Blog: V-Tail Myths And The Truth, As We Know It, So Far


As the former owner of a vintage V-tail Bonanza, I always pay attention when one of them crashes. Last week’s tragedy in Tennessee drew particularly wide interest for two reasons. It involved an in-flight breakup, and the pilot was a doctor. Both invoke traditional assumptions about V-tails, and even vintage Bonanza lovers like me acknowledge there is at least a grain or two of truth in each.

Starting with the structural failure: Contrary to the legend, in most Bonanza breakups, the V-tail doesn’t fall off. As with a large percentage of in-flight breakups involving high-performance aircraft, they most often involve wing-spar failure. That is consistent with this accident, in that witnesses reported seeing the airplane descending with both wings folded up before impact. This is often the result of the aircraft picking up excessive airspeed as a result of pilot disorientation in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC), followed by an abrupt pitch-up after exiting the bottom of the cloud.

When I first learned to fly my 1954 E-35 and read John Eckalbar’s excellent book “Flying the Beech Bonanza,” I resolved that if I ever got myself into a situation where I felt vulnerable to disorientation in cloud, I would drop the landing gear. A Bonanza in clean, cruise configuration picks up speed quickly when the nose drops (that is also true of later “conventional-tail” Debonairs). With the gear down, however, a V-tail Bonanza is surprisingly stable and docile (I was amazed to find it easier to land than my Grumman AA1-B), and it virtually cannot accelerate to dangerous airspeeds.

Of course, sitting by the fire reading the book and resolving to lower the gear—and actually doing it under stress—are two different things. Fortunately, I never found myself in the position to make that decision.

The pilot of the accident airplane being a physician has rekindled a lurid stereotypical expression involving V-tail Bonanzas. In the early days of the Bonanza (it first appeared in 1947), there was a rash of highly publicized accidents involving well-heeled professionals with more money than flying experience or skill. In the meantime, there have come along multiple opportunities to acquire the training and experience necessary to fly a Bonanza in safety. The American Bonanza Society is a landmark example. But that doesn’t stop the damning comments from keyboard commandos.

As I write this, there is much we still do not know about this accident, including information on the pilot’s experience level and training. He registered N47WT, a radar- and tip-tank-equipped 1966 V-35, in January. Photos appear to show a well-maintained example of an early Bonanza with sophisticated, modern upgrades.

No information has come out yet about what aircraft the pilot may have owned previously, if any, nor any word on what transition training he may have received. His biography on his practice’s website makes note of his passion for aviation. There has been no information to date on what avionics and autopilot might have been installed. Also, other than mention in reports of “minor” convective activity in the area, not much information is available on weather, including bottoms of the clouds, which could be an important factor.

Those are the things we don’t know. What we do know (according to data posted on FlightAware and recorded ATC communications) is that the flight departed on May 15 just before 10:00 a.m. local time from Gonzales, Louisiana (KREG), bound for Louisville, Kentucky. The pilot’s adult twin son and daughter were on board and also died in the tragic crash.

Presumably, the pilot was flying on an instrument flight plan, as the flight maintained a cruise altitude of 7,000 feet (and ADS-B groundspeed of 125 to 130 knots) until about 12:53 p.m. local time, roughly three hours into the flight. The Bonanza then initiated a climb, apparently cleared to 9,000 feet, but topping at close to 10,000 feet.

Before then, at about 12:45, the aircraft began to deviate from its 30-degree northeast on-course heading as far left as 15 degrees. Air traffic control tapes reveal the enroute controller called out the heading and altitude deviations and instructed the pilot to correct course, and, twice, to descend to 9,000 feet, which the pilot acknowledged both times with “descending to 9,000.”

Less than three minutes later, the Bonanza was at 7,800 feet descending at 4,000 feet per minute on a heading of 154 degrees and an ADS-B-derived groundspeed of 188 knots. Never exceed speed (Vne) for the V-35 is 192 knots. FlightAware data stopped at that point. Radar contact was lost some 3,500 feet lower, airspeed and rate of descent not known, but presumably at a significant increase.

