The Risky Lure of Oshkosh

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AirVenture is many things to many people, but one thing is undeniable: It is a giant, unending photo-op for airplane junkies. A blind-folded four-year old could swing a camera with the shutter on auto could produce Web-worthy images. So when Jack Roush's jet crumped on the runway last week, it was inevitable that it would be caught on camera. Indeed, we published Brian Flanagan's dramatic images on AVweb.

I talked to two witnesses who saw this crash from beginning to end, and although they agree on the observed fact pattern, their attitude toward the root cause diverges. I'm not going to speculate myself, but one thing that will undoubtedly be addressed in the investigation is this: Do the procedures and clearances controllers use at Oshkosh make this sort of accident more likely? Stated another way, do the reduced separation standards and novel procedures that controllers use set pilots up for these wrecks? In my view, the answer is probably yes. On the other hand, I wouldn't change a thing because the fact is, if you fly an airplane into AirVenture, you better understand that you have to bring your A-game. If you can't do that or you don't have the confidence to know that you can, take the airlines or drive in. Or go to Appleton or Fond du Lac.

People who study such things understand that "safety" comprises a number of elements that coalesce into a system. Pilots rely on controllers to be a critical part of that system while simultaneously forgetting that controllers aren't flying the airplanes. Stated another way, decisions and executions that pilots make can reduce to utter hash the best efforts put forth by controllers to separate aircraft and provide safety advisories. In this equation, pilots are potent, controllers merely incidental.

To accommodate the intense rush of traffic, ATC uses reduced separation standards, thus you will see two airplanes (or three) occupying the same runway at the same time. You'll further hear pilots asked to fly a tighter than normal or a carving base, or to slow it up behind another airplane or to keep the speed up and land long or to join a mix of airplanes with a 60-knot speed Delta or to land on the orange dot or to sidestep on short notice to another runway that might have a blustery crosswind.

In other words, we're talking about the Olympics of visual airport operations—both for pilots and controllers. Safety margins are, in my view, compromised in favor of handling more traffic. If you want to build in more margins—the kind you're used to at the home drome—just plan on more delays and less capacity. It's that simple.

Into this conundrum comes Joe Average pilot, whose skills may or may not be eroded from the impact of $5 gas and a grim recession. Simply being a pilot means you want to walk the walk, so when the controller says land on the orange dot and you're too high and too fast, what do you do? You go for it. The allure of rising to the challenge shunts aside the reality that your skills aren't up to it and even if they were, the airplane might not be. Plus, you don't want to make the harried controller's job more difficult by missing your mark, forgetting that he's there to enhance your safety, you're not there to make his (or her) runway plan work out.

Further, like pilots, controllers sometimes make assumptions about what pilots and airplanes can do that aren't especially anchored to reality. The pressure cooker pace of AirVenture may amplify this. Because we're all wired to make it work, we push on into the margins that are already at their limits. If that isn't the description for a setup, I don't know what is.

Some 10 years ago, I stopped flying into Oshkosh, not out of concern for safety but for convenience during departures. If weather moves in, my schedule doesn't allow for staying an extra day or two, so I simply removed that variable by landing at Appleton. It is unrealistic to expect Oshkosh controllers to accommodate any more traffic than they already are or to push out 100 IFR departure an hour if the weather tanks. The system is reasonably compromised in favor of higher capacity. It shouldn't be asked to do more. Nor should anyone assume the compromise doesn't exist.

I'll concede to being absolutely old school about this. In fact, I'm a fossil. I applaud the FAA's willingness to adjust normally rigid rules in favor of accommodating more traffic. I accept that this raises risk slightly—but only slightly--but I also relish the opportunity to demonstrate that I can perform in circumstances like this. I suspect that a statistical study of AirVenture accidents would reveal a rate-per-operation that might not be remarkable. The higher risk applies to individual pilots who would normally fly more conservatively. Oshosh may simply change the accident venue and concentrate the occurrences.

If I were in charge, I wouldn't change a thing, other than simplifying the NOTAM to something less than 37 pages and placing in it somewhere this exact statement in this exact language:

If you come here, your skills and judgment better be up to it. And remember that all controllers know what this word means: unable. You should, too.

