First solo flights for student pilots are typically a nerve-wracking affair. For one ill-fated student, that first flight became the last earlier this week, as the small trainer they were flying in crashed after, according to reports, both wings came off in flight. The Piper PA-28-161 crashed in Madagascar. While details are sketchy, at least one witness on the ground told authorities that they had seen the plane’s wings come off in flight, which obviously led to the crash of the plane, in which the pilot/sole occupant was killed.
🇲🇬Madagascar, Andinalatoby – Un avion école, un Piper PA-28-161 Cadet (5R-AAR) s’écrase avec son pilote lors de son premier vol solo, l’appareil perd ses deux ailes en vol.
Press: https://t.co/EM6mhMYV9d pic.twitter.com/iTVAAnMnTh
— PLANES OF LEGEND (@PlanesOfLegend) January 24, 2023
This latest crash brings to mind the fatal mishap of a 2007 Piper Arrow PA-28-R201 on April 4th, 2018, when an Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU) student and an FAA-designated examiner were killed when one of the plane’s wings detached in flight. In that case, the plane wasn’t being put under any unusual stress. It crashed as it was taking off, the wing separating at at approximately 900 feet agl, causing the small plane to go irrecoverably out of control, leading to the crash.
Following the National Transportation Safety Board’s final report, we wrote that investigators, “…found that the wing that broke off suffered from metal fatigue in multiple locations”. At the time of the accident, the plane had just less than 8,000 hours’ total time and had accumulated just over 25 hours since its last annual inspection. In its report the NTSB found that the, “…left wing separated from the fuselage near the wing root and exhibited mid-span buckling of the surface skin,” and that, ”…preliminary examination of the left wing main spar revealed that more than 80 percent of the lower spar caps and portions of the forward and aft spar doublers exhibited fracture features consistent with metal fatigue.”
A follow-on AD from the FAA required the testing of PA-28s using a formula that essentially targeted higher-time aircraft. Those found with damage to the spars would require they be replaced, at great cost to the owner.
It’s unknown whether the PA-28 that crashed in Madagascar was subject to the FAA inspection/repair order, and if it was, if that AD had been complied with. Airworthiness directives are issued by the FAA and the manufacturer, so regardless of where an aircraft is being operated, the owner needs to comply with the AD.
That said, the report that both wings of the Madagascar PA-28 came off in flight is problematic. The wings in PA-28s are two-piece structures, each of which bolts to the lower fuselage. For both wings to fail in flight due to structural weaknesses is extraordinarily unlikely. It is possible for both wings to come off in flight, but this typically happens in one of two scenarios—if the plane’s wings were removed and then improperly reattached which, again, is an unlikely scenario, or if the plane were severely overstressed, causing both wings to buckle and detach. This sometimes happens when a pilot loses control of a plane in a high-speed dive and recovers by pulling hard, overstressing the wings and causing them to detach.
It’s also possible, perhaps even likely, that the report of both wings coming off was incorrect, though one report, though riddled with questionable statements and conclusions, seemed to confirm that both wings detached.
We’ll update this story as more details emerge.