Draco Crash: What Lesson?

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By now, you’ve seen Mike Patey’s remarkable video explaining in detail the crash of his equally remarkable Draco custom STOL aircraft. Based on a PZL Wilga airframe, the airplane was fitted with a 680-SHP Pratt & Whitney PT6A-28.

The airplane achieved instant fame for its beyond-the-edge STOL performance and other worldly looks. It was a natural for both magazine covers and the airshow circuit. As Patey explained in the video, he lost control of the airplane in a blustery crosswind while departing Reno after the races. That three people were aboard and that all emerged uninjured is as remarkable as the airplane itself. As you can see from the video, Draco was all but reduced to scrap.

Patey admirably owned the accident as his own bad judgment and both he and some media outlets filed it under the all-purpose descriptor we use when we don’t know what else to say: lessons learned. But what lesson, exactly? Don’t take off in a 30- to 40-knot crosswind? Thanks, but I already knew that and anyway, I’ve tried it at the lower number … just to see. (It worked; the landing required another runway.)

So what then is the lesson? I’d argue that it’s not a plea for more conservative decision making—which I’m not exactly a proponent of—but a reality check on the notion that you only find your limits by departing occasionally from the safety of the center lane. I know, crazy, right? You actually find your limits by pushing a little. If you survive, you’re better for it, if not … well.

This also departs from the idea that aeronautical decision making is always supposed to yield the lowest risk choice. I don’t subscribe to this. In my view, it should yield acceptable risk measured against some gain. The lowest risk choice is to stay home in bed. It could be that the gain is nothing more than you honing your skills in landing in a challenging crosswind or flying an at-mins approach at night. With that comes the acceptance that you’ve raised the risk and you could get hurt or even die as a result. That’s the nature of choice and yours would probably be different than mine.

As an aside, when I watched the accident sequence for the fourth time, it reminded me of a video I saw of a hurricane blowing airplanes down the ramp. It takes a lot of wind to do that, making me suspect Patey caught the gust from hell that was well above the base wind he figured he had. In hindsight, it may seem nuts to take off in conditions like this, but these guys did exactly that in 55-knot gusts at the Air Force Academy because that made the most sense. What would you have done? You can watch one of the pilots make the split-second decision to launch as he was being blown backward.

Patey said something interesting that we can all relate to. He mentioned his inner voice—and we all have one of those—suggesting maybe he should swing it around and tie it down instead of departing before an approaching weather front. The inner voice is otherwise known as doubt or, if you like, fear. Perhaps the lesson, then, is to always listen to your inner voice. Not sure that’s practical universal advice either. If I had a trip counter on the number of times I’ve ignored my inner voice, I’m sure it would have rolled over at least once. How about yours?

Patey did make one comment that suggests a more subtle lesson. He wanted to depart diagonally to ease the crosswind component and he asked the controller about that because he didn’t want the tower to get mad at him. Worth remembering is you don’t have to ask. You’re the PIC and you own the runway for landing and takeoff. Do what you deem necessary. (I didn’t hear those Air Force Academy pilots ask for permission to take off on a ramp.)

If you really want to get jiggy in a circumstance like that, tell the tower you realize they can’t clear you for it, but you’d like to take off (or land) on a crosswind taxiway at your own risk. You can amuse yourself in the radio silence as the operator considers that. Ya never know. The answer might be yes. Not being cleared to do something is not the same as being told not to do something.

Risk vs. Reward

Mike Patey’s accident notwithstanding, the level of risk general aviation pilots confront is usually relatively tame. Or at least not what I’d call high stakes. Among professional pilots, those who do qualify for high stakes risk assessment are search and rescue pilots, and specifically Coast Guard crews.

A book I’m reading, Into the Raging Sea: Thirty Three Mariners, One Megastorm and The Sinking of El Faro, offers a couple of examples. You may recall the El Faro was lost with all hands in Hurricane Jacquin in 2015. The Coast Guard learned of the El Faro’s distress shortly before communication was lost. The storm was too severe to dispatch Jayhawks, so for the initial search, it sent a C-130 out of the St. Petersburg air station.

While C-130s are used to fly hurricane flights, the Coast Guard’s airplanes aren’t equipped for that nor are the crews trained. But with 33 lives on the line, the pilots decided a surface search for a disabled ship in the midst of a Category 4 hurricane was worth the risk. After numerous sweeps through the storm, the aircraft returned to homebase so badly beaten up that the fuel tanks were breached and the airplane was gushing Jet-A. The crews could have declined the mission, but did not. Risk and reward.

Author Rachel Slade related another rescue case in which a Jayhawk dropped a rescue swimmer to pull three people off a disabled sailboat on a winter night 300 miles off Georgia. On the last hoist, the winch fouled with the rescue swimmer still in the water. Short of fuel, the aircraft commander faced the agonizing decision of trying to clear the winch or leaving the swimmer and returning to base. He did the latter. The swimmer was retrieved by another crew 90 minutes later, but nearly succumbed to hypothermia.

Although it wasn’t an aviation accident, the El Faro’s loss has all the earmarks of a major crash. Ultimately, it was due to the Captain’s decision to steam through the eye of the storm rather than circumnavigating it. As sometimes happens in aviation, his risk management was heavily tinged with denial, an assessment that cost lives.

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24 COMMENTS

  1. All around the planet, all year long, there’s pilots operating in extreme weather conditions. Beavers, Cessna 180s, Helio Couriers, AN-2s and a number of other STOL aircraft are transporting people and goods to remote areas. These pilots in most cases don’t make any money until the flight is completed. Sitting around waiting for perfect conditions will break the bank.

