Crash Videos: Horror For The Click


Every year in the U.S., there are between 200 and 250 fatal aircraft crashes totaling about 400 or so deaths. Four to six a week. These numbers are so predictable and so utterly ordinary that we rarely cover them on AVweb. Not to be too cynical about it, but fatal accidents are the unfortunate normal side of general aviation.

The exceptions—and there are exceptions—are crashes that involve an unusual number of fatalities, midair collisions or, the ultimate news catnip, video. That was the case for the story we ran about a horrific Bonanza 36 crash at North Perry, Florida, on Monday. Two people in the airplane died and a third, a child, died after the vehicle he was riding in was struck by the airplane, which immediately burst into flames.

The story for us was not so much the crash, but that a doorbell video caught the impact in detail. That’s what the headline said, in fact. It went viral by the following morning. I saw the video that evening on my local Florida station and although it’s on national network sites now, I don’t think it got wide airplay. It wouldn’t have merited even a mention without the video.

Which goes to show how the whole of news gathering gets swept up in the power of video imagery because writers and editors understand the engagement factor. It’s clickable and clicks rule. So we ran it. The news was not that it happened, but you could see it happen. It’s the same reason that when I turned in photos of a multi-vehicle crash on I-70, the city editor used the one with the thickest smoke plume.

Is there a takeaway to be had for the aviation-savvy viewer of this clip? Ostensibly, no. But maybe yes, if you allow it to seep in. The more reporting and analysis I do on accidents, the less I think doing so has any salutary effect. I think we in the press do it because it’s sometimes interesting but the base motivation is voyeurism. We look at accident reports and have one of three reactions: That would never be me, I’m glad that wasn’t me or there but for the grace of God.

The North Perry crash is probably no different. Stipulating that the initial speculation was correct and that the pilot suffered an engine failure and was attempting to turn back, what you may see here is a textbook example of how turnbacks often go wrong, with fatal results. It looked like a stall/spin. Assuming that’s true, does the video inform your knowledge of what can happen in such accidents or, more important, does it change your mind about doing one if you have an engine failure?

I suspect for most of us, it does not. Merely from memory, you could likely write a good essay on the pros and cons of the turnback maneuver from spirited arguments you’ve read or heard. Aviation as a subject being somewhat narrower than the sweep of Western civilization, we tend to reheat topics periodically and the dead horse of the turnback has long since been reduced to the molecular level. And still, we don’t agree on it and still, there are several fatal accidents a year for the same reasons there always have been.

Never-turnback diehards will see in the video affirmation, proving what they always thought was right: Turnbacks are deadly. And they’ll be correct. Pilots who think a well-executed turnback can be a survivable option will point out that a poorly executed one won’t be. They’ll be correct, too.

Standing proudly on my pedestal of non-committal, I’ll demure in second-guessing the specifics of this accident. Which is another way of saying viewing the video hasn’t changed my attitude toward turnbacks at all. I remain an agnostic, neither for nor against. Myriad unpredictable variables legislate against unyielding rules applied ahead of the fact. In other words, it depends. But if you’re going to try one, it seems to me you’ll have a better chance of surviving if you practice it a few times before doing it in the heat of battle. And make the decision on the ground before the engine quits. Otherwise, the straight-aheaders have the higher percentage. (I did a video on it once. Sorry, no crash, but it does have a guest appearance by John King.)

I’ll concede I’m peeking out from behind the fig leaf of a higher purpose in running crash videos. Not my first day in the news business. But if you allow that video to cause you to reexamine what you think about turnbacks and why you think that, then the thing actually might have achieved something higher than just another titillating link.    

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  1. There’s certainly more to the viability of a turn back than a binary answer.
    Proficiency, as noted, is a critical one. Few pilots have ever practiced one, and it requires some aggressive and fast piloting to pull it off – not something that is likely to succeed on first attempt.
    Aircraft type is also significant. It has to be practiced in the type in question, or the practice and assumptions may well be invalid.
    For example, I’ve practiced the maneuver in a Diamond DA20, and have nearly overshot the runway! We used to joke that the engine-failure procedure for that type was to simply glide back to base and land.
    Conversely, in a Robin R2160, I’m not sure that a return from any point of the upwind is possible. That aircraft’s glide much more closely resembles that of a brick, so land ahead, and aim to put the cockpit between the trees.

    • Excellent point not only about aircraft type but — additionally — how heavily it’s loaded, Cameron.

