Launchpad, What Were You Thinking?

By Robert Mark on August 15th, 2021

My close friends know that as a pilot I have one deep-seated fear. If I should ever buy it in an airplane, I don’t want it to be for something that’s classically not me, something I’ve spent my career as a flight instructor campaigning against, like trying to keep a light twin in the air when an engine quits just after takeoff on a sweltering day. Or trying to turn back to the airport after the only motor quits when I’m only a few hundred feet in the air. Most of all though, I hope I never violate my Prime Directive; to lower the nose and pitch for best glide speed when the engine quits, no matter my altitude.  I know any additional increase in pitch, even accidentally, reduces the airplane’s margin above stall and could eventually lead to a complete loss of control. Sounds simple … but in an emergency, anyone’s brain might turn to mush.

The NBAA Safety Committee and the GA Joint Steering Committee (GAJSC) have studied Loss of Control Inflight for years knowing it’s responsible for more aviation fatalities than anything else. Randy Brooks, vp of training and business development at Aviation Performance Solutions (APS), a company created to teach pilots how to recognize an impending stall as well as how to recover if they don’t, told me that 45-50 percent of general aviation accidents can easily fit into the loss of control category. Not surprisingly, most LOCI events are preceded by an aerodynamic stall. “Stalls are by far the greatest single contributor,” Brooks said, “although attitudinal upsets like a nose-low spiral dive could result in structural failure due to overspeed or flutter.” This all translates into a lesson instructors should be teaching pilots in all categories of training; better to impact the ground during a power-loss emergency with the aircraft under control than the alternative.  A stall near the ground is almost always fatal.

A month or so ago I wrote a piece for Flying magazine about the personal loss I and some of my friends felt over the death of my friend Brad – Launchpad – Marzari when he crashed in his Focke-Wulf FWP-149D just a few miles short of runway 1 at Killeen, Texas Skylark Field Airport (ILE). He’d been displaying the warbird at New Braunfels Regional Airport (BAZ), about 100 miles to the south. Last week the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released its preliminary report of the crash and the Board’s highlights sent me into a brand new personal tailspin.

NTSB Accident Reports

If you’re new to reviewing aircraft reports, a crash is seldom the result of a single problem, like pilot error as most like to claim. The real cause usually lies much deeper than that. The NTSB doesn’t usually look at why a pilot took the action or failed to act in a specific situation. The NTSB report on Launchpad’s crash simply presented the facts as the investigators uncovered them. A final report won’t be available until near the end of 2022.

What jumped out at me when I read the report was the interview with the maintenance technician who cared for N9145. I don’t remember the person’s name, but I do remember Launchpad telling me a few weeks before the accident about some of the maintenance issues he was up against with his warbird, one being the magnetos.

The report said, “on July 2, 2021, [the mechanic] installed the right magneto on the engine after it was repaired by an overhaul shop. The mechanic stated that after installing the right magneto he conducted an engine run to assure proper engine operation. During the engine run, he observed the amber-colored “chip detector” cockpit warning light illuminated. The mechanic shut down the engine drained the oil into a clean bucket and followed the wiring associated with the “chip detector” warning light to the oil filtration system housing.” The chip detector actually turned out to be an engine oil bypass detector indicating something in the system was blocking the free flow of lubrication.

The mechanic stated that he observed “metal contamination” on the filter screen and inside the filter housing. The mechanic then showed the pilot the metal material found in the oil filtration system. With the pilot present, the mechanic ran a magnet over the screen and determined the observed metal material did not stick to the magnet.” At this point, it’s very possible Launchpad took the failure of anything to stick to the magnet as proof the problem was not that significant. Of course, the magnetic probe the mechanic said he used could have been faulty as well.

“The mechanic and Launchpad then discussed that the metal particles needed to be collected and sent to a laboratory for additional analysis. Brad told the mechanic that he intended to fly the airplane back to his home base at ILE. The mechanic told the pilot that they needed to determine the source of the metal contamination before the pilot flew any trips in the airplane. The mechanic then collected samples before he cleaned the filtration housing, sensor, and screen. He then added new oil to the engine and performed another engine run, during which he did not observe the “chip light”/bypass light illuminated.” No explanation was offered for why the mechanic thought enough to send the metal fragments to a laboratory for analysis when the magnetic probe attracted nothing.

The Accident

The NTSB said, “the pilot returned the following day, July 3, 2021, to retrieve the airplane. The mechanic observed the pilot complete an engine runup before he departed Draughon-Miller Central Texas Regional Airport (TPL), Temple, Texas, to ILE. The mechanic reported that he believed the airplane was going to remain at ILE until the laboratory results were returned concerning the metal particles.”

