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Canada Why does 'a beautiful airplane' break up in the sky?

When Reagan Williams lined up for takeoff at Edmonton City Centre Airport last Friday, there was no hint of what was to come just over half an hour later. Mr. Williams, the owner of a successful engineering company, was at the controls of a Piper PA-46 Malibu, a sleek six-seater. Although it was originally built in 1989, Mr. Williams's aircraft had been renovated by a company called Jetprop, which installed state-of-the-art computerized instruments and a powerful gas turbine engine that allowed it to cruise as high as 27,000 feet.

"A beautiful airplane," one pilot said.

Mr. Williams was off the ground shortly after 7:30 a.m., en route to a meeting in Winnipeg. He was carrying four passengers, including two of his firm's top executives. By 8:15 a.m., they were all dead, and the once-beautiful Piper was a twisted trail of wreckage, scattered over a four-kilometre radius near Wainwright, about 200 kilometres east of Edmonton.

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Almost immediately, investigators could see that they were dealing with an aviation rarity - a structural failure that ripped the plane apart in the air. The wings and tail of Mr. Williams's plane were located several kilometres away from the mangled fuselage.

Although there are countless airplane accidents, structural failure is one of the least common causes. But it has not been a rarity with the Piper Malibu. Since it came to market in 1983, the Malibu and its derivatives have been involved in 12 crashes in which the airplane came apart in midair, killing everyone aboard. (Between 980 and 1,000 of the airplanes have been built.)

The structural failures are accompanied by a long list of other crashes involving PA-46s. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, there have been a total of 165 serious PA-46 crashes, a rate of more than 16 per cent. These other crashes have been attributed to everything from engine failure to pilot error.

But it is the structural failures, like the one last week, that have caught the attention of aviation insiders for nearly two decades, and resulted in a special investigation by the NTSB - in 1992, the agency delivered a report that was prompted by seven PA-46 structural failures in less than two years.

"You have to wonder what's going on," said Peter Garrison, an aircraft designer and journalist who examines airplane accidents for Flying magazine in a column called Aftermath. Mr. Garrison, who studied the PA-46 after the NTSB report, says the PA-46 appears to be a good design, but he is troubled by the sheer number of in-flight breakups.

"I don't see an obvious problem with the airplane, but when something like this happens you have to question it," he says.

Last Friday's crash fit a pattern only too familiar to investigators examining PA-46 in-flight failures. After lifting off in Edmonton, Mr. Williams's airplane climbed to just over 27,000 feet and cruised southeast at more than 450 kilometres per hour. About 25 minutes into the flight, Mr. Williams told air traffic controllers that he was experiencing trouble with his autopilot and a gyroscope that supplied critical information to his flight instruments.

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A few minutes later, Mr. Williams's airplane started turning to the right and descending in what became an increasingly steep dive. According to a radar track of the doomed flight, the PA-46 may have plunged up to 10,000 feet in a single minute. As the dive continued, the airplane apparently exceeded its maximum speed, known as velocity never exceed, or VNE, ripping off the wings and tail due to aerodynamic overload.

The first Malibu breakup happened in May of 1989. The airplane, owned by a Michigan-based company and flown by a 54-year-old pilot with more than 1,600 hours of flying experience, went down over Indiana after encountering bad weather, getting into a high-speed dive and losing its tail and right wing. Over the next 22 months, seven more Malibus came apart in the air.

In 1990, the National Transportation Safety Board started a special investigation into the crashes to determine whether the Malibu was airworthy. Despite the high number of similar crashes, the NTSB concluded that there was nothing wrong with the Malibu's design or construction. Instead, they pinned the accidents on a combination of pilot error and omissions in the airplane's operating manual, which did not warn pilots of the need to turn on a device called a pitot heater when flying into icing conditions. Without the heater on, ice could block the opening that supplied information to the airplane's airspeed indicator, leading to confusion on the part of the pilot or problems with the autopilot system. (Canadian investigators have not said whether they are looking at this as a possible cause of Mr. Williams's crash.)

"We believe that the area of most concern about operating the PA-46 and other similar airplanes is the adequacy of initial and recurrent training received by the pilots," the report concluded.

The NTSB recommended improved training for Malibu pilots, noting that the airplane flew at high altitudes and speeds, and was equipped with complex systems such as pressurization, turbo-charging and retractable landing gear.

The PA-46 is classed as a high-performance aircraft, a category that calls for high levels of pilot skill, due to its speeds and sophisticated systems that add to the pilot's workload. They are typically flown by non-professional pilots, without a co-pilot. Some aviation insiders refer to high-performance aircraft flown by non-professionals as "doctor killers."

