Accident Probe: Time In Type?

A pitch-trim accident highlights that model-specific flight time may be less important than good primary training.

It’s an article of faith in aviation and other endeavors that having more experience with a specific machine is less risky than having less. In aviation, we measure this by the number of hours accrued in a specific aircraft type. A corollary is that pilots with relatively few hours in-type are at greater risk of making a mistake.

Usually, mistakes are not lethal, and we can easily recover from them. But understanding a problem confronting a low-time pilot and how to fix it can be elusive. It’s not that the low-time pilot doesn’t know how to fly; rather, it’s a lack of familiarity with specific systems and the consequences of doing X when we should have done Y.

One result places the pilot who starts flying a new-to-them aircraft at greater risk of an error, and less well-equipped to understand the error and remedy it before its potential consequences can be realized. Insurers know this, and that’s why they may require a minimum amount of experience and/or higher premiums until it’s gained. The smart pilot with little in-type experience will consider their status and take extra care to ensure they’re doing it right. Transference can be a problem, however, when habits learned on one type prove incompatible with the new type, and need to be relearned.

In this month’s accident, it’s unclear if any of that happened, though. The accident pilot’s experience was estimated to be 180 hours, which ain’t nothing, but it’s not clear in which aircraft they were flown. Regardless, there are some universal circumstances in any airplane that require the same pilot reactions.


On December 31, 2019, at about 1606 Central time, a Mooney M20S Eagle was destroyed when it stalled and crashed during an attempted takeoff from Olathe, Kansas. The instrument-rated private pilot (male, 48) and the passenger were fatally injured. Visual conditions prevailed.

A witness observed “nothing out of the ordinary” regarding the pilot’s behavior and “no red flags” with respect to his actions. The witness watched them take off for a return flight to their home base; he did not notice anything out of the ordinary. He indicated that, during the engine power-up, “all” sounded and looked normal.

However, he noticed that the airplane lifted off at a much slower speed than would be expected and immediately started to climb at a very high pitch attitude. The witness reported that as the airplane gained altitude, it appeared to fly slower to the point that its left wing stalled, “causing the [air]plane to nose over and continue its trajectory straight into the ground just east of the runway.” The witness stated engine power was “on” throughout the entire flight with no odd sounds noted.

Videos taken near the accident site were consistent with the witness statement. The airplane did not exhibit any in-flight fire or smoke in the videos, and a ground fire was observed after impact.


The airplane came to rest about 2550 feet from the departure runway’s threshold. Much of the fuselage was fire-damaged. The propeller was embedded in terrain; examination revealed S-shaped bending and leading-edge nicks, indicating it was under power on colliding with terrain. The right main landing gear was found partially extended; the left main gear’s position could not be determined.

The magneto switch was set to the both position. The mixture, propeller and throttle control knobs were in their forward positions. Data extracted from an engine monitor was consistent with observed operations. There were no pre-impact anomalies precluding normal operation detected during the engine and airframe examination. The airplane did not receive any fuel at Olathe.

The pilot and a co-owner purchased the airplane on November 26, 2019. According to a flight instructor, the accident pilot’s transition training included basic maneuvers, takeoffs, landings, airport entry activities, cross-country activities and go-arounds. He characterized the pilot as a “quick learn” and an “excellent student.” The instruction totaled 6.8 hours of flight time.

Service bulletins and an FAA airworthiness directive issued in 2012 directed one-time inspections of the pitch trim system for correct positioning, security and proper attachment. A mechanic who had worked on the accident airplane told the NTSB, in part, he was “sure” the AD and related service bulletins had been complied with previously or they would have been listed on associated paperwork as an action item.

A fixed-base operator servicing Mooney airplanes supplied photographs of an exemplar trim system jack screw at takeoff and full-up trim settings; when the trim indicator was in the full-up position, the jack screw was fully extended. A post-accident photograph of the accident airplane’s trim jack screw was consistent with the full-up trim setting in the exemplar photographs.

Probable Cause

The NTSB determined the probable cause(s) of this accident to include: “The pilot’s failure to set the elevator trim properly for takeoff, which resulted in an exceedance of the airplane’s critical angle of attack during climb out, an aerodynamic stall, and the subsequent impact with terrain.”

Most of us have forgotten once or twice to set the trim before takeoff. Usually, it’s not full down or full up, but somewhere in between. Also usually, we sense the abnormal trim setting at or near liftoff, when the airplane’s nose either pitches up readily or reluctantly. The smart thing to do is abort the takeoff and taxi back for another attempt only after re-running the before-takeoff checklist.

Even presuming the pilot didn’t recognize the abnormal trim setting, it should have been something a lot of forward pressure on the yoke could manage, at least for the few seconds it would take to either adjust the trim and continue, or reduce power and land on the remaining runway. That’s a decision and technique that’s not type-specific—it pretty much applies to any conventional airplane (which the Mooney series is, despite its tail being on backward).

One possibility is the pitch-trim jackscrew was jammed before takeoff in a fashion investigators missed. Maybe the electric trim ran away, or the autopilot malfunctioned. Maybe the AD hadn’t been complied with. Is it also possible the pilot had never been trained on abnormal pitch-trim settings?

