Clarifying what was muddled.   

    A recent fatality at Collegedale (KFGU) was much in the news.  A lot of bad reporting happened in various media including television, online, and print news.  Here I am quoting the letter Mark Winton, owner of Hixson Aviation and a retired USAF pilot, wrote after the accident:

I am writing this letter to accomplish two things. One is to put any rumors to rest that you may have heard through the news media and also to let everyone know what really happened last Friday with the very tragic accident that occurred near Collegedale airport.

Let me first start by saying, I have known this instructor for many years and I consider him one of the most professional pilots and instructors I have ever met. I also consider him a very good friend. I would trust him with my life in any airplane.

Now, 95% of what I am about to explain to you are his words and the rest will be mine as to the events that transpired last Friday. You can rest assured that what you are about to read is an accurate account. The mishap instructor has approved this letter before I released it to you.

The instructor had flown the aircraft for several hours in the left seat making sure he was comfortable with its flight characteristics before allowing Mr. Richardson to get in the left seat. One thing to note about this aircraft is that it only had one stick in the middle of the cockpit and did not have brakes on the right side. The instructor met Mr. Richardson at the airport at about 2:00 pm on Friday and flew the airplane again for about an hour. After that flight, the instructor pulled up to the ramp and shut down and chatted for a few minutes with Mr. Richardson. At that point the instructor was ready to get in the right seat and let Mr. Richardson fly his airplane for the first time in the left seat. They took their time getting in the airplane and went over several things with him, such as handling characteristics and airspeeds. They took their time getting comfortable in their respective seats and fastening their seatbelts. They also took their time lowering and latching the canopy.

When they started to crank the engine it turned over very slowly and would not start. At that point they unlatched and raised the canopy and Mr. Richardson called Ed Moore to bring a charger over to plug in for a boost. Ed drove up to the ramp in a few minutes and came over to the airplane with a charger and started to plug it in. At that point Mr. Richardson UNBUCKLED his seat belt to get out so he could help Mr. Moore. Mr. Moore then said to Mr. Richardson “No, No just stay in the airplane.” The instructor also commented to just stay in the plane and that Ed Moore was just going to plug us in and then unplug us once we get going. 

Mr. Richardson put his seatbelt back on and appeared to fasten it again. It seemed like it clicked to the instructor the second time and the instructor did not give it a second thought. After all, Mr. Richardson was an experienced, LICENSED pilot. However, the second time strapping into the airplane appeared to be a little more rushed than the first time when they originally prepared to start the airplane. There was absolutely no reason for the instructor to think any more about there being a seat belt problem. The instructor did not have visual sight of his buckle because of a center console that hides the buckle from view by the other occupant. The instructor does remember the lap and shoulder portion of the seat belt actually being over Mr. Richardson. Mr. Moore plugged them in and they cranked the engine with no further problems. The canopy was then lowered and latched for the second time.

They taxied to runway 3 and took off. Everything was normal during the take off. They climbed out and proceeded to the east training area for a simple lesson of just straight and level flight and normal turns. It was intended to be just a 15 or 20 minute flight. Early into the flight, maybe 3 or 4 minutes, the instructor noticed a wind noise coming from behind their heads that the instructor had not noticed before when he had flown the plane by himself. The instructor didn’t think much of it at the time, except that there must be a crack where the canopy mates with the fuselage. As the flight progressed, the canopy seemed like it was possibly pulling a little farther away from where it mates with the fuselage. By that time they were actually headed back to the airport. The instructor had no reason to be concerned or alarmed, after all, even if the latch did come loose, the canopy would only open an inch or two and they were heading back to land anyway. Upon further investigation, the instructor noticed that the canopy latches were barely hanging on and he could now see a little bit of daylight through the cracks. At that time, the instructor decided to see if he could maybe prevent the canopy from popping open by pushing down on the tabs from the inside but due to air forces pulling up on the canopy it wouldn’t budge downward.

At that point the canopy popped open. It needs to be noted that when they took off the canopy was down and flush with the fuselage and appeared to have latched properly. When the canopy popped open there was a loud rush of air and it was somewhat startling. Immediately the airplane pitched over into a nosedive. It is unknown if  Mr. Richardson inadvertently pushed the stick forward as he twisted in the seat to see what was happening or if the disruption of airflow over the tail caused the nose to pitch over but the sudden nosedive created a significant negative G situation. A split second later, there seemed to be a secondary pushover into a more vertical dive. At that point the G forces pulled Mr. Richardson up and out of his seat and out of the cockpit. The instructor visually observed Mr. Richardson exiting the aircraft and did not lose sight of him until he had passed over the tail.

At that point the aircraft was in a straight down vertical dive. The G forces had the instructor suspended  against his harness and was floating in midair up against the harness with the airplane literally out from under him. The instructor had to reach down to get a hold on the stick and finally got ahold of it. He gently started pulling out of the dive. During the pull out, the instructor was thinking about the possibility of structural failure and actually glanced at the airspeed indicator to see that it was at redline. Needless to say he pulled the throttle back to idle and gently pulled out until the airplane was straight and level.

He then proceeded straight back to FGU with the canopy flapping. It was open approximately 2 to 3 inches. The instructor did not have brakes on the right side so he just rolled out and turned the engine off and coasted to a stop in front of the ramp and FBO. He then got out of the airplane and pushed it off of the runway and on to the ramp. He then ran in told them to call 911 and informed the FBO employees that Mr. Richardson had been ejected from the aircraft. Not long after that, emergency vehicles began to arrive at the airport and a search crew was sent out to locate Mr. Richardson’s body.

If anyone has any further questions about this incident, Please feel free to contact me.


Sincerely,

Mark Winton