A Piper Arrow trainer plane belonging to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University that crashed last year, killing two people, occurred because frequent takeoffs and landings stressed the aircraft’s wings, causing one of them to break off in flight, federal investigators said.
In its final report of the deadly April 4, 2018, accident, The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said that the frequent takeoffs and landings caused the left wing’s main spar to crack in several places. Those fractures caused the aircraft’s left wing to break off at an altitude of 900 feet.
Student pilot Zack Capra, a Navy veteran, was performing takeoffs and landings in the Embry-Riddle plane at Daytona Beach International Airport. He had already completed one touch-and-go landing and was climbing for another when the wing broke off, causing the aircraft to spiral to the ground. The plane slammed into a field about two miles from the airport. The detached wing landed nearby on the opposite side of the road.
The crash killed Mr. Capra and John Azma, 61, a flight examiner for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
According to the NTSB report, the airplane was just 10 years old, but it had made about 33,000 takeoffs in 7,700 hours of flight time — about one every 15 minutes and significantly more takeoffs than an airplane used under normal operating conditions would typically have.
NTSB investigators said that the airplane flew almost exclusively at low altitudes, putting extra stress on the wings. As a result, the metal support that connects the fuselage to the wings became fatigued and significantly fractured on the left wing. The right-wing spar was also cracked, but not as extensively. It stayed intact.
As part of its investigation, the NTSB examined 16 similar airplanes at Embry-Riddle and three other flight schools that had been in service from 2,775 to 10,301 flight hours and landing cycles ranging from 8,841 to 39,000. Investigators found that one other Embry-Riddle airplane had a crack on its wing, but the others did not. The Embry-Riddle plane with the cracked wing had been in service more than 7,660 hours with 33,288 landing cycles.
The findings could lead to FAA guidance on the inspection spars on Piper aircraft that are used for touch-and-go instruction and other flight training.
Beasley Allen lawyer Mike Andrews focuses much of his practice on aviation litigation. He has investigated civilian and military plane and helicopter crashes. He is currently representing victims of the Ethiopian Airlines crash involving the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft. He has also authored a book, Aviation Litigation & Accident Investigation, which is free to lawyers.