This all unraveled quickly. It was roughly seven minutes from the initial climb (we don’t have information on when or why he was assigned 9,000 feet) to the final steep descent and crash. In between were corrections assigned by ATC for heading and altitude.

Speaking to the grain of truth regarding buyers of expensive airplanes, it is factual that there are aircraft owners who are able to write checks for aircraft that can be beyond their capabilities in certain circumstances. It’s too early to conclude that was the case here. As to their vulnerability to breaking up, the V-tail Bonanza is a marvel of performance and efficiency for its time—and remains so today. Specific risks exist, but they are well known. For example, since the main tanks sit forward of the center of balance on my airplane, I was acutely aware that it was possible to “burn” myself out of its aft center-of-gravity limits if I wasn’t careful with fuel management. It’s an airplane that has to be flown with care in IMC.

As for the landing-gear strategy, there is an element there of the same mindset involved in pulling a ballistic parachute. Extending the gear at excessive airspeeds can cause damage. My earlier Bonanza had an inconveniently low gear-extension speed, around 135 knots (as I recall). The V-35 in this situation had a gear-extension speed limit of 142 to 150 knots, which was still significantly lower than what the pilot would have seen on his airspeed indicator as things started to get out of control. But the risk of extending the gear while going too fast is limited to ripping off the gear doors—expensive, but not life-threatening and possibly lifesaving.

Mark Phelps
Mark Phelps is a senior editor at AVweb. He is an instrument rated private pilot and former owner of a Grumman American AA1B and a V-tail Bonanza.


    • That was my first guess too, but the more I study this and listen to other’s analysis, especially Juan Browne, I’m now favoring an overwhelmed pilot in bouncy cumulus clouds that got spatially disoriented. CO would have been more humane, going to sleep instead of a terrifying last few minutes in a doomed airplane.

  1. Mark you threaded the “grains of truth” valiantly here while preserving final judgement for those equipped and charged with that task. Thank you.

    Having said that, your phrases “lurid stereotypical expression involving V-tail Bonanzas” and “beyond their capabilities in certain circumstances” might benefit from some burnishing based on actual history to include the phrase “judgement which becomes vulnerable to the pressures of work schedule.”

    Thank you for a well written blog.

  2. Isn’t there an AD for spar cracks on the carry-thru? Would be interesting to know the maintenance history on this plane as well.

  3. There are 76 year old Bonanzas still flying around. How “dangerous” could they be. Complex planes need frequent complex maintenance and pilot training to match.

  4. Been there, done that. I’m here today because I was flying the Bonanza’s tougher brother, the T34. Night VFR, no instrument rating, old, tired, precessing gyros, an unseen cloud, and the dazzling reflections from the rotating beacon; the classic graveyard spiral naturally ensued. The G meter showed 7.5 when I got home and I vividly remember seeing the reflection of my nav lights in the water as my vision greyed out in the pullout. All the “holes in the Swiss cheese” lined up, save one. Never again!

  5. Balanced report on this unfortunate story. I feel great empathy for the mom/wife of this crew. Thanks for withholding the “clueless rich doctor” comments for more conclusive evidence. As a spatial disorientation survivor I have to thank my instructor Tim B. for sticking me in a white out cloud bank at night with the nav and strobes on in a no AP TB9 with HSI and 430W only then waiting patiently until I failed the test … It only took one. Never again with the will of God.

  6. We do not know the cause of this inflight breakup, however there are other similar situations. I know of three situations where an inflight breakup may have been caused by flying through a violent updraft. None of the pilots survived and we will never know for sure. Presumably, the updraft was not seen. Here is an example.

    A few years ago a friend called to tell me a trike gondola crashed in a field at his farm. The pilot was deceased of course. He witnessed the trike wing separate from the gondola. The sky was clear. Immediately after the call, I looked at weather radar and a very small, intense red dot developed and died along the trike’s flight path. Was this a violent updraft that separated the wing from the gondola? This accident really hit home as I was planning on flying that day in the same area. I decided against it and I’m not sure why. This incident and others makes me curious about how many other inflight breakups occur due to this phenomena and how it can be avoided.