      I once owned an American Aviation AA-1A ‘Trainer’ with a 24.5′ wing and flew it in the Mojave desert. On a hot summer day with just myself aboard, it was marginally adequate. With two aboard, it was barely able to get out of its own way and needed a lot of runway, relative. As I remember it, the stall speed was 63 mph? I don’t think I’d try a 180 return in it ALTHOUGH, that thing was a sports car handling wise. The earlier AA-1 Yankee woulda been worse. A later Cessna 172 with the camber lift wing (’73, et sub) and lightly loaded just doesn’t want to stop flying without forcing it noticeably slow. Even after a near perfect approach, go to flare and the damn thing often starts flying again. Filled w/ four people, however, it is a different airplane, as Barry Schiff once told a young CFI. For quite a few years I had both an early Cherokee 140 and C172M. The 30′ wing short coupled Cherokee compared to the C172 was an entirely different handling airplane even though by category, they were in the same class. The takeaway … know your airplane and think about what you’d do in an engine loss scenario. In the 172, I’d make the 180 almost every time and hope to have time to slow it down. In the Cherokee, I’d hope to have time to think about making the 180. In the Yankee Trainer with a passenger at Mojave … fuhgetaboutit.

  2. One of the as yet unknowns in this crash is the cause of engine failure. Commonly held lore is that engines are more likely to fail during power changes, but of course we don’t know if that was a factor here.

    During an earlier lifetime 100% of my takeoffs were in single engine airplanes at effective gross weight out of short unimproved strips. No turn backs there. Since mine was the only airplane around for 100s of miles, meaning direction of first turn after takeoff was never a traffic factor, my first turn after takeoff was always towards the nearest most suitable place to land in the event of an engine failure. When in a position to glide to such a spot with a still propeller is where I always made my first power reduction. That might have been 30 seconds after takeoff or 5 depending on distance to the chosen spot.

    In 8 years of flying that environment I had exactly one engine problem which turned out to be a throttle linkage break on, yes, an IO-520. It was common for those of us flying the bush to install springs which would bring the throttle to full open in the event of linkage failure which fortunately is was happened to me.

    So Paul, in answer to your questions “does the video inform your knowledge of what can happen in such accidents or, more important, does it change your mind about doing one if you have an engine failure?”, yes, always on the first question, and no on the second. Not that I would never turn back in my 975 lb hobby airplane off of a 7000 foot runway had I briefed the contingency to myself prior to takeoff, but the likelihood of all those stars lining up just right for a successful turn-back seem remote. And, I’m not sure I as sharp as I was back in my 20s and 30s.

  3. I hear what you are saying Paul, but I’m glad you posted it for a couple of reasons.
    1) I would rather hear about it from you than some other uneducated News service.
    2) It DEFINITLY reminds me to not turn back unless my minimums are met, and to remember to practice this maneuver every year.
    Thnx for being on top of this stuff.
    Very well written.
    Dave W.

  4. We humans have sight as our main sense. Seeing something has a bigger immediate impact than hearing or smelling it.
    So when we see something violent and terrible like that accident, knowing people died, it has to make a big impact.
    Normal pilots (who seldom see the results of accidents) might be more careful as a result.
    Police officers, ambulance crew and medical staff, who see the results of violent crashes, accidents and fights often, learn how to process what they see, although some I know say they never forget some cases, even though they would like to.
    And on another sphere, people who do not, and who have never read much, do their “research” on the web and register what they see on “videos” as truth, even when it is anything but the truth. Suddenly invading the Senate to stop a vote seems a bright idea.
    Nazi Germany knew the power of image and filmed its rallies and other events. In war, every company had its film crew with film and batteries, even when fuel and weapons were in short supply.
    Now all those years later, when you see documentaries of the war, there is a very good chance you are watching film made by Nazi propaganda crews. When young film makers are told this most say they have no idea. Subjects, camera angles and all the rest chosen by Nazi propagandists and faithfully used by young Brits and Americans without a thought. Some even buy into the myth that only some units committed atrocities — only very few of those were filmed, normally by amateurs.
    So to sum up — in my opinion do continue to show relevant horror news videos — but make sure you explain, clearly both in writing and spoken commentary, where the “video” came from, what it shows and why you are showing it. Then copyright it and chase anyone who uses it for other uses.

  5. “Myriad unpredictable variables legislate against unyielding rules applied ahead of the fact.”

    Absolutely correct. As many have already pointed out, depends on airplane make and model, weight, wind, altitude, location, current pilot proficiency, the pilot’s ability to recognize and accept an engine failure/emergency, process with a fast enough reaction time to actually do something, combined with knowing the true performance of their airplane with a wind milling prop will determine whether a turn back is an option or not. Addressing correctly all of the above will offer the best potential outcome which is still no guarantee one will not die. Any lack of correct answers to all of the above further deteriorates the best possible outcome.

    I am firmly convinced, unless one is a test pilot, who is daily mentally prepared for less than ideal aircraft performance with a detailed knowledge of both aircraft systems and test cards, knowing full up the purpose of that particular flight, the average pilot has a very difficult time dealing with the denial of an off airport, emergency landing. Denial, process, acceptance, followed with decisive action based on knowing exactly the correct action for that moment is not something we do well as a rule. None-the-less, every emergency will require dealing with the denial, processing that to acceptance, followed with decisive action based on knowing exactly the correct action for that moment for the most favorable outcome.

