Aircraft Accidents and Lessons Unlearned V: N6142N

The earliest recommendation that a phenomenon called the Bermuda Triangle (aka The Devil’s Triangle) exists dates back to 1950; the points of the Triangle were set at Miami, Florida; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and the island of Bermuda.  This ‘mystery’ region was the cause of much inaccurate speculation for the disappearances of several aircraft and maritime ships, amounting more to ghost stories and not given credit as scientifically based research.

The attraction of the Bermuda Triangle was not in its actual existence, but in its tally of unsolved ships and aircraft.  The fascination of not being able to solve a mystery is why we read books, watch TV and engage in movies: a chance to outguess the unknown.  But what happens when the aircraft is within reach and the owner/operator will not have the accident investigated?

On July 28, 2017, a privately-owned Beech 19A Musketeer Sport, crashed in the Kunia Loa Ridge Farmlands, north-northeast of Makakilo, Oahu, Hawaii in the middle of a Nature Reserve; three passengers and the pilot were killed upon impact.  These victims join hundreds of other tragic events that resulted from aircraft impacting terrain, so no special note should be made about this particular flight or these particular victims.  However, this time the accident took place under what appear to be circumstances on the fast road to unsubstantiated conditions.

Unlike the missing aircraft of the Bermuda Triangle, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have the wreckage in a place that, although inaccessible from the road, is able to be removed, if even piece by piece, by helicopter. For instance, the bodies were removed by helicopter.

According to the NTSB and the FAA, the owner has the last word on whether to recover the aircraft; Jahn Mueller, the owner of the aircraft has decided NOT to recover the wreckage.  In addition, the State Department of Land and Natural Resources has decided that the aircraft presents no threat to the environment, so they have no plans to push for removal.  Another issue, that technically has no bearing on this accident: another aircraft owned by Mister Mueller, a Piper PA-28, crashed a month earlier under questionable circumstances resulting in the injuries to the passengers and pilot.  That accident remains under investigation.

The story, as reported here, is largely dependent on newspaper input – because of the decision of Mister Mueller, the NTSB’s accident updates are delayed and incomplete.  These local news stories often result in a lot of emotional information tied in with the tragedy.  It is the responsibility of the seasoned investigator to take the emotion out of the tragedy and investigate on a tack unaffected by passionate reaction.

How this accident stands out so far from others of its kind is because the owner’s total lack of concern with cause.  What adds to the curiosity is the law, giving the owner complete control of the Probable Cause of the accident and not the NTSB or FAA.  So, let’s dismiss the emotions; instead let’s speak about the Lessons Unlearned from denying the analysis of the wreckage.

The point of accident investigation is to learn from the mistakes made and prevent them in the future; this point I have driven home consistently from article to article.  In November, I wrote about three professors from Oklahoma State University and one from Polk University writing a paper on the Pilot Detection of Small Unmanned Aircraft and the impact on the National Airspace System.  This is proactive investigating at its best; taking an emotional topic that gets obscured by the theatrics of lawyers and the tunnel-vision of lobbyists.  Instead, the group took the problem of unmanned aircraft front and center and answered the question of ‘Do they threaten other aircraft?’

So, let’s do the same and focus on the foolishness of not investigating this one accident fully.  For one, the possibility exists that the owner or repairer of the aircraft may have made a mistake in maintaining the aircraft.  Did this happen due to technician (human) error or was it due to some manufacturer’s error?  By not allowing the NTSB or FAA to put the wreckage through some post-accident testing under controllable conditions, the flying community will never benefit from the lessons unlearned.  Furthermore, people may yet die from the mistakes made by the pilot, the manufacturer or the owner.

It is that simple; the flying community will not benefit.  Those who doubt any manufacturer’s mistakes being gleaned from the wreckage, I ask them to consider TWA 800; the aircraft had been flying for over twenty years, yet a built-in error led to the explosion of the airliner at a great loss of life.  Colgan 9946 was a victim of a mistake made in the manufacturer’s maintenance manual; this on a model of airliner that had been maintained for over eighteen years.

As explained, the manufacturer of both the airframe and the engine(s) are in a position that it benefits them to not push the investigation; any mistakes made by them remain hidden as if the aircraft fell into a black hole.  This result could be exemplified by the National Airlines flight 102 accident, where a bungling investigation left more questions than answers.  Did Boeing benefit from those investigation mistakes made?

In the end, with the case of N6142N, the final decision for future recovery of the wreckage will likely be moved from the owner and placed in the jurisdiction of the insurance company who covered the aircraft; indeed, this could still be the case.  Am I suggesting that an insurance company can save the day in this instance?  Yes, in an accident, the decision on what to do with the wreckage, post-investigation, lies with the insurer.  After the owner/operator of an airliner accepts the check for the aircraft, the insurer becomes the sole owner with complete control of what is to be done with the wreckage.  In this case, the insurer should be curious as to why the aircraft crashed; it should cause concern about whether the owner/operator is a safety risk for coverage in the future.

The final outcome, months down the road, may be that this accident will no longer be a mystery.  In the meantime, as time plays out, the aviation community is less safe.  Pilots will be less confident when an aircraft like the Beech 19A Musketeer Sport is maintained; they will know that something unlearned may affect their next flight.  Until this accident is made right with a proper investigation, the four victims’ last moments will be just as mysterious as a triangle off the Florida coast.

2 thoughts on “Aircraft Accidents and Lessons Unlearned V: N6142N”

  1. Particularly interesting WHY the owner of this aircraft wouldn’t want to have the probable cause discerned … it almost seems something fishy may have occurred (however that is pure speculation). If according to the NTSB and FAA that the probable cause can be determined “by” the owner/operator, does that apply to air carriers as well? Hypothetically, if a 777 flies into a seawall somewhere on approach to landing … let’s just say that the PAPI was out of service for that runway at the time of the accident … would the air carrier be able to decline the ability to investigate the accident? If there is a stipulation in the regs that say an owner/operator can decide whether they want an investigation, then it should be the same across the board. Undoubtedly, if an airline knew it’s pilots messed up prior to an accident (based on pure speculation), they would want that to be kept quiet (unless god forbid they were looking to for a hatchet man). I think this topic raises more questions than answers. The question(s) being if there is a reg that states an owner can decline the ability to have an investigation conducted; 1) why did they choose to not have one conducted? And, 2) if there is such a reg, is it universally the same across the board from general aviation to air carrier operations? And if it isn’t, why not?

    Murky waters!

    1. I think my article was ambiguous on this point and I’m glad you raised the question. The owner isn’t technically obstructing any investigation and the law isn’t working to his favor … not exactly. The location of the wreckage is well off the beaten path; accessible only by helicopter, which gives support to his desire to NOT claim the wreckage: a hazardous recovery. The second caveat is that the wreckage is situated on government land; they don’t deem the wreckage to be a threat to the environment. In this way, he can claim poverty to avoid paying the bill for the recovery. The positive to this tragedy is that the owner is being investigated for another accident and the Insurance company paying the bill may, upon receipt of ownership of the wreckage, recover the accident aircraft itself, thus making it accessible to the NTSB.

      Thank you Sir, good discussion.

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