Al Ain seaplane crash caused by pilot’s ‘lapse in judgement’

The final investigation report into the seaplane crash that killed four Americans concludes pilot error was the likely cause.

Joshua Hucklebridge, one of the Americans killed in a plane crash in Al Ain last year, poses with the rare seaplane at the London Air Show in 2010.

Courtesy: Elaine White
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ABU DHABI // A seaplane crash that killed four Americans in Al Ain nearly three years ago was almost certainly caused by pilot error, a final report into the accident has revealed.

The report, released by the General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) on Thursday, said the plane’s pilot attempted a steep left turn that resulted in a stall and a likely loss of control.

“Technical factors were not contributory to the accident, although the investigation revealed a lack of proper maintenance,” said Ismaeil Abdel Wahed, the assistant director general of Air Accident Investigations at the authority.

“The GCAA investigation revealed that the pilot’s desire to rapidly accomplish a left-turn shortly after take-off and during the initial climb resulted in steep downfall of the aircraft, where recovery of the aircraft control was not possible.”

The antique seaplane, called a Grumman Goose, crashed on the taxiway at Al Ain International Airport less than two minutes after being cleared for take-off on February 27, 2011. All four American airmen onboard were killed instantly.

Landon Studer, 28, was piloting the plane at the time of the crash. The company’s international project manager, Joshua Hucklebridge, also 28, was also onboard, along with two seaplane enthusiasts from the US west coast – Tyler Orsow, 25, and Chuck Kimes, 61, who was also sitting in the cockpit.

The men were en-route to Riyadh for the first leg of a week-long trip that would have made stops in Morocco and South America before ending in Texas.

The cause of the crash is listed in the report as the pilot’s “lapse in judgement and failure to exercise due diligence when he decided to enter into a steep left turn at inadequate height and speed”.

Contributing factors were the pilot’s “self-induced time pressure to rapidly complete the post-maintenance flight” and his lack of recent experience in the aircraft type.

The report said the accident was non-survivable.

The plane had been stored in a hangar at the airport for six months. Maintenance was not performed on the plane until the day of the flight and was limited to general services. An extra fuel tank was added and placed in the cabin.

“The investigation believes that there were no major mechanical defects that could have contributed to the accident,” the report said.

Studer, an accomplished pilot who had served in the US air force, had not flown the type of seaplane for six months and had fewer than 50 hours of experience in that kind of aircraft.

Investigators believe the plane was exceeding its weight limit when it took off. That, combined with Studer’s inexperience, are likely to have been the causes of the crash, the report said.

The pilot may have lost control of the plane or may have been unaware of the danger until it was too late.

Studer never made any attempts to declare an emergency but piloting the aircraft may have prevented him from doing so.

“There was no pressing reason for the pilot to perform the left turn so hastily,” the GCAA report said. “The pilot could have climbed to a higher altitude to help him establish his position and then perform the left turn when the speed and altitude were adequately maintained.

“The investigation concludes that the aircraft was put into a situation from which recovery was not possible.”

The GCAA report also makes safety recommendations to both US and UAE aviation authorities.

Recommendations include improving regulations governing foreign aircraft operations in the UAE and developing a requirement that airports establish procedures to report aircraft parked for a pre-specified period.

The GCAA should also enhance its foreign aircraft safety assessment system to ensure any aircraft parked in a UAE airport for a pre-specified period submit documents to assure that the aircraft is airworthy before a clearance of departure is issued.

The report also recommends that the US federal aviation administration enhance general aviation aircraft worthiness certification and oversight, in addition to airman licensing practices, in line with federal aviation regulations.

jthomas@thenational.ae