Bloomberg News

Micron CEO’s 330-Mph Plane Had High Fatal-Crash Rate, FAA Says

February 05, 2012

Feb. 4 (Bloomberg) -- The Lancair IVP aircraft that Micron Technology Inc. Chief Executive Officer Steve Appleton was piloting when he died yesterday is known for its performance and a higher-than-average number of accidents.

A U.S. Federal Aviation Administration notice to Lancair operators on Sept. 25, 2009, warned that the plane had had a “disproportionate” number of fatal accidents.

“The Lancair fatal accident rate is substantially higher than both personal-use general aviation as well as the overall fatal accident rate for all amateur-built experimental aircraft,” the FAA said in the notice.

Although designed to be built at home, the four-seat plane is made of carbon fiber to reduce weight and has a pressurized cabin so it can fly at high altitudes, according to the Lancair website. It’s categorized by the FAA as an experimental aircraft, meaning it’s not subject to the same certification standards as a factory-built plane by Cessna Aircraft, a unit of Textron Inc.

Lancairs represented about 3 percent of the U.S. amateur- built fleet and were involved in 16 percent of the group’s fatal accidents in the previous 11 months, the FAA said in its 2009 notice.

During that period, 60 percent of the fatal accidents resulted from loss of control, and most of those crashes occurred near the runway.

Stall Vulnerability

Appleton’s plane rolled and then plunged to the ground shortly after takeoff, Zoe Keliher, a U.S. National Transportation Safety Board investigator, said at a briefing. The pilot had radioed air-traffic controllers to say he was returning to the airport in Boise, Idaho, Keliher said.

The Lancair’s wings stop providing lift at higher speeds than other small planes, Steve Wallace, former chief of safety at the FAA, said in an interview.

The plane’s aerodynamic stalls, which result from loss of lift, are more violent than in other small planes, Wallace said. As a result, pilots who aren’t familiar with this characteristic can get into trouble in the plane, he said.

“This airplane has a very hot wing and you need to be very respectful of that,” said Bruce Landsberg, president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association Foundation and its Air Safety Institute.

Pilot Training

The Lancair Owners and Builders Organization said the issue arises from poor training of pilots, not the plane itself, according to the Experimental Aircraft Association website. The EAA represents manufacturers and owners of the Lancair and similar amateur-built planes.

Appleton had been a pilot since 1988, according to FAA records. In addition to the small plane he was piloting, he had received several advanced FAA certificates usually reserved for airline pilots, according to the records.

Amateur-built planes tend to have higher accident rates than factory-built aircraft, according to Landsberg and Wallace.

One factor is that federal requirements are not as stringent, which allows owners to make modifications to the planes, they said.

The singer John Denver died in an experimental aircraft crash on Oct. 12, 1997, after his Long EZ plane lost power. One of the factors contributing to the accident was that the previous owner had located a fuel-line switch in a position behind the pilot where it was difficult to reach, the NTSB concluded.

The NTSB, which investigates aviation accidents, said Jan. 23 that it had finished collecting data for a study of experimental-aircraft safety due to be completed this year.

The Lancair IVP is capable of speeds as high as 330 miles per hour at 24,000 feet, according to the company’s website. That makes it one of the fastest non-turbine powered aircraft, Landsberg said.

A comparable factory-built plane, the Piper Aircraft Inc. Mirage, flies at a maximum of 269 mph, according to Landsberg.

--Editors: Andrea Snyder, Stephen West

To contact the reporter on this story: Alan Levin in Washington at alevin24@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bernard Kohn at bkohn2@bloomberg.net -0- Feb/03/2012 21:51 GMT


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