Comments (33)

I agree with everything you said. At a place like OSH, there is an increased margin of risk that grows exponentially as approach speed increases. The Roush crash sounds eerily like the fatal Lancair crash on final a couple of years ago.
I got cut off by the Ford Tri-motor a couple of years ago, fortunately I was in a slow enough airplane it didn't matter. Would have been ugly in a jet or even a medium twin.

Posted by: Josh Johnson | August 6, 2010 12:33 PM    Report this comment

There has been a lot of media coverage of the Jack Roush crash, but almost no coverage of the two Piper's that collided over Ripon. The NTSB has a preliminary report describing a collision between a PA-11 and a PA-32 while on the arrival into AirVenture. The NTSB ID of event is CEN10IA447B.

Posted by: RYAN TURNER | August 6, 2010 3:04 PM    Report this comment

Amen to all your comments. I ferried a Twin Comanche in for the auction. Tight right downwind, start base at numbers, land on orange dot. Setup for base to final stall spin without currency and your A game.

Posted by: Charles Haubrich | August 7, 2010 5:37 AM    Report this comment

Well I had the best view you could have of the accident. I was number 4, behind two RV's and a 337 for intersection departure from 18R. What I saw was a light jet on a piston plane base. I applaud Rouch for sparing me and the others on that Taxiway our lives. He recovered what looked like to be a stall, cleared our aircraft and safety, abet for the aircraft, landed in the ditch behind us. From my point of view his only error was to accept the landing clearance, and to fail to go around when it was clear that he could not safely land. I think that he flies a P-51 and that might have clouded his judgment. But he showed excellent pilot skills after making a nearly fatal error. He harmed no one but himself and his passenger. Many could have been injured or killed, I thank him for continuing to fly the aircraft.

Despite this event, I will continue to fly to Oshkosh. I think despite the traffic it is much safer then flying around the pattern in a busy non towered airport.

Bruce Billedeaux

Posted by: Bruce Billedeaux | August 7, 2010 9:56 AM    Report this comment

My son and I were in the home built parking area near the home built store. I have to agree with Mr Billedeaux that it appeared the accident started on base. My son pointed out this jet on base flying almost directly at us. He appeared to be very nose high and the wings were rocking back and forth. At the time we tried to rationalize why a jet would be flown in this manner, trying to convince our selves that the rocking was not signs of a stall. I recall this continued after the turn to final which seemed low and close in for a business jet (several hundred feet down the runway and maybe a couple hundred feet AGL).

Our view of the rest of the landing was not very good but it was obvious the pilot was having problems controlling the plane right up until it rolled right and hit the ground.

We too count ourselves lucky that the turn to final was successful.

There seems room for some balance in the compromise we as pilots and ATC seek here. I don't recall L39s using this tight pattern and I believe they have equal or better low speed handling characteristics. There aren't a lot of jets landing on 18. Maybe they should be afforded a larger pattern.

Posted by: E Eaton | August 8, 2010 9:24 PM    Report this comment

Since 1992 I've been a controller at Airventure 8 times and I've flown in twice as PIC(in a C172). I've seen various procedures come and go. What makes it all work is cooperation and team work. I don't just mean amongst controllers, but rather everyone involved: EAA volunteers, pilots, airport officials, etc. There are enough folks that aren't familiar with or just don't follow procedures to make it interesting at times, but the overwhelming majority do amazing things. You guys all make it work but you do need to be on your game. Remember to always fly the airplane first. If something doesn't look right question it. If traffic or weather conditions approach the aircraft's or your limitations land elsewhere and come back later. Airventure is much more than the some of its parts!

Posted by: TIM OBERDOERSTER | August 9, 2010 7:53 AM    Report this comment

Since it has been over a week that the edited audio tape between the tower and Roushs aircraft, 6JR, was published here on AVweb some thoughts come to mind. The first radio call was a report over The Island with tower giving him a left downwind for 18R. With the editing of all the transmissions two stand out. First one is from 6JR "Tower is this going to work", a time pause with "I don't think so" and then a garbled "Going around".

