the aircraft nor it’s stall speed.
      Sometimes I play like a hellicopter in my fixed wing and fly level with the airspeed below the “white arc” stall speed.

  10. From my perspective, this accident began about 5 minutes before the plane hit the ground.
    Missing from the articles I have read is the spacing for arrivals. A Cessna 140 following a Super-STOL needs a bigger gap to make its approach, since it will be flying faster. From the videos, you can see 3 or 4 planes in the pattern, spaced at regular intervals. It looks like the 140 was closing the gap and that this was a factor in the accident. Yes, he could have chosen to go around but that is not the point. With different airplane models in the pattern, they need to maintain appropriate spacing. Respectfully, I think that is where the focus should be.