    • That can be a factor, even in clear air.
      Enroute from Maryland to Indiana one fair mid summer day, at 9000, over Morgantown, I picked up a thermal and was quickly in a substantial updraft in smooth, clear air, no clouds. As the VSI kicked up, I nosed down, then throttled back. It was quickly apparent that the airplane was going up, no matter what I did. I asked Center for a block which they granted after telling me there was no weather there. I topped out 1900 ft high and started back down to assigned altitude. Still smooth air all the way to Fort Wayne, but right after I passed through, the guys behind me started reporting turbulence and less than a minute later a convective sigmet popped up on the Lynx ADSB box and dots on the stormscope. I think I was probably the first and luckiest at the very beginning of the updraft because all WST broke loose a few minutes after I passed through.

      Attitude flying, horizontal speed control and letting the airplane go up and down is another resource that may be useful for fixed gear flyers. I thank a highly experienced old flight instructor for that lesson a couple of decades back.

  7. Former 1967 V Tail owner, instructor with ABS/BPPP and BPT INC for over 25 years. Will study this one! History had it wrong:”Vtail doctor killer” is exactly backward….history reveals that the doctors were killing the V tails!! Many in flight breakups due to vertigo in the clouds, leading to high speed spirals exiting the clouds at very low levels and extremely over G pull outs. Litigation / court rooms, etc gave the V tail a bad name and led to structural reinforcements etc. The airplane is built to withstand 4.4 G, tested to 6.6 G successfully…however metal will bend/fail at 8 g in a stressful pull out!! The double spar has not been the problem….only in the T34 which has been overstressed by young wannabe Navy pilots over and over again.
    Lesson learned: when you buy a high performance airplane you need high performance training.
    Kent Ewing, Navy Test Pilot, CFII, MEI

  8. Re “descending at 4,000 feet per minute … and an ADS-B-derived groundspeed of 188 knots. …(Vne) for the V-35 is 192 knots”. In a steep descent angle might not the GPS-derived groundspeed be lower than the true airspeed? Acknowledging that an airplane is not likely to immediately disintegrate on exceeding Vne by one or two knots, that might have been a technology factor in analyzing this case.

    • I think he did a fine job providing data without it becoming a mess of technical and legalese. If the g/s is 188 it’s pretty clear the aircraft was near/over Vne and experiencing a lot of stress (square rule).

      Good article.

    • “Knowing Ground speed has nothing to do with knowing if Vne was exceeded.”
      True enough, technically, but it has everything to do with a high probability that it WAS exceeded, given the observed circumstances. This was pointed out by the individual who posted roughly an hour ahead of you, and it makes sense to me, having survived a similar scenario in another Bonanza variant. (Albeit with a much higher Vne and a draggier airframe.)

    • Vectors. The descent rate was 4000 fpm. The groundspeed was reported at 188 kts. That’s the horizontal component of his airspeed. What was the vertical component?

      • 4000 fpm is about 40 kt. In no wind conditions, 188 horizontal plus 40 vertical gives a speed vector of 192.

  9. “ There has been no information to date on what avionics and autopilot might have been installed.”

    There is actually (I think on FlightAware). I believe there is a dated picture of an Aspen, GTN750/GNS430 and that old Century AP. It will be interesting to see if he upgraded that Century to a GFC500 or equivalent. I don’t think so because the “LVL” button would have saved his life.

  10. Hypoxia? Problems started climbing from 7000 to 9000. While supplemental oxygen isn’t legally required until 12,500, many folks need it much lower depending on their age, physical fitness, and medical condition.