    Experience, experience, experience…. Not enough pilots are taking a commercial flying job for a couple of years before trying to fly like an experienced pilot. They watch the other pilot do something and think they can do it. Aviation media don’t like doing expose’ on ‘Freight Dawg’ pilots delivering thousand of tons of packages in inclement weather because they’re not “Cowboys”.

  2. My neighbor in FL was on the El Faro manifest as a contract maritime thermographer. He said he didn’t like the WX forecast and a “voice” told him to get off before it sailed from JAX. His clothes and equipment went down w/ the ship. Listen to those “voices” he now says.

  3. “The inner voice is otherwise known as doubt or, if you like, fear.” No Paul. Your inner voice is not known as just doubt, or fear. It is not inanimate like doubt and fear. It is living, it is real and it does work. If there is any single piece of advice I would give to any new student, or old for that matter, it would be to listen to that inner voice and do not doubt it. No, I have no scientific quantifiable evidence to support what I claim. All I know is that it works.

  4. Lessons learned and reminders are triggered for me are as follows.
    There is always a chain of circumstances and events that preclude an accident. The result is usually that one transitions from being ahead of the aircraft to being behind the aircraft or in other words reacting to circumstances instead of being always at least one step ahead with more than one option.
    As a pilot we are fully responsible for the Aircraft and the passengers. This begins from the moment the prop turns or the engine runs or as a glider, the moment your aircraft begins to move.
    There are two inner voices that can be distinguisched. One is the chatter and inner critic that goes on continually and then there is the intuitive voice that one can learn to pay attention to. You can trigger the intuitive voice too, by simply asking yourself a question and the first thought that comes to mind is usually the correct answer. According to the video, Mike Patey put other considerations first (potentially appliable rules, maybe some overconfidence only he can tell, and more…).
    Finally for me, is in situations like this, I ask myself what the options are if there are no constraints such as time, money or rules and what would be the safest decision and then what is the next option etc. In the end do a quick risk assesment where risk and choice meet at a realistic manageable level. Your intuition will tell you, if you listen to it, where the balance point – or the skill meets challenge point, is.

  5. Whether it’s Draco, Robosaurus or Big Foot, if it’s a spectacle they want then by golly it’s a spectacle they’ll get! Spectacles live grandly, have huge appetites and can be very temperamental. They live in their own private world with much public adoration but, rarely known, have also equal measures of loneliness. Rows of adoring 172’s don’t think of that – they can only dream what it must be like to be a Draco as the colossus taxiis by. So it only stands to reason that spectacles deserve all the press they can get.

    So with Draco’s passing, kudos to its owner and builder for taking responsibility and not blaming others or Draco. To paraphrase the great Mark Twain, I won’t be attending the funeral, but I’ll say to all that I approve of it.

  6. I guess I subscribe to the rule that landings are mandatory, take offs are optional.
    In a risk/reward analysis, at risk were three lives and a remarkable airplane. At this moment, the requisite reward escapes me.

  7. I just watched a couple of youtubes and I really like his plane. I question the amount of “tail-wheel” experience this pilot has. As an aviator with more than a few hours on “tail-draggers” I feel qualified to comment. Although modified with a big powered turbo-prop, he enlarged the rudder, but in my opinion, not enough. On his take-off role, he never had wings level, let alone into wind. It looks like he was attempting a STOL take-off in a x-wind. Not smart. In normal operations, you raise the tail as soon as possible. That is your directional control. And in one video he’s proud of the fact that obtaining a pilots licence is easy. Well, anyone who says that, I stay away from and would never fly with.
    And I’m sorry, but admitting you screwed up does not wipe the slate clean.

    • What happened form an aerodynamics standpoint is very interesting. As the plane sat on the runway with a strong direct crosswind, the plane had a tremendous amount of yaw before it even moved. Mike was no doubt use to that PT-6 pulling him out of any predicament. His thought was that if he added power, he could just fly away from anything. As the plane started to roll, it looked like he had enough rudder to hold it straight. So what did he have? A whole lot of yaw, a boot full of right rudder, high angle of attack, a right wing that was partially blocked out by the fuselage, then he horsed it off the ground. All the makings of a good snaproll–entered from below flying speed as opposed to slowing down to it. If you look at the video, he grabs a handful of flap–increasing the angle of attack and that’s when the situation got out of hand. The left wing began flying and because of the excessive yaw, the right one didn’t. As the plane is left the ground, he essentially accelerated its way into a spin. You can see in the film a lot of up elevator as he’s trying to rely on the power to pull him airborne. The plane continued to yaw to the right and he lost what little forward speed he had, the weight went fully on the left gear and the plane disassembled itself.

      My guess is Mike never practiced wheel landings and possibly wasn’t as comfortable with the tail in the air as with it on the ground. Had he stood the plane up, perhaps there would have been a different outcome. We’ll never know. This is but one of the many things that could have caused a different outcome.

      I think Mike is a talented guy in many respects. I think his owning the incident was very classy. I wish him all the best and thank him for helping me learn–albeit through his mistake.

  8. Sometimes the simplest answer is the correct answer. “Don’t take off in a 30 to 40 kt crosswind” is a valuable lesson learned. Apply added value with the following lessons :”Intiution is right only 100% of the time” and “When in doubt, Don’t”.

  9. No…what we learned was that if you exceed the aircraft operating limits, use piss poor judgement, loose control of your aircraft, crash, and endanger your passengers but you are an internet star you can avoid certificate actions. THAT is the lesson here.