Despite what I interpreted as confusion about the existence of metal fragments in the engine, Launchpad flew the airplane on July 4th from Skylark to New Braunfels to display it for a portion of the day. He departed BAZ about 16:34 local for the short flight home. When N9145 was about 8.5 miles from ILE descending toward the airport – about 1717:30 local – he joined the extended runway 1 centerline at 2,700 feet MSL. With the ILE field elevation at 848 ft. at this point the Focke-Wulf was flying about 2,000 feet above the ground.

NTSB data gathered from the ADS-B system showed the aircraft began to slow during the next few minutes. “The Focke-Wulf FWP-149D Pilot Operating Handbook (POH), indicated the aerodynamic stall speed at maximum takeoff weight with the landing gear and flaps retracted is 61 knots, and the maximum glide distance with no engine power is achieved at 90 knots.” The calibrated airspeed on Launchpad’s FW-149D decreased from 112 knots to about 60 knots and occasionally to as slow as 57 knots, indicating the aircraft and pilot were wrestling with a serious problem. Although flying at a slower airspeed, the airplane was still inching closer to the airport. With just a few more miles to go, the end of the runway must have been calling to Brad. He’d made it this far, surely the old bird would fly just a few more miles.

Almost since he joined the extended runway centerline, the ground beneath the Focke-Wulf was nearly flat, only occasionally dotted by clumps of trees. But there was a large housing development between Launchpad’s current position and the runway threshold just a few miles ahead.

Moments before the aircraft struck the ground, Brad was heard calling Mayday on 121.5 and that he had, “lost his engine” was “losing altitude” and “trying to make it to Skylark.” A few seconds later he must have realized the inevitable and said he “wasn’t going to make it to the airport” and to “roll the trucks.” A witness reported the airplane flying toward the airport at about “300 ft agl” and flying at “50-60 knots.” He heard the engine “sputtering” and observed the airplane’s wings dip left-and-right 2-3 times before the airplane “stalled” with the left wing down.” The airplane descended toward the ground about 2.7 miles from the airport, just short of that thick housing development. “The witness immediately responded to the accident site where he found the airplane engulfed in flames.”

In my Flying story, I told readers I thought when Brad purposely forced the old warbird into the ground to avoid inflicting harm to anyone on the ground. After reading this NTSB report, I stand by that conclusion. The evidence seems to point strongly to an engine calamity of some kind aboard N9145 in those final minutes. Was that power loss linked to the metal the mechanic discovered during his inspection just a few days before? We’ll probably need to wait for the final report to know for certain.

But what will haunt me to the end of my days Brad, is why in the world you flew the airplane knowing there was a potential engine problem lying in wait for you somewhere along the way? It was just an airport-day display at New Braunfels. Was it worth risking your life or the lives of anyone who might have been near had the accident occurred earlier during the trip? I’ll bet you didn’t think of that. When the engine started sputtering, you still had flat ground beneath you. Why did you try to stretch the glide to Skylark? Sure you might have torn up the airplane during the gear-up landing you would have probably made short of the airport, but you would have probably survived to tell us all on the next Airplane Geeks episode how you almost made the wrong decision.

Guess none of us will ever know for sure why you forgot that airplanes can be repaired, but often not people. RIP buddy. Your friend, Rob






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4 Responses to “Launchpad, What Were You Thinking?”

  1. Bill Palmer Says:

    I see this an another example of power pilots not appreciating the difference between best glide speed and minimum sink speed.
    The slow speed he went to was probably close to the minimum sink speed, which gives you more seconds before you hit the trees. Best glide speed gets you the farthest.
    This is one of the many great lessons pilots learn when they spend some training time in gliders (among many others).
    As a recently retire airline pilot, CFI-ASMEIG now actively teaching in gliders, I can tell you that you learn more about flying in 100 hours by doing it without an engine than 20,000 hours with the AP on.

    So, Rob, when are you going to come out to CA for a glider ride?

  2. Glen Towler Says:

    My words exactly when I read the accident report. Why not leave the aircraft behind and go commerical to get home? And get the engine fixed.
    I also have seen too many reports of pilots doing the impossible turn to get back to the airport.
    I won’t ever forget my friend
    RIP buddy

  3. Robert Mark Says:

    I’m afraid you’re absolutely right Bill. It’sjust a shame to have lost another friend to prove what so many of us already knew. But I don’t want to appear to be beating up a friend who is already gone. The real audience is those folks who don’t really believe this is how airplanes really fly … or don’t.

  4. Pat Doyle Says:

    Sorry for the loss of your buddy, Rob. But thank you for writing about it. Your last paragraph sums it all up.

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