  11. Great reminder of what (most of) our Bo instructors taught – drop the gear and buy new gear doors. Listening to ATC he wasn’t hypoxic. He wasn’t flying blind he was talking to ATC. He might have told ATC he didn’t like their suggestion on his heading. He climbed into convective weather and this was result. He bought the plane in January and, as was noted on BeechTalk, this was his 1st “real” flight. Most of the limited time in this plane were local flights of 30 minutes or less. Sad reminder of the old tale about doctors in V-tails.

  12. The AA1’s have a package of myths, too. I had over 750 hours on mine. Good training and flying skills are key to a safe flight.

  13. Good article on the Bonanza. I’ve checked many pilots in Bonanzas of all model ( mostly V tails) and always tell them the same thing,” If you feel the plane is getting away from you,reduce power and drop the gear. A Bonanza at idle with the gear down won’t exceed its VNE and the only thing you’ll lose ( maybe) are the doors.

  14. There are several important nuggets in both Mark’s well written article and in the thoughtful musings in the many comments. Kudos to all.

    In addition to dropping the gear and pulling power would pulling the prop pitch to max climb (near FLAT) further mitigate undesired increases in airspeed…?? And possibly reduce stresses on gear doors? I am NOT a Bonanza pilot, however. It works with SE fixed gear SE aircraft, retractible SE Pipers and the C182 RG I’ve flown.

  15. I didn’t take chances in my company V35. In IMC I flew at 150 kts and EVERY decent, even just to a lower altitude, was executed with gear extended. Mark made an excellent observation about CG. When baggage and people are in the rear, you can’t safely fly that plane to minimum fuel.

  16. Having flown and instructed in V Tails the airplane does have a very wicked CG balance problem that I have not seen in over 50 years and 13,000 hours of instructing. When I do checkouts in this model I always have the owner do two weight and balance calculations, one at the beginning of the flight and another one after an imaginary 2.5 hour flight just to reinforce the balance issue. Having said that this accident does not sound like an “airplane” issue. My 2 cent opinion is pilot incapacitation possibly a combination of hypoxia and carbon monoxide potentially made worse if the pilot was a smoker. In any case, my sincere condolences to the family.

  17. Of course it is far too early in this NTSB investigation to determine what actually happened, and we will never know all the facts. The old adage of the airplane being the V-tailed doctor killer having a colonel of truth could certainly be a player, people with far more money than experience getting into airplanes that have too much performance, especially in the perfect storm of relatively (assumed) low experience, IFR and getting into some build ups that have some vertical energy to them. As an airline captain/check airman of 35 years I have often seen this play out in the reverse order. Highly experienced airline pilots who have handled countless situations in a very complex fast jet begin to believe that they’re that good at everything they do. Buying into their own super abilities, they venture into other venues of life, thinking they’ll be just as good at that as they are at flying a big jet. When whatever it is they got into goes sideways What they soon realize is that they were that good because of very thorough training, routinely, and maintaining high levels of currency. Most airline types fly about 70 hours a month or more. Not to mention the fact that they are usually operate in towered fields, class A airspace, have the best maintenance, and last but not certainly least the airplane allows you to exercise the full complement of your training and abilities. Even the most novice of aviators understands that there are things I can do in a widebody jet that I cannot do in my 1966 182. There are levels and levels of safety involving 121 scheduled air carriers that they just kind of take for granted.
    We don’t know yet what kind of experience, proficiency, training background, the doctor had in his airplane and at flying in general. It’s way too early to determine whether it was just pure mechanical failure, or yet another wealthy individual buying into a device that could put them into a situation where the airplanes capabilities and the weather they’re now finding themselves in overwhelms their abilities. Sadly, unlike my fellow aviators who venture off into other things they tend just to lose a lot of money and some pride. Aviations lessons tend to be a lot more harsh and permanent.
    Ultimately, it’s very very sad. This was a large chunk of a family that on the outside had everything going for them, enjoying life at its fullest, and moving on from this tragedy will be difficult, my heart goes out to them.

