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N729SU accident description

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Tail numberN729SU
Accident dateMarch 21, 1996
Aircraft typeSukhoi SU-29
LocationNew Orleans, LA
Additional details: None

NTSB description


On March 21, 1996, at 1741 central standard time, a Sukhoi SU-29, N729SU, was destroyed when it impacted terrain following a loss of control while maneuvering near New Orleans, Louisiana. The airline transport rated pilot, the sole occupant of the airplane, received fatal injuries. The airplane, co-owned and operated by the pilot, departed from Lakefront Airport in New Orleans at 1727 for the local personal flight conducted under Title 14 CFR Part 91. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed and a flight plan was not filed.

During interviews, conducted by an NTSB investigator, the co-owner and a relative reported that, during the week of the accident, the pilot had made 3 or 4 flights per day to the local practice area (approximately 7 nautical miles southeast of the Lakefront Airport) to perform aerobatic maneuvers. The pilot's intentions were to become more familiar with how the Sukhoi handled and to prepare for an upcoming air show. For these flights, the pilot occupied the rear seat and enough fuel was placed in the main tank to permit about 35 minutes of flight time.

Review of National Track Analysis Program (NTAP) and tracking radar data obtained from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) indicated that, after takeoff, the airplane proceeded southeast to the practice area. During the time period from 1732 to 1740, the airplane remained in the practice area and maneuvered between 3,900 and 1,800 feet MSL. At 1740:09, the airplane was at 3,400 feet MSL. The last NTAP radar return was recorded at 1740:19 and showed the airplane at an altitude of 900 feet MSL. Calculations performed using both the last two NTAP radar returns and the last two tracking radar returns indicated the airplane's average speed during the final seconds of the flight was over 220 knots (253 mph.) See the enclosed NTSB Recorded Radar Study for further details.

There were no reported witnesses to the accident. Concerned relatives of the pilot reported the airplane missing and a search was initiated at 2120. The wreckage was located approximately 10 nautical miles southeast of the Lakefront Airport at 0815 on March 22, 1996.


The pilot and the co-owner purchased the airplane on February 1, 1996, from Pompano Air Center (PAC), Pompano Beach, Florida. On February 1st and 2nd, the pilot received 7.5 hours of ground training and 3.4 hours of flight training in N729SU from a PAC flight instructor and, subsequently, flew the airplane from Florida to Louisiana. According to the pilot's father, at the time of the accident, the pilot had accumulated approximately 18 hours flight time in the airplane.

Prior to purchasing the Sukhoi, the pilot owned and flew other aerobatic airplanes including a Pitts S-1S. The pilot held a current Statement of Aerobatic Competency (FAA Form 8710-7) issued on December 18, 1995, for solo aerobatic flights with no altitude restriction in Pitts and Swift aircraft.


The single-engine, tandem two-seat aerobatic airplane was manufactured on April 11, 1994, by Advanced Sukhoi Technologies (AST), Moscow, Russia. The airplane was assembled and test-flown in Russia, then partially disassembled (empennage, wing, and landing gear) for the purpose of shipping. The disassembled airplane was shipped to PAC, which is the worldwide distributor of Sukhoi aerobatic airplanes. At PAC, the airplane was reassembled and application was made to the FAA for a special airworthiness certificate in the experimental category for the purpose of exhibition.

An entry in the airframe logbook dated October 17, 1995, stated the following:


The experimental airworthiness certificate was issued on October 19, 1995. An entry in the airframe logbook dated February 1, 1996, indicated that a Russian communications radio was removed and a transponder, encoder, navigation/communication transceiver, and navigation indicator were installed. There were no further entries in the logbook.

During an interview, conducted by the investigator-in-charge, the co-owner was questioned about maintenance performed on the airplane after its purchase from PAC. He reported that the only maintenance he was aware of involved an incident in which the pilot had experienced an in-flight restriction of control stick travel. After making an uneventful landing, the pilot, who was an FAA-certificated mechanic, examined the airplane's control system and found that a radio had slid from its case and was interfering with the controls. The pilot secured the radio with safety wire and reported no further problems with the control system. According to the co-owner, at the time of the accident, the airplane had accumulated approximately 20 hours flight time.

The elevator control system of an SU-29 consists of tubes, a bellcrank, and intermediate joints that connect the control sticks to the elevator for pitch control (see enclosed diagram). The bellcrank, which mounts directly behind the rear seat, is oriented vertically, and tubes are attached to the bellcrank in the fore and aft directions. Bolts, secured with castellated nuts and cotter pins, are used to attach the tubes to the bellcrank's clevis tangs. The lower tube runs forward and connects the bellcrank to the aft cockpit control stick. The upper tube runs aft and connects at a hanging bracket to another control tube which connects to the elevator.


