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N127HC accident description

Nevada map... Nevada list
Crash location 38.059167°N, 117.090277°W
Nearest city Tonopah, NV
38.067155°N, 117.230082°W
7.6 miles away
Tail number N127HC
Accident date 16 Jul 2002
Aircraft type Schleicher ASW-27
Additional details: None

NTSB Factual Report

On July 16, 2002, about 1316 Pacific daylight