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"Just because you can afford the airplane doesn't mean you're qualified to fly it," said Martin Hollman, a California-based aircraft consultant and designer.

The risks posed by high-performance aircraft have been well documented. One of the most telling examples is the early Learjet, which went on sale in 1964. In the first three years, there were 23 crashes - nearly a quarter of the 104-airplane fleet.

The manufacturer of the PA-46, Piper Aircraft, says the PA-46 is a good, well-designed airplane, and says it's a mistake to compare the accident rate in non-commercial aviation to that of other arenas, like scheduled airlines.

"Flying aircraft is a demanding endeavour," says Piper's chief corporate spokesman, Mark Miller. "The PA-46 has one of the finest safety records in general aviation. This is an excellent, excellent airplane."

***

Origins of the Malibu

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BEGINNINGS

In 1927, businessman William T. Piper invested in the Taylor Brothers Aircraft Manufacturing Co. Mr. Piper gained sole control after the company went into bankruptcy. In 1938, Piper created the J-3 Cub, a light airplane that made the company a household name. J-3s have been used for everything from flight training to military operations to bush flying.

LIGHT AIRCRAFT

Over the next several decades, the company produced a series of well-regarded light aircraft, including the PA-28 Cherokee, the PA-23 Apache and the PA-34 Seneca. Along with several other aircraft manufacturers, Piper ceased production for several years in the mid-1980s due to increasing liability insurance premiums.

THE MALIBU

The PA-46 Malibu was designed as a high-performance airplane that would appeal to pilots who wanted to fly on business or pleasure trips. The prototype PA-46 first flew in 1979, and the customer deliveries began in the fall of 1983. The first version of the airplane, powered by a six-cylinder piston engine, was discontinued in 1986 after a string of accidents caused by engine failures. In 1988, Piper produced a new version of the PA-46 called the Malibu Mirage, which included a more powerful piston engine and a new wing. Piper later released the PA-46 Meridian, which is equipped with a turbine engine, and sells for about $2-million.

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Peter Cheney

***

Breakups

May 31, 1989

Piper Malibu

Registration N9114B

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Near Bristol, Ind.

Three dead

The pilot encountered a series of thunderstorms and reported a control problem. At an altitude of 12,000 feet, the airplane entered a steeply banked turn to the right. Its speed reached more than 370 km/h.

At approximately 10,000 feet, the right wing and part of the tail section separated from the airframe. The right wing was found nearly 1½ kilometres from the main wreckage, and parts of the tail were about five kilometres away.

Feb. 6, 1990

Piper Malibu Mirage

Registration N8888M

Near Bakersfield, Calif.

Two dead

The pilot was flying in conditions known to produce icing. The airplane made a series of manoeuvres, then entered an increasingly steep right turn. Parts of the wings and tail separated from the airplane while it was in a 50-degree dive, travelling at more than 480 km/h. Breakup occurred at an altitude of 4,500 to 6,500 feet.

Wreckage was scattered along a trail that stretched for nearly 1½ kilometres.

The crash was attributed to the pilot's failure to turn on a heating element that prevents the airspeed indicator from being blocked by ice, and to his improper response to fluctuating instrument readings caused by the blockage.

March 28, 2008

Piper Malibu

(Jetprop DLX conversion)

Registration C-FKKH

Near Wainwright, Alta.

Five dead

Aircraft was en route from Edmonton to Winnipeg. While cruising at more than 27,000 feet, the pilot told air traffic controllers he was experiencing problems with the autopilot and a gyroscope.

A few minutes later, the aircraft began a diving turn to the right. Radar data show a continuing dive. The wings and tail separated from the airframe.

Wreckage was strewn over a four-kilometre radius. The accident is being investigated by Canada's Transportation Safety Board.

Peter Cheney

***

Questionable record

In the 25 years it has been flying, various versions of the Piper Malibu have been involved in a total of 165 serious crashes, including 12

in which the airplane came apart in midair, killing everyone aboard.

PIPER PA-46 MALIBU

Length: 8.8 m

Wingspan: 13.1 m

Engine: Jetprop DLX 560 hp

Cruise speed: 470 km/h

Range: 1,953 km

Service ceiling: 7,622 m

-A Piper Malibu crashed Friday, killing all five aboard, shortly after taking off from Edmonton en route to Winnipeg.

FLIGHT PROFILE

-Approx. 8:03 a.m. Pilot radios that autopilot and gyro-scope are failing.

-A few minutes later Plane turns to the right and begins a steep dive.

-Wings and tail torn off, apparently by structural overload during the dive.

THE GLOBE AND MAIL 66 SOURCES: FLIGHTAWARE.COM, PIPER AIRCRAFT, INC., WWW.AIRLINERS.NET

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