So we have the pilot already having some thoughts on spacing and it would appear that he was in one of those go ahead and try it, or go around and fix it.

Also, with Roush in the Cockpit and a pax in the back can someone clarify if the Premier 1A is a single pilot approved aircraft?

Posted by: Walt Troyer | August 9, 2010 7:55 AM    Report this comment

The Raush accident was just pilot error, although the situation enabled it. I don't know the pilot, but perhaps it is a rich guy with a big ego who is in over his head? Hopefully the insurance company and/or the FAA will take action to prevent another incident.

Oshkosh procedures are fine, with one serious exception. The Fisk arrival has all VFR traffic arriving in one spot, several miles before reaching the first controller. The aircraft are to sort themselves out. If traffic is light, no problem. But when the airport closes temporarily and incoming planes are asked to circle wherever they are, a large backlog develops. When the airport is reopened, the flood of incoming airplanes creates a most dangerous situation.

Posted by: Dan MacDonald | August 9, 2010 8:15 AM    Report this comment

The 18 approach is the most challenging and pilots need to be prepared for a tight base and low turn to final. That's not something some pilots regularly practice, especially those flying higher performance planes.

The procedures work, but only as well as the pilots flying those procedures. I volunteer as a departure briefer for 18/36. Even after we review with pilots what is in the notam and answer their questions, there are always a few who don't stick to the headings and altitudes required after take off while they are in the class D. 99% however do a great job.

For me the scariest part of flying in is Ripon. Once I'm past Fisk everything is (usually) sorted out and the stress level goes down a bit.

Posted by: BRADLEY KRAMER | August 9, 2010 8:33 AM    Report this comment

Do the OSH controllers ask a jet to land on a spot or give them the entire
runway? I would assume the latter but I am not sure.

I agree with Dan MacDonald that the most dangerous part is the Fisk arrival. This year traffic was light
at the time of our arrival so no problem. 2009 was a completely different story. We arrived as a flight of nine with correct spacing and speed into Fisk. We had pilots
violating everything in the Notam coming in all around us. Descending from above, climbing from below, cutting in from the side, flying much faster than 90 Kts or much slower, passing other aircraft. Basically flying as if the rules did not apply to them. That was the biggest danger for us.

OSH is not the place for rusty pilots to fly into. Practice your skills before the air gets crowded!

Posted by: Ric Lee | August 9, 2010 8:50 AM    Report this comment

Correction. I meant arriving at Ripon, not Fisk.

Posted by: Ric Lee | August 9, 2010 8:51 AM    Report this comment

Paul Bertorelli is exactly right. The Oshkosh NOTAM should state on the first page that the procedures that follow assume that they'll be flown as published by proficient pilots who can fly the prescribed ground tracks, headings, altitudes, and airspeeds and who can fly a go-around without losing control of the aircraft.

Posted by: William Kight | August 9, 2010 9:19 AM    Report this comment

I just found out the answer to one of my questions. The Beechjet is Single Pilot approved.

Posted by: Walt Troyer | August 9, 2010 9:24 AM    Report this comment

Oshkosh is great to fly into if you have properly prepared yourself, and I have done so many times as well as Appleton and Wautoma. My concern is that EAA is getting away from the little guy that is the reason for EAA and more into Big Business with less regard for the grassroots that started EAA. There is definitely an elitist attitude within the EAA which is detracting from the individual, who, after all is what EAA is supposed to be all about.

Posted by: Brian McLellan | August 9, 2010 11:27 AM    Report this comment

I have flown in to OSH for AirVenture on three occasions, albeit none as PIC. Rather, my father, with about 2000 hours, acted in that capacity, while I, at the time 13-15 years of age, helped as I could. I've since gotten my private, and have about 80 hours.

My father knew of the challenges flying in to Oshkosh for the event, so on our first visit, we arrived at perhaps 1 AM the day the festivities were scheduled to kick off. I can pick out our Grumman Tiger in overhead pics from that year as it's slightly out of line compared to the others - that because we parked in the middle of the field, with no other aircraft around. Conclusion: if you're not sure of your abilities, you can arrive far off-hours.