  18. RE: the comment on center section AD. The original “straight 35” had a welded steel centersection. 1947/48. Starting with the A35 the center section was completely redesigned and was sheet metal. The AD applied only to the pre 1949 airplanes. Many straight 35’s had the redesigned center section installed.
    After decades of production at least one V tail had a tail failure. This resulted in an AD on the tail. One mod which dealt with that issue was a structural cuff that reinforced the intersection of the tail leading edge with the fuselage structure.
    The V tail airplanes over the production span underwent an almost continual upgrade in structure to deal with increased horsepower, speeds and weight.
    The Bonanza was the first US Light Airplane to set a world distance record in a straight line.
    Hawaii to Teterboro NJ nonstop. That was the start of many distance records including Max Conrads three records in Commanche’s and the Twin Commanche. The most recent record flight was Guan to Jacksonville FL by Bill Harrison in the Lancair 4 that he and his wife built
    Involving the T34 in this discussion is not appropriate. The T34′ are limited aerobatic airplanes that in civilian life have probably flown outside the structural limits repeatedly.
    there is also the air combat situation which resulted in at least one wing failure and eventual grounding of the civilian T34’s.

  19. Out of the Big Three single engine retracts the V tail Bonanza is my favorite, the Commanche a close second. The Cessna 210 never should have been built.
    Having said that I Am very happy with my Wittman Tailwind. 170 KNOTS on 8 gallons/hour. Only two seats but thats all I need.

    • Interesting comment regarding the 210. Why should it have not been built? (Former 206 owner here.) I’m also a doctor so please use small words and short sentences.

  20. Excellent analysis of this sad event. The “doctor in a Bonanza” association has enough validity to have persisted for decades, and obviously includes other well-to-do professionals with potentially inflated opinions of themselves, enough distractions to prevent regular and methodical training, and some sense that they are important enough to be able to bend the rules.

    After retiring from surgery, I was flying a Lear 35 for a charter operator outside Atlanta. The boss’ very precocious 5-year-old son overheard someone call me “Doc” in the hangar, and asked why. When I told him I was a doctor, he thought for a moment and told me, “You better never try to fly a fork-tailed doctor killer!” (I have, only a couple of times, with an instructor, and I’m still here, so, good advice?)

    Steve Leonard
    (MD, but also ATP ASMEL/S, LRJET, CE500 to try to improve my odds)

    • In the mid-1980s (after this article was published), the FAA performed an extensive certification review of the V-tail Bonanza. At the time, I was an editor at Flying Magazine and my colleague Mac McClellan owned a V-35. He wrote extensively about the certification review, which ultimately led to an Airworthiness Directive to install approved leading-edge cuffs on the tail surfaces. Beechcraft paid for the parts and labor to install the cuffs on all Bonanzas. You can download a copy of the initial summary of the 1986 Task Force study here:

  21. A doctor friend of mine owned a late model V tail for decades. He was an excellent pilot. He flew the Bonanza around the world. He is no longer with us. Cancer not the Bonanza
    There was a 135 operator near where I used to live. Late 40’s to early 90’s. The Bonanza portion tapered off steadily toward the end as they transitioned into piston twins, turbines and jets. i asked one of their pilots how they flew the airplane. Light turbulence airspeed in the yellow. Thousands of hours operating that way with zero problems.
    The Bonanza and Commanche are much stronger than them 210.
    The structural failures on the Bonanza and Commanche are usually VERY high speed events.
    Often 300 mph or even more.
    My recollection of the three airplanes is that the Commanche and 210 are fairly heavy on the controls in pitch, the Bonanza quite light, especially at cg near the aft limit. Many early Bonanza’s had autopilots. We had one customer with an early Bonanza. I don’t think he was instrument rated. He routinely flew in IMC conditions, probably all on autopilot. Another customer with a borrowed V tail tried to fly with an inoperative gyro. He lost control and came out the bottom of the clouds with the wings intact.

