After the Accident: Hard Deck Lessons

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At 3 p.m. on August 4, 2021, a beautiful bright yellow T-6 took off from McCharen Field Airport (M83) in West Point, Mississippi. The sky was blue, with no clouds or obscurations to visibility. It was 88 degrees, with a light wind out of the north. It was a perfect day for a VFR pleasure flight.

The pilot had been flying for decades, logging 3,500 hours. He’d owned the 1946 North American T-6G for a while, accumulating more than 300 hours in type. The T-6 Texan (known outside the U.S. as a Harvard) is a 600 hp, two-seat aerobatic World War II advanced trainer—a very nice airplane. Accompanied by his 13-year-old grandson in the back seat, he circled back over the airport and flew 7 miles to the south.

Now over some fields and woods, he started a sequence of low-level aerobatics. Data from ADS-B and an onboard GPS recorder show many course reversals, with altitudes varying but rarely higher than 1,000 feet agl. Eyewitnesses corroborated the variations in altitude and reported the air show smoke system was on. A Snapchat video shows the T-6 maneuvering overhead just above the treetop level.

According to the accident report, the airplane ripped into trees at a steep angle and then impacted the ground, leaving a tightly contained accident site. Both the pilot and his grandson were killed. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigated the accident. Both airplane and pilot were properly certified with current airworthiness documentation. The NTSB found “postaccident examination of the airframe and engines revealed no mechanical malfunctions or anomalies that would have precluded normal operation.”

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There was no distress call, no other airplane around, no medical complications, and no issues with the fuel or weather. The recently released final report simply states the probable cause to be “(the) pilot’s failure to maintain clearance from trees while maneuvering at low altitude.” This was not an isolated or unique accident.

A few weeks earlier, on June 18, 2021, another experienced pilot went down while maneuvering at low altitude.

The 4,000-hour flight instructor and his 20-hour post-solo student took off from the Fernandina Beach Municipal Airport in Florida (KFHB) at about 11 a.m. It was 84 degrees Fahrenheit, and the lowest clouds were at 9,000 feet with high visibility and light winds. They were in the flight school’s 1971 Cessna 150L. After flying about 7 miles to the north, they practiced air work, turns, and slow flight.

Air traffic control radar records show several turns and airspeed changes consistent with training exercises. The altitudes seemed low, ranging between 800 and 1,000 feet agl. To see if this was normal practice, the NTSB interviewed the student who flew the accident airplane with the accident instructor earlier that morning. He said they “performed clean stalls, dirty stalls, and a power-off glide at altitudes between 1,000 and 1,200 feet” above the St. Mary’s River. They then returned to KFHB for some uneventful touch-and-gos. The instructor’s next flight followed a similar profile. Except that this time during the air work there was a sudden change.

One eyewitness reported the airplane as circling and turning while descending. Another said the aircraft descended nose-down in a “corkscrew” path. By the descriptions, it appears the Cessna stalled and spun, quickly smashing into the river in a near-vertical, nose-down attitude. Witnesses said it sounded as if the engine was running the whole time. After it struck the water, it quickly sank. Both pilots were killed.

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Again, both airplane and pilot were properly certificated with current airworthiness and airman documentation. NTSB’s examination of the wreckage “did not reveal evidence of a preexisting mechanical malfunction or failure that would have precluded normal operation.” The student pilot was described by an instructor as “Sharp…She took her lessons seriously and was always prepared.” There was no distress call, no other airplane, no medical complications, and no concerns with the fuel or weather. The only issue was performing the maneuvers at low altitudes.

The FAA’s Airplane Flying Handbook (FAA-H-8083-3C) addresses the altitude for performing maneuvers that involve significant changes in altitude or direction. It states there should be sufficient altitude available for recovery before executing the maneuver. This, of course, depends considerably on the airplane and the maneuver, and in jets can be thousands of feet. More prescriptively it recommends “that stalls be practiced at an altitude that allows recovery no lower than 1,500 feet agl for single-engine airplanes.” Additionally, the FAA private pilot-airplane airman certification standards lists a requirement that all slow flight and stall tasks “be completed no lower than 1,500 (feet agl) for single-engine aircraft.”

The flight school followed a similar policy. However, this instructor was starting maneuvers at and below 1,000 feet agl.

The NTSB’s recently released final report determines the probable cause of the accident to be the “flight instructor’s decision to conduct slow flight training at an altitude below the flight school’s minimum recovery altitude and his delayed remedial action when an aerodynamic stall occurred.”

These accidents both feature the same root cause. The pilots went down because they were doing maneuvers too close to the ground. Maybe people do this because it looks cool or feels exciting. Maybe it’s because climbing to higher altitudes takes a lot of time. But setting a reasonable minimum altitude to finish slow flight, stalls, loops, or rolls gives a basic safety margin and is essential risk management.

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This airmanship concept made it into the movie Top Gun. In air combat maneuvering training—also known as dogfighting—fighter pilots simulate flying down to the ground by setting a “hard deck” of (for example) 10,000 feet as a required safety buffer. Maverick busts the hard deck and is chewed out about it in the debriefing, but he gets to fly again. In reality, his Top Gun course would have ended there.

Hard decks are a serious safety rule. Setting a minimum altitude gives us lifesaving time and space to correct errors. Except in special circumstances, when that close to the ground we should be doing only one of two things—climbing or landing. 

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the August 2023 issue of Plane & Pilot magazine.

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