The second and third years, he felt more on his game, and we flew in during the event. There were no issues, as we had prepared for it. I say 'we' intentionally, since I too was prepped to assist with the specifics of the approach.

I'd conclude with 'be prepared', and 'know thyself' as the two tenets for flying in to OSH for AirVenture.

Posted by: Daniel Leinbach | August 9, 2010 11:53 AM    Report this comment

Brian McLellan... I have also noticed the commercialization. With big displays for Ford, Scotts, and Oshkosh trucks all being non-aviation related - I assume that anyone that brings enough cash can do whatever they want. Yet EAA needs plenty of cash to run the operation. This year the attendance was down due to weather, and their costs were up with supporting so many campers in lots around the city.

Daniel Leinbach... I believe that KOSH is closed to both arrivals and departures all night throughout the fly-in.

Posted by: Dan MacDonald | August 9, 2010 12:23 PM    Report this comment

Roush was lucky - and so were all of us who love Airventure.

From my vantage pushed out from homebuilt showplane parking by the Brown Arch and getting ready to crank up and taxi for a departure from 18, Roush could have easily stalled/spinned right into Aeroshell Square. That would have been a national made-for-tv disaster. I shudder to think about it.

Of all the comments above, the one I most agree with is that landing 18 should be reserved for the slow piston crowd. High performance piston and turbine powered aircraft never practice a low (slow) base to final landing. Never.

We were ALL very lucky.

Posted by: William Crook | August 9, 2010 12:26 PM    Report this comment

First, when it comes to the jet belly flop, it is hard to ignore a stick shaker and a pusher no matter what game your are on.

Saying no to a controller is easy. Everyone should try it a couple of times just for practice.

Most important, I think every pilot needs to understand the concept of airspeed and bank in a dynamic fashion meaning going up with an instructor and at a safe altitude, experience stalls with various angles of bank. Be prepared for the spin.

If you practice the experience, you will not let yourself get too slow.


Posted by: Brent Blue | August 9, 2010 2:10 PM    Report this comment

A Premier Jet can be flown single pilot. One would have to wonder if that's a good idea going into OSH though.

Posted by: Josh Johnson | August 9, 2010 2:46 PM    Report this comment

By the way, why the heck aren't they landing jets on 18L 36R and leaving the piston aircraft to the other runway. Seems like a no-brainer. Am I missing something?

Posted by: Josh Johnson | August 9, 2010 6:55 PM    Report this comment

I was standing on the spectator line watching departures, south of Aeroshell Square. When I saw the jet, it was heading for the classic parking and the nose was wandering. I didn't know which way to run. The engines were spooling up and he was coming down; he crashed right in front of me. I agree that we in aviation were very lucky that Roush got the Premier away from the crowd and the Classics, barely. He was a long way from the runway. It appeared to me (though I did not see his approach) that he turned base too soon and overshot base to final. The accident was pilot error.

Posted by: Rankin Whittington | August 9, 2010 7:27 PM    Report this comment

I will admit, flying into OSH is a rush. Being able to fly a Mooney slow enough to fit in with the slow traffic and land on the middle dot is very satisfying. That being said, a guy that stopped flying into OSH 10 years ago told me what it was like and that you had to be on your A game. I went out and practiced, slow flight, spot landing, etc. Bottom-line, know before you go and practice for unusual procedures.

Posted by: DANA NICKERSON | August 9, 2010 8:05 PM    Report this comment

For less drama, put the wheels down at Sheboygan (KSBM) and take the mellow drive to Oshkosh in the Wisconsin countryside. No one dances in the seat more than me in congested areas - and KSBM is a soothing arrival and departure despite it being uncontrolled.

Posted by: LARRY ANGLISANO | August 10, 2010 10:33 AM    Report this comment

Pilots needed their A-game for Fon du Lac this year. Unfortunately, some pilots brought their B-game.