    Many have survived inflight emergencies that have led to an off airport landing, me included. But gained knowledge from that experience makes me realize each one of these events cannot be handled in a one size fits all package. I managed to do enough right things for the moment in addition to the Grace of God that allows for this post. Does this mean I will do equally well in any other emergency? Maybe, maybe not. Depends…based on all of the above.

    I hesitated to view this video for a while. I am not curious to see how violent an accident looks. I know the sound of silence when the fan quits. I know the denial followed by the feeling of abject fear. I know the mental fight, as brief or as long as it was, to fly the airplane. I know how poorly an airplane glides with a wind milling prop. I know the sight picture in the windshield when there appears no options, combined with the sounds, very noisy sounds an airplane makes when making an off airport landing, and the violence of a sudden stop. I, like many other commentators, knows these processes. It’s not something I enjoy revisiting…which those who have similar experiences naturally do over and over again without the aid of a video.

    But eventually, I have seen the video, and have commented on it with the hope that my experiences and resulting comments helps another pilot consider all of the human processes that will have to be dealt with for that particular moment. It has led me to be far more intentional in my flying and life in general.

  6. Mr. Bertorelli, while I’m an ardent fan of your “wryting”, I find the following from the article above to be a less than optimum choice of words, “… fatal accidents are the unfortunate normal side of general aviation.”

    In my opinion, accidents are far from the “normal side of general aviation” as “normally” thousands enjoy the pastime daily in our country.

  7. I know “land ahead” has a better track record, but I’d like to see the statistics for straight ahead vs turn back for cases that occurred in dense urban environments. I suspect a lot of the reason for the higher survival rate of “straight ahead” is that so many GA airports have relatively open land beyond the end of the runway. In an urban setting, what’s beyond the end of the runway offers a very high probability of an unsurvivably sudden stop. Urban streets are not runways: they are often crossed by power lines every 100-200 ft; they often have overhanging trees; and they’re routinely as little as 15′ wide between the parked cars. Hitting a parked car while still a few feet in the air may be survivable but is likely to be violent; hitting a powerline won’t be survivable (watch the video of the recent accident on short final to Whiteman airport in California). I recall watching a webinar where they reported that if you look at accident reports for EFATO and eliminate the cases where the airplane appeared to stall, turning back had the same survival rate as landing ahead. So, in the urban setting the tradeoff will be between the risk of stalling in the turn – but maybe getting onto the airport property where there’s a reasonable chance of decelerating over at least tens of feet – vs flying all the way to the ground but potentially stopping very suddenly in the straight-ahead. In this particular accident, what was in front of the airplane was SW 9th St, which is 20′ wide (albeit with few obstacles immediately next to the street) and has overhanging trees (but no powerlines). The street might have been survivable, but would not have looked inviting. The turnback nearly worked: if the pilot had rolled out a little earlier and kept it flying, it might have made it onto the airport property (or possibly have gone into the – hopefully vacant – park). And hitting the car was tragic.
    At my home airport, as far as I can see (I’ve scouted) the only place to set down if the engine goes wobbly shortly after takeoff would be a railroad track. For about 2,000′ there are no overhead lines. The track is on an elevated bed: landing off-center means cartwheeling; landing on-center probably means violently going over the nose when the gear encounters the railroad ties. Really likely it’s not survivable, but it would offer a place to go with minimal likelihood of killing anyone on the ground.

  8. As others have pointed out, turnbacks are airplane-specific.

    Amost every glider pilot practices turnbacks from as low as 200 feet, in the event of a rope break or failure of the towplane engine.

    In the Falcon 10 simulator for recurrent training, we were done with the ride, but still had a few minutes of sim time left. The instructor suggested a double engine failure–NOT a required maneuver–it was a “freebie.” The Falcon 10 is a good short-field airplane, and with gear up, flaps up, and leading edges clean and accelerating to 200 knots at 400 feet, it is a pretty good glider. Predictably, the turnaround didn’t work–the radius of the turn was too large. The instructor reset the sim and suggested the unthinkable (though it SHOULD NOT have been unthinkable for a glider pilot)–“With the airplane climbing well and cleaned up, try pulling the aircraft up–banking steeply onto the downwind, take it around the patch, throw the gear and flaps out, and land on the runway you just departed from. We MADE IT! It’s a case of being prepared, being familiar with your aircraft, and being able to practice in the simulator. I DON’T think that practice works for most GA airplanes, however.