The accident site was in a sparsely wooded swamp approximately 29 degrees 57.8 minutes north latitude and 89 degrees 53.1 minutes west longitude at sea level elevation. All wreckage was located within approximately 90 feet of the central impact crater. The water-filled crater measured about 10 feet in diameter and was flanked on the west by fragmented pieces of the left wing and on the east by fragmented pieces of the right wing. The elevator tips were embedded in the mud on the north edge of the crater with the left elevator tip located west of the right tip. During excavation of the crater, the pilot's body and fragmented pieces of the airplane were recovered from depths of 15 to 24 feet. Recovered parts included major portions of the wing, empennage and fuselage, both main landing gear, propeller blade fragments, and pieces of the engine exhaust system. Among the parts not recovered were the engine, the front and rear cockpit instrument panels, and the radios.

On March 28 and 29, 1996, a wreckage reconstruction, supervised by the NTSB investigator-in-charge, was performed. Examination of the recovered portions of the wings and empennage did not disclose any evidence of preimpact structural failure or separation. A layout of the recovered portions of the fuselage revealed that the front cockpit was destroyed and the rear cockpit sustained substantial deformation. The front seat was destroyed; however, the rear seat remained intact and attached to its anchor points. Damage to the rear seat was confined to the upper left quadrant of the seat back which was penetrated and deformed. The front 5-point restraining harness was fastened and the rear harness was unbuckled. The airplane's canopy, which is designed to be jettisoned by the pilot during an emergency bail out, was not recovered from the accident site.

The elevator control system tubes were broken in numerous places. The bolted connections in the elevator control system remained secure with the exception that the upper (aft) tube was detached from the elevator bellcrank. There was no visible bending of the upper clevis tangs of the bellcrank and no visible deformation of the upper clevis cross bolt holes. The forward portion of the upper tube, as well as the bolt, castellated nut, and cotter pin used to attach it to the bellcrank, were missing. The aft portion of the upper tube remained bolted to the hanging bracket.


An autopsy of the pilot was performed on March 25, 1996, by Dr. Paul McGarry at the Orleans Parish Coroner's Office. Toxicological tests were negative for drugs. According to Dr. Canfield of the FAA's Civil Aeromedical Institute, the toxicological finding of ethanol (alcohol) in heart and vitreous fluid was probably from postmortem ethanol production and "would not typically be considered a factor in this accident."


The canopy of the pilot's emergency parachute was found 35 feet from the central impact crater on a magnetic heading of 120 degrees. All of the 20 suspension lines joining the canopy to the harness had separated. (Sixteen of the lines separated at the canopy's lower lateral band, three lines were torn from the canopy in their entirety, and one line separated 2.5 inches above the harness connection point.) The pilot chute, a small parachute which is attached to the apex of the canopy and deploys first when the ripcord is pulled, was torn apart. The base of the pilot chute remained attached to the canopy, and the separated section was found 20 feet from the central crater on a magnetic heading of 050 degrees.

The harness, container and ripcord of the pilot's emergency parachute were provided to the NTSB by the coroner. According to the autopsy report, the separated suspension lines were "tangled around the body," the harness was "intact and in place," and the "metallic rip cord [was] pulled loose at the end." At the request of the NTSB investigator-in-charge, on April 12, 1996, all components of the emergency parachute were examined by 2 FAA inspectors and 1 FAA engineer, all certificated parachute riggers. See the enclosed report for their detailed description of the damage to the parachute.

The parachute was a National 360, Model NP6-1, manufactured by National Parachute Industries of Flemington, New Jersey, in April 1985. The packing card indicated the last repack was performed on August 5, 1995, at the manufacturer's facility in Flemington. Both the parachute canopy, which was identified as a Phantom 24, and the container were marked with the statement: "MANUFACTURED IN ACCORDANCE WITH FAA TSO-C23b." Technical Standard Order C23b (TSO-C23b) specified that "parachutes manufactured for use in civil aircraft of the United States on or after March 29, 1962, shall meet the minimum performance standards of National Aircraft Standards Specification 804 [NAS 804]."

