Let’s look at the numbers. I searched the NTSB accident database for fatal airplane accidents that occurred in an eleven-year period from 1999 through 2009. By searching on phrases like “recently purchased” or “newly acquired,” I identified 66 fatal airplane accidents, or six per year. Given that there are approximately 300 fatal airplane accidents every year, this suggests that at least 2% of them occur soon after an aircraft is purchased. More than 100 nonfatal accidents occurred, but I chose to focus on the fatal accidents, since they have dire consequences.
Here’s a typical accident description. It has meaning for me, as the pilot bought the airplane at a nearby airport I frequent, but he didn’t get far on his trip home. The crash occurred on March 25, 2006, and involved a Mooney M-10 that had departed Watsonville, California for Texas.
Witnesses said the pilot arrived at the airport on Friday evening to pickup the accident airplane, which he had just purchased. They said the pilot refused a checkout in the new airplane, and planned to depart after dark, in deteriorating weather conditions, for his home, stating he needed to be home before Monday. Local pilots convinced him to delay his departure until the following morning. The pilot declined a second offer of a checkout in the airplane the following morning.
A pilot-rated witness said he spoke with the pilot the morning he departed, while the pilot preflighted and fueled the accident airplane. The witness said he checked local weather via a computer for the pilot. He said weather to the east was not conducive to VFR flight, and he tried to convince the pilot to fly south to avoid the weather and rising terrain to the east. According to the witness, the last thing the pilot asked before leaving was the identifier for an airport to the southeast, which he input into a handheld GPS unit. Witness said a direct route to that airport would not have taken the pilot far enough south to avoid the weather. The witness said when the airplane departed about 0900, the ceiling was about 1,600 feet above ground level, and the visibility was 5 miles in rain.
Airplane wreckage was located east-southeast of the departure airport along an approximate direct route to the airport the pilot entered into the GPS. An FAA aviation safety inspector who visited the accident site, said the airplane impacted in hilly terrain, in a nose low, near vertical attitude.
Fully 23% of fatal accidents in recently purchased aircraft occurred on the first flight or on the trip home. Oddly, many of the accidents involved high time, ATP-rated pilots with more than 10,000 hours. This shows that having thousands of hours of experience doesn’t necessarily inoculate a pilot from accidents. The data did not show how many hours in type that these pilots had, but it wouldn’t surprise me if most of the accident pilots had relatively few hours in the type of aircraft that crashed. Typically, accidents happen to pilots with fewer than 100 hours in the accident aircraft type.
A disproportionate number of these fatal accidents occurred in home built aircraft. 27% of the aircraft were in the experimental category and that included a few light sport aircraft (LSA). My recollection is that there are about 20,000 experimental aircraft in the United States, less than 10% of the general aviation fleet. Therefore, pilots are 2 1/2 times more likely to have an accident in a recently purchased aircraft if they’re buying an experimental airplane.
25% of all accidents were stalls that occurred during takeoff or landing. 18% of the accidents were mechanical in nature, some of which could have been eliminated with a more thorough pre-purchase or preflight inspection.
Surprisingly, 15% of the accidents had a certificated flight instructor on board. In a couple of cases, the instructional flights were practicing slow flight or stalls when the aircraft crashed. 15% of the accidents involved weather. That’s not surprising, since many of the aircraft were on cross-country flights of 500 miles and more and therefore were more likely to cross multiple weather systems.
14% of the accidents involved maneuvering. It never ceases to amaze me that pilots fly low to the ground for the fun of it or to show off in front of friends. Doing this in a new aircraft that the pilot is not intimately acquainted with is doubly stupid. 12% of the accidents involved fuel exhaustion or mismanagement, the same proportion of fueling accidents found when all aircraft accidents are examined.
8% of the accidents included in-flight breakup, either due to weather, mechanical problems, or aerobatics. 5% of the aircraft were performing aerobatics when they crashed.
Undoubtedly, many of these accidents resulted from a lack of familiarity with the aircraft. Pilots either declined to have proper checkouts or in some cases their prior experience in the aircraft type occurred years before. Spending more time with a flight instructor, either prior to picking up the aircraft or as the aircraft is delivered, could eliminate many of these accidents.
Long cross country flights to bring an aircraft home present additional risks. Often, as in the example of the Mooney pilot, a pilot feels pressure to complete a flight in time to return to work or some other commitment. Fatigue and stress prior to departure are not unusual. Pilots should set reasonable expectations for the return flight home and not feel pressure to meet a schedule. Bringing a CFI along can help mitigate some risks of a long trip home.
When you plan your airplane purchase, plan it with safety in mind. That way you’ll still be around to enjoy your new airplane!