Whenever a video appears depicting a fatal crash—and given the profusion of cameras, that’s as often as once a week–we have an AVweb internal debate. Should we publish it? We’re right to have this debate, but lately, the terms of it have shifted from “should we publish it?” to “is there a good reason we shouldn’t?” YouTube has both fostered the availability of these videos and forced the discussion to the negative option.
Also multiplying are web channels devoted to the mayhem the authors know will attract clicks. Some are just car-wreck voyeurism, some attempt legitimate accident deconstruction and some are in between, but most rush to be first because they know, as we do, that being first snags the search engine and drives the most views that are the digital equivalent of crack cocaine. Restraint is not in evidence because if the other guy has it, why shouldn’t we?
That’s the context for publishing the fatal crash of Dale “Snort” Snodgrass’s Marchetti SM.1019B on July 24. This video should be difficult to watch for all of us but more so because so many people knew Snodgrass from having served with him in the U.S. Navy or working with him in some of the many jet airshows he flew during his career. That’s how I knew him, from an interview we did at Sun ‘n Fun in 2010 when he was flying the Paris jet for that show. You can tell from his answers that he was a perceptive and thoughtful aviator.
Not evident from that short video is that we talked for more than an hour. I had arrived early to rig the airplane with a camera so we had plenty of time to chat. Snodgrass came of age as an F-14 pilot during the 1980s and at a time when then Secretary of the Navy John Lehman had proposed his controversial northern strategy. The idea was to send a carrier battle group into the Norwegian or Barents Seas to bottle up the Soviet Northern Fleet. It pushed the limits of carrier operations to the breaking point and Snodgrass told me the worst experience he had in the that part of the world was flying 13 passes to get an F-14 trapped on a heaving deck. He affected no bravado about it. It was scary and he said as much.
He was well positioned and experienced to understand the risks of aviation broadly and specifically flying vintage jets in airshows. So it’s natural, upon seeing the video, to think if it can happen to him, it can happen to anyone. While that’s certainly true, upon seeing the video, my immediate takeaway was more pedestrian than that. It was a reminder about pre-takeoff control checks. To be clear, I am not speculating that this is what happened here because we lack the necessary data to draw any conclusion. This accident could have been caused by several things we can imagine and maybe some we can’t.
What I am saying is that this reminds me of one of a dozen or more accident reports I’ve read in which a gust lock left in place or some other control impingement caused loss of control immediately after takeoff. Some of these were fatal, but, mercifully, most were not. Some caused the rapid pitch up you see in this video, some didn’t. All of them bent or destroyed airplanes.
Having been steeped in so many accident reports, I’m religious about certain things, including sumping the fuel for water, using the full runway length and control checks. In the Cub, I always do it at the same point, when climbing into the aircraft after I’ve pulled the right wheel chock.
One thing that got me into that habit was another video that appeared after this 1992 fatal accident of a DHC-4 Caribou that crashed immediately after takeoff. The three-person crew was conducting a test flight and the Canadian TSB said the gust lock system may have engaged after takeoff, but it also said it was unlikely the crew did a control check. So, the two videos taken together are a reminder not to forget this basic critical preflight check, regardless of what caused the Snodgrass crash. If airing them saves another crash or two or three, then that justifies the unavoidably macabre nature of the subject matter.
One other thing occurred to me. If, after takeoff, you suddenly encounter uncommanded pitch-up that you can’t control, what can you do? If it’s a control lock in place, most of the pitch-up moment will be coming from the engine’s thrust vector. Get rid of it and quick. Reducing throttle if not chopping it entirely will lower the pitch and although the airplane will likely land hard on the remaining runway, that would be far more survivable than climbing to a couple of hundred feet and suffering the inevitable noseover and high-energy crash.
It would take superhuman fast thinking and discipline to instantly decide you’re going to throw the airplane away so you can at least survive the incident. Frankly, I doubt if I’m capable of it. Which is why I’ll hope to avoid trying by doing the control check in the first place.