Board a commercial flight here in the United States, or most anywhere in the world, and it’s all but a guarantee you’ll make it to your destination safely. You’ve all heard the stats: air travel is safer than traveling by car, you’re more likely to get attacked by a shark than die in a plane crash, and on and on.

Those platitudes may very well be true, but they apply largely to the highly regulated FAA Part 121 world: the airlines. When you enter the Part 91 world of recreational flying, things aren’t quite as regulated. There’s always going to be inherent risk involved in operating a small aircraft, but I’m willing to bet any general aviation (GA) pilot would tell you that they love the freedom involved in flying around in a small airplane.

At the risk of sounding too mushy, I most certainly I love defying gravity – I do it for a living. I’m a part of a highly-regulated system with lots of links in the safety chain. If you’re having trouble sleeping at night, pick up a copy of the FAA’s FAR/AIM and read the 121 regs.

FAR/AIM 2015It’s the kind of reading that is guaranteed to put you to sleep, but the regulations are all there for a reason: to keep airlines operating in safe manner. The bottom line is that there is a process behind every single airline flight, so it’s not as if the pilots on your flight to London decided to show up and take a 747 out for a spin (no pun intended) across the Atlantic on a whim.

Things aren’t quite so laid in stone when it comes to the operation of small, non-commercial aircraft. Just look at the single-engine Piper PA-28 that recently crashed out in Henderson, Nevada, with three Navy SEALs onboard. While the NTSB investigation is ongoing, a few things jump out as potential primary causes of the fiery crash. Henderson’s airport sits at almost 2500 feet above sea level, and given the high summertime temps in Las Vegas this makes Henderson a “hot and high” airport.

This results in a high density altitude, which is a calculated figure that accounts for both high temps and elevation. Why is this figure important? Because the higher the density altitude, the less performance your airplane will have since the air becomes less dense (fewer molecules) the higher you go.

This means less air over the wings, less thrust from the engine(s), a longer takeoff roll, and degraded climb performance once you actually do leave the ground. Considering the crash happened in the heat of early afternoon, it’s safe to say the density altitude was several thousand feet higher than the field’s 2500 feet.

A Piper PA-28-181 Archer like the one that crashed in Henderson, NV. (Photo by Wikimedia Commons)
A Piper PA-28-181 Archer like the one that crashed in Henderson, NV. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

It’s also likely that the airplane was loaded over its maximum gross weight, further contributing to performance issues. Though you might be able to fit four adults plus a trunk full of luggage in your car, and still have a full tank of gas with no issues, it’s different with small aircraft. There are always design limitations, and the Piper Aircraft Company’s PA-28-181 Operating Manual stresses the importance of loading the aircraft responsibly:

Although the airplane offers flexibility of loading, it cannot be flown with the maximum number of adult passengers, full fuel tanks, and maximum baggage. With the flexibility comes responsibility. The pilot must ensure that the airplane is loaded within the loading envelope before he makes a takeoff.

Misloading carries consequences for any aircraft. An overloaded airplane will not take off, climb, or cruise as well as a properly loaded one. The heavier the airplane is loaded, the less climb performance it will have.

Not only is the weight an issue, but how that weight is distributed throughout the airplane will determine handling characteristics of the aircraft. The Piper manual goes on to say:

Center of gravity is a determining factor in flight characteristics. If the C.G. is too far forward in any airplane, it may be difficult to rotate for takeoff or landing. If the C.G. is too far aft, the airplane may rotate prematurely on takeoff or tend to pitch up during climb. Longitudinal stability will be reduced. This can lead to inadvertent stalls and even spins, and spin recovery becomes more difficult as the center of gravity moves aft of the approved limit.

Despite two passengers being treated for critical burns, all four occupants have thus far survived the accident that in all likelihood could have been avoided had the pilot decided to operate within the defined limitations of the aircraft.

(Featured photo courtesy of CBS Las Vegas)