A Cirrus SR-22, N224GS, crashed yesterday in Washington state. The pilot was killed. The passenger was critically injured. The aircraft departed Concord, California (CCR) in good weather, bound for home. It crashed in Morton, 60 miles from its destination, which was presumably Renton (RNT).
The accident appears to have been the result of engine failure:
- Witnesses said it was flying "low and silent" just before impact.
- A pilot on frequency says he heard the Cirrus pilot report to Air Traffic Control "saying he was dead stick "no engine" and he didn’t think they were going to make the airport."
Facts suggesting that the engine failed because it ran out of gas:
- Fuel exhaustion is the leading cause of engine failure.
- The pilot reported to his wife that he was battling a "stiff headwind." Unexpected headwinds are common to many fuel exhaustion accidents.
- The aircraft was only about 20 minutes from landing,
- Most fuel exhaustion accidents happen close to the intended destination.There was no post-crash fire. No fire suggests that there was no fuel on board to burn.
Facts suggesting that the engine failed because of a mechanical problem:
- Assuming the Cirrus was fully fueled at Concord, the Cirrus should have been able to make Renton even with "stiff" head winds.
- The pilot’s widow reports that the aircraft had engine problems that were recently repaired.
Why didn’t the pilot deploy the Cirrus parachute?
There is no consensus among Cirrus pilots as to exactly when the parachute should be deployed.
- Some pilots say it should not be deployed in the event of engine failure. Rather, it’s safer for the pilot to glide the aircraft to a safe off-airport landing area.
- Other pilots say the parachute should be deployed in all cases of engine failure unless the aircraft is directly over a long, paved airport runway.
The wreckage photos show that the parachute was, in fact, deployed. An NTSB investigator has told the press that it cannot be determined at this point whether the parachute was deployed before impact or instead as a result of impact forces. But the photos strongly suggest that it was deployed by impact forces and not by the pilot.
March 26 Update: The NTSB has released its preliminary report of the accident. Investigators drained 7 gallons of fuel (about half-hour’s worth) from the left tank. That rules out fuel exhaustion — there was definitely fuel on board the aircraft. The right tank was ruptured in the crash. That means it could not be determined if there was any fuel in it before impact. As a result, while fuel exhaustion can be ruled out, fuel starvation is still a possibility.
In a "fuel exhaustion" accident, the engine stops because there is no fuel left on board the aircraft. In a "fuel starvation" accident, there is fuel on board, but the engine stops because the pilot has not positioned the fuel valve or valves properly to allow the fuel to flow to the engine. For example, fuel starvation results when the pilot tries to feed the engine from a tank that is empty. Fuel starvation most commonly happens after the pilot runs one tank dry, and then fails to switch properly to another with fuel in it.
Fuel starvation is common in aircraft with complex fuel systems. The Cirrus’ fuel system, however, is a model of simplicity. Point the valve to the left fuel gauge to feed from the left tank, point to the right gauge to feed from the right. There’s not much chance of confusion.
Unfortunately, the NTSB report doesn’t say what position the fuel valve was found in: "left," right" or "off." If the valve was found in the "right" position, fuel starvation remains a possibility. If it was found in the "left" position (as shown in the photo), that would suggest the engine failed for reasons unrelated to fuel starvation.
Related Post: Should the Pilot Have Deployed the Parachute?