I'll say it again on this forum, the Ripon arrival is a disaster in the making with pilots arriving from 360 compass directions to a point in space over Ripon as directed by their GPS (sometimes coupled to the AP) all ready to do a steep turn on a heading to Fiske on the count of 1...2...NOW.

Posted by: Stephen Fabiszak | August 11, 2010 6:35 AM    Report this comment

I think that if everyone just read the NOTAMS we would be much better off. When we arrived at Rippon, we can’t believe all the radio traffic from the incoming aircraft. The only person on the frequency is ATC. If done per the NOTAM, arrival at Rippon is a non event, follow the guy in front, keep spacing, and listen to the radio calls. We arrived this year and landed on 27R without every talking on the radio. It’s just not that hard listen and look.

Posted by: Bruce Billedeaux | August 11, 2010 8:07 AM    Report this comment

Ripon certainly makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. So does short final. No doubt there's a significantly higher risk at these points, but still IMHO manageable.

Posted by: Josh Johnson | August 11, 2010 1:54 PM    Report this comment

Re crowded airspace at OSH during AirVenture: I have an idea I'd like to run past the participants here. If a particular pilot has the qualifications, experience and ability to land his or her airplane at night, say at 0300 hours, I think some kind of incentive (i.e. a lower landing fee) should be offered to such pilots to arrive in the middle of the night, when OSH airspace will be less crowded.

Posted by: Alex Kovnat | August 16, 2010 11:00 AM    Report this comment

Do you think that night landing is prohibited mostly for the safety of the people and equipment on the ground and the ability to staff it late at night.

Posted by: Bruce Billedeaux | August 16, 2010 11:27 AM    Report this comment

@B. Billedeaux: Good points! Obviously only those who have the experience (i.e. several recent night takeoffs and landings) and qualifications (i.e. IFR-rated, unless its a very clear night) should be allowed to come to AirVenture at night. Did Jack Raush have said qualifications? He might have. As for staffing, again a good point. All one can say is: That might not be an easy problem to solve, but if said issue is solved, it will increase the per-24-hours capacity of OSH to accomodate arrivals and departures during the busy days of AirVenture.

Posted by: Alex Kovnat | August 16, 2010 11:41 AM    Report this comment

Huh? The Roush crash occurred during daytime hours. OSH is closed to nighttime arrivals and departures during Airventure - there is no lighting in the parking areas.

Posted by: Josh Johnson | August 16, 2010 5:47 PM    Report this comment

He didn't crash because he had trouble seeing where he was going, he crashed because of "speed delta", i.e. traffic conflicts brought about, or aggravated by, differing Vref airspeed (i.e. jets being faster on landing approaches than piston planes). If Jack Roush were to have arrived at night, the airspace would have been less crowded and air traffic/speed delta conflicts might not have occurred.

As for lighting: install lights! Like I said, if we can solve the problems of night landings, it will be as if the existing runways, by some miracle, were able to handle more takeoffs and landings per hour when averaged over a 24 hour period. As for aircraft noise at night: I've camped at Oshkosh (at Camp Scholler) 10 times and believe me, you have to get used to a little noise from fellow campers when you're trying to sleep.

Posted by: Alex Kovnat | August 17, 2010 7:15 AM    Report this comment

The problem I see with night landings is that there'd be no flightline volunteers to handle the parking. With tents all over the place and on-field campers wandering around the field I wouldn't feel comfortable having planes taxiing around in the dark and deciding for themselves where to park. It might work if there was a designated night-time parking area far away from the usual parking/camping spots.

Posted by: BRADLEY KRAMER | August 18, 2010 8:06 AM    Report this comment

100% agreement with your comments. If I'm going to go to a really large airshow like Airventure, I leave the big, cabin twin at home and drive. Too much traffic with too many guys that still think flying is like it was in the 1930's and that certain rules don't really apply to them. I commend the FAA and all the ATC people at Oshkosh for the amazing job they do every year. I your not fully up to the challenge, this is one "competition" to NOT enter!

Posted by: Charles LaBow | August 24, 2010 4:47 PM    Report this comment

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