    One of the things I never see on a discussion of turnbacks is planning for cross runways–something ALSO taught for glider pilot flight planning. On EVERY takeoff with my Kolb LSA, I plan for an engine failure. Since the Kolb has a Rotax 582 two-stroke engine, I make a contingency plan. Takeoff roll is only 100′–there is a LOT of room to land straight ahead on a 5000” runway–I can be at 400′ before I get to the end of the runway– almost anywhere in the climb I can land straight ahead–and the radius of turn makes a return to the takeoff runway possible. After crossing the intersecting cross runway, it’s an easy choice to simply turn to a low and close-in downwind to land on the cross runway. That may or may not work for YOUR airplane. I flew a Cirrus on their simulator–it was supposed to be a demonstration of a CAPS “parachute pull”. With a steep climbout, we were at 400′ in a hurry, when the sim instructor failed the engine. Rather than pull the chute (as he expected), I put the aircraft on the cross runway. (We did go back and do a chute pull–VERY interesting sim video, complete with oscillating parachute and touchdown.) It makes a great case for the parachute–particularly in urban areas.

    With so many of the new sims having realistic performance and video, as well as a choice of aircraft, FIND ONE and try it out for yourself at different airports. Better yet–go to your local gliderport and take a flight–if you are a pilot, I’ll guarantee that the instructor will give you a takeoff contingency briefing. It may change your outlook.

  9. Paul–“The more reporting and analysis I do on accidents, the less I think doing so has any salutary effect. I think we in the press do it because it’s sometimes interesting but the base motivation is voyeurism. We look at accident reports and have one of three reactions: That would never be me, I’m glad that wasn’t me or there but for the grace of God.”

    An astute observation! I’ve always wondered why there is so much fascination with accident reports and “I learned about Flying from that” or “Never again!” Magazine editors tell me that these are some of the favorite and most-read columns in the magazines. Are they educational? Maybe–but the same accidents have been happening since the invention of the “aeroplane.”

    Paul’s mention of “voyeurism” is spot-on–when it comes to the dry recital of the facts, there is little to be actually LEARNED. Only a careful dissection and presentation of the facts–and options–by a skilled writer gives a full picture of the event–and post-mortem options. Though I read a number of aviation magazines every month, I skip over the multiple short listings of “just the facts” in favor of a detailed analysis–there is little to be learned from a simple presentation of the facts. (If there WERE things to be learned from these short and non-detailed presentations, we wouldn’t have had the same recurring accidents over the entire period of manned flight!).

    • Maybe it takes a voyeur to know voyeurism. Contrary to being voyeurism, accident reports had tremendously important impacts on operations in all professional flight departments where I worked. We didn’t spend time studying helicopter or small GA fixed wing accidents because much of what happens there was not relevant to our operations, but you can bet we paid attention to accidents involving anything turbine powered and multi crewed from King Airs to 747s. I’ve known accident reports to affect standard callout changes, checklist items sequences, procedures, techniques, and above all, attitudes. Accident reports are what YOU make of them.

      • If that were true, we would have eliminated GA crashes. I have a 59 year collection of several aviation magazines. These magazines are the most read in the GA world—yet the very same mistakes are perpetuated every month. I’ve never figured out WHY these columns are popular—they are READ, but not ACTED UPON.

        Reading ALINE won’t cure the problem//and neither will the proliferation of more government rules.

        The only thing that will cause change is peer pressure from your own group.

  10. Like Russian car crashes… you just have to watch the video. You want to see what not the o do.
    Oddly I wish every crash was shown with this amount of horror. Some people need reminding. It is not pretty when you screw up. So don’t screw up and end up as a faceless YouTube video of horror.
    Remember, this guy killed a child.
    Speaking of children, I have noticed young girls tend to go for the roads and they survive. I keep saying women are better pilots.

  11. While I fully agree with the “no turn back ‘rule'” 99% of the time, if one takes a look at where the aircraft was going to go down if straight ahead, or even a 45 degree turn, it is pretty clear that the attempted turn was maybe the best (only?) option. It is a tragedy anyone on the ground was killed in addition to the plane’s occupants. But take a look at where that aircraft would have impacted going straight ahead. Essentially all houses or the Florida Turnpike.
    Having had a similar situation occur I turned, and made it, rather then going into closely spaced houses. It was a spit second “active” decision. I was NOT going into a subdivision.
    My general point is: “it depends.” Had the SUV, a single vehicle, not been there perhaps the outcome would have been different as pertains to the additional loss of life. But had the pilot gone straight ahead, look at the satellite pix, the odds are more lives would have been lost. It was 2 miles to a very small Golf Course and 7 miles to the Atlantic Ocean. In between was nothing but houses or high traffic highways.
    Training “rules” – yes! But, “it depends” and we should be trained and willing to make the best call for all concerned including protecting those in our path. Maybe the pilot actually did make the appropriate call to turn in spite of the odds or statistics. Think about it.