  22. As a former first generation Bonanza owner/pilot, speed management was a skill that many new Bonanza owners do not initially have. Plus, most airplanes do not have the control harmony that is the joy of Bonanza ownership…especially first generation V-tails. Elevator controls are significantly lighter than other single engine retractable. By the production of the third gen Bo’s including this V35, Beech added more elevator “heaviness” but still remained much lighter than its competitors. Short fuse first gen Bo’s required more attention to aft CG end of flight weight and balance conditions than third gen Bo’s longer fuse brethren. All Bonanzas are extremely clean airframes allowing yellow arc performance at normal cruise power light or heavy. Therefore, getting inattentive keeping wings level and/or slight pitch deviations including paying attention to continuous minor but necessary trim adjustments in cruise configuration can easily lead to airframe over speed. A joy to fly for fingertip flying pilots. But for what ever situation that can cause an inflight distraction such as shuffling around for something in one’s flight bag, loading stuff into the avionics, dropping something on the floor, etc, resulting in a wing drop…speed would build up in seconds. Or, failing to properly trim for the CG/weight changes including balancing fuel load in wings and fuse ( if equipped )while AP is engaged can offer a big unexpected pitch/roll excursion that inevitably gets the nose down resulting going past airspeed limitations in seconds when AP is disengaged providing the perfect recipe for a panic response leading to airframe overstress. This unfamiliarity for rapid acceleration of airspeed in Bonanzas vs what most of us experience from primary into more advanced training aircraft as we gather ratings is most surprising to many pilots as they transition into Bonanza ownership. The American Bonanza Society and its training regime addressing the nuances of the Bonanza has been the gold standard for Bonanza safety… for those who avail themselves of this training. Eventually, the issues leading up to this accident will be determined.

    My heart grieves for the remaining family. My sincere condolences.

  23. The comment about stabilizer issues fails to mention the there was a significant increase in the chord of the stabilizer starting with the C model. There was no structural change to compensate for the increased chord.
    Various articles address other possible causes of the tail problems including improper balance of ruddervators. NO re balance after painting, corrosion, improper skin thickness on aft fuselage repairs.
    For any one who thinks the Bonanza control forces are too light in pitch you should try a Wittman Tailwind or Cassutt Racer.
    Aft CG potential on the later Bonanza’s was corrected to some degree with a 25# weight in the nose.

  24. In 1968 I flew a BE33 for a major corperation, Being 20 years of age I didn’t acquire good judgement until many years and hours later. I flew this aircraft in IMC loaded with ice and did every aerobatic manuver in the book sometimes greatly exceeding the limitations. I never flew the V tail and the BE33 was new. If it wasn’t a docile acft. I wouldn’t be writing this comment.

  25. Brent Silver, the author of that lengthy Aviation Consumer article that was cited, was a V-tail Bonanza owner. He and his wife and children all died in the crash of that Bonanza soon after the article was published. Silver’s basic theory about Bonanza safety, I’ve been told by people who knew him, was that if Bonanzas came apart when they oversped, the solution to that problem was easy: never let the airplane get into an overspeed situation.

  26. Three comments:
    1. I have been CO poisoned, it was not fun. I believe that a number of accidents have been caused by subtle CO poisoning that one would never notice on the ground, but that raises the “density altitude” of your brain say 6,000 feet. The plane is at 10,000 and your mind is at 15,000. It might account for good pilots seeming to suddenly forget how to fly.
    2. A strong updraft is a very disconcerting sensation in IMC. I have had to jump in as a CFII a couple of times when students were either going to rip the wings off maintaining level flight or got themselves into a spiral. “Unable to maintain altitude due to convective activity” is the call you need to make, I once had a C-152 gain thousands of feet at 1500 FPM at idle.
    3. I once had the somewhat difficult task of teaching a Bonanza pilot how to fly in IMC in real time over the radio. He was doing a lot of wild overcontrolling and yelling, a lot of “calm and easy, this plane is sensitive, don’t do too much, easy inputs, be gentle with her, wings level, the trim will handle the pitch” got him back to VFR. These are not C-182s that will do everything possible to keep you from wrecking them in the clag. Something that gets a pilot into too large control inputs will get out of hand quickly.