The Mooney Tail Ad

According to the NTSB, the FAA on March 20, 2012, issued Airworthiness Directive (AD) 2012-05-09, requiring a one-time inspection of the trim fitting, hinge and filler plate of the tail pitch trim assembly for correct positioning and proper attachment. Affected models included the accident airplane, which had been manufactured 12 years earlier. The AD also called for inspecting the Huck Bolt fasteners for proper security on all Mooney models, including the accident airplane. The AD references mandatory Mooney service bulletins applicable to several models, also including the accident airplane. Its maintenance logbooks were not located, also according to the NTSB.

It’s likely the AD was performed. It had been issued seven years earlier, and been an open item on at least six annual inspections. The airplane was recently acquired, and likely went through a pre-buy inspection, which would have identified whether the AD had been complied with. If it wasn’t, compliance likely would have been a condition of sale.

Aircraft Profile: 2000 Mooney M20S Eagle

Not accident aircraft.

OEM Engine: Continental IO-550-G

Empty Weight: 2229 lbs.

Maximum Gross Takeoff Weight: 3200 lbs.

Typical Cruise Speed: 170 KTAS

Standard Fuel Capacity: 75 gal.

Service Ceiling: 21,000 ft.

Range: 856 NM

VS0: 58 KCAS

This article originally appeared in the December 2022 issue of Aviation Safety magazine.

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Joseph E. (Jeb) Burnside
Jeb Burnside is the editor-in-chief of Aviation Safety magazine. He’s an airline transport pilot who owns a Beechcraft Debonair, plus the expensive half of an Aeronca 7CCM Champ.


  1. My experience is in the M20K 231. The out-of-trim forces on that aircraft were substantial. I never found them difficult to overcome though. The all-moving tail trim system on the Mooney firmly couples trim setting with hands-off airspeed. The trim change with flap movement was also substantial. Raising the flaps on departure always caused a pitch up and lowering them caused a strong pitch down. I did have to “hang on to it” to maintain level flight at these times. I also remember the trim jack-screw had a tendency to stick in the full up position when it bottomed out. I always lubricated that area in later years and didn’t notice it then. It took additional force on the trim wheel to “pop” it loose. If the pilot expected the airplane to fly itself or got distracted by a stuck jack screw I can see how this would happen.

    • Oh, by the way, The tail is not on backward. It is a forward tapered wing section just like the wings. You don’t think the wings are on backward do you?

      • Wow thanks for setting the record straight on that, Dennis. Without your explanation I’ll bet some here would have thought that line humorous.

  2. I’m surprised the accident pilot was able to get signed off for this high performance complex airplane in only 6.8 hours. I conducted a checkout for a pilot in an M20J (lighter and less powerful) last year and the insurance company wanted a minimum of 10 hours and 25 takeoffs and landings for this pilot with no prior complex experience. It would be interesting to see more details from this accident pilot’s logbook, including prior HP/complex experience, details of the checkout, and how much flying he did in the six weeks between the checkout and the accident.

    It’s also interesting that this recently purchased airplane’s maintenance records were “not located.” Tweaks my “spidey sense” that something was amiss.

    • You don’t know his back round. He may have had many hours in High Performance Airplanes and even a different model Mooney. I was checked out in my Bonanza in 4 hours. The main thing was knowing the systems. The insurance was much looser at the time and due to my High Performance Complex Time only 2 hours of dual was required.

  3. Or someone simply chose not to give them to the NTSB when asked, figuring it doesn’t help them and might, somehow, hurt them. They can’t take the information back once revealed. Pretty standard lawyer logic.

  4. I’m not sure I agree that better primary training would have more effectively prepared this pilot than more time in type. Missing checklist items is a hallmark of task saturation, and task saturation is almost a given for pilots new to a specific airframe.

  5. I had runaway pitch trim on the first flight of a new-to-me M20K 231. On climb out the electric trim went to the full nose-up position and then jammed the jackscrew so that the manual trim wheel would not work. I was able to maintain control by pushing the yoke forward as hard as possible and reducing power. At least the landing flare was easy! Because I had several hundred hours of Mooney time, I knew that it was a possible to control the aircraft in that configuration, but with only 6.8 hours the Eagle pilot may have been unable to determine what to do in the few seconds he had to take the proper action.

    Because it is common to land a Mooney with a lot of nose up pitch trim, it is possible to take off with excessive nose up trim if it has not been set back to Takeoff position after landing. My Post-Landing checklist always included Flaps Up and Trim to Takeoff position. Trim to Takeoff position is also part of the Checklist before Takeoff.

    • Yep. One way to land the long Mooneys smoothly is to lean on the trim. If you have managed the airspeed properly into the flare, it will usually take very little other pitch adjustment to settle it nicely. This is why touch and goes are often not recommended because you land with pitch and rudder trim out of whack for take off.

      • People do that with 182s also and it is a very bad habit to get into. Makes a go around a difficult.

  6. There is a pretakeoff mnemonic that my dad taught me years ago (the RAF taught him in 1942). TMPFFGG. Trim, Mixture, Pitch, Fuel, Flaps, Gills (Cowl Flaps), Gyros.
    Takes about 10 seconds, if you run that before EVERY takeoff you will never miss something that can kill you in the first minute of flight.
    Part of any new type checkout should include handling out of trim scenarios.

    • CIGAR TIPS is another one. Best thing is to stop the plane and use the written check list in the POH.

  7. This sounds like he didn’t use his checklist which includes trim set to some predetermined position for take off.

  8. It’s been a long time but I remember touch and gos in the Mooney. It was flaps up and three handfuls of down trim before adding power.