Records provided by the FAA indicated that National applied for TSO authorization for the NP6-1 parachute assembly on June 5, 1981. According to the President of National, this was the first time the company had applied for a TSO authorization. Included with National's letter of application was a one page document entitled "Statement of Conformance," which read in part: "This is to certify that the NP6-1 and NP6-2 parachute assemblies meet the requirements of TSO-C23b and NAS 804 as referenced in FAR parts 21 and 37." On July 1, 1981, the FAA authorized National to mark the NP6-1 parachute assembly "with the applicable TSO-C23b marking." The FAA's letter of authorization stated in part that "the data and certification of conformance . . . forwarded with your letter dated June 5, 1981, have been found acceptable."

FAA Order 8150.1, issued May 19, 1970, and valid until superseded on September 21, 1987, contained instructions for use by FAA inspectors in administering the TSO compliance program. Paragraph 4.d provided the following guidance for evaluation of applications for TSO authorization:

It is recommended, particularly in the case of new TSO manufacturers, that an engineer visit the applicant's facility for the purpose of appraising the applicant's competence to certify conformance with the TSO. The engineer should assure himself that compliance tests, as prescribed, are being realistically conducted. This visit should take place, preferably within the 30-day period before an authorization is granted.

No documentation of any visits made to National prior to granting the TSO authorization was contained in the FAA's response to an NTSB request, dated July 23, 1996, for "copies of all records, files, correspondence, memoranda, manuals, etc., in the possession of the FAA concerning TSO authorizations granted to National."

One of the compliance tests required by NAS 804, Paragraph, for a standard type parachute was a strength test consisting of three drops "made with a dummy weight and indicated airspeed to give the equivalent of 5,000 lbs. shock load." NAS 804 contained a table listing 10 combinations of launching speeds and weights calculated to produce a 5,000 pound shock load on a 28 foot standard flat-type parachute (commonly known as a C-9 parachute.) The table indicated that, when using a launch speed of 150 mph, a dummy weight of 660 pounds was required to develop a 5,000 pound shock load. For a launch speed of 250 mph, the required dummy weight listed was 275 pounds.

Correspondence received from National indicated that the figures contained in the NAS 804 table were not applicable to the Phantom 24 parachute canopy, because the size, shape, and fabric of the Phantom 24 were different from those of the C-9. National calculated that a dummy weight of 362 pounds dropped at an indicated airspeed of 160 mph was required to develop a 5,000 pound shock load on a Phantom 24 canopy. Review of these calculations revealed that they relied on an assumed value for canopy inflation (fill) time. The formula National used to compute fill time was "a conservative assumption" drawn from "notes from [a] 1982 lecture" by the author of several parachute design manuals. This author had "not done actual tests" on the type of fabric used in the Phantom 24 canopy.

National performed the strength drop tests on April 25, 1981, using their calculated weight of 362 pounds and launch speed of 160 mph. No measurements of the shock load developed were made. According to National, "the figures used to determine the 5,000 pound shock load were discussed with various FAA personnel both during and after the TSO testing process." No record of these discussions was contained in the FAA's response to the NTSB request of July 23, 1996.

National pointed out that NAS 804 contained "no operational limits for parachutes tested in accordance with (a parachute can be used at weights and airspeed above those at which it was tested)." National's emergency parachute manual, issued in 1984 and in effect at the time the accident parachute was manufactured, did not contain an operating limitations section. The revised manual issued on January 1, 1991, contained the following operating limitations applicable to the National 360:

Recommended minimum deployment height: 500 ft AGL Recommended pilot weight: 100 - 177 lb Normal altitude loss during opening: 200 - 300 ft Opening time: 2 1/2 - 3 seconds (normal opening) Opening speed: 140 knots maximum

During his most recent FAA flight physical on April 19, 1995, the pilot's weight was recorded as 162 pounds.

NAS 804 required that the parachute pack and canopy be permanently marked with the following information: manufacturer's name, model number or model name, parachute serial number, date of manufacture, and National Aircraft Standard Number (NAS 804). According to National, for parachutes manufactured prior to February 1987, in addition to the required markings, a warning label was stamped onto each Phantom 24 canopy which stated the following:

MAXIMUM GROSS WEIGHT* 188 lbs (85 kg.) MAXIMUM RECOMMENDED DEPLOYMENT VELOCITY 160 mph (139 kts.) at 188 lbs gross 170 mph (148 kts.) at 164 lbs gross 180 mph (156 kts.) at 141 lbs gross *GROSS WEIGHT INCLUDES JUMPER AND ALL EQUIPMENT

During examination of the accident parachute, the required markings were found; however, no warning label was found. For parachutes manufactured during or after February 1987, National began sewing

(c) 2009-2011 Lee C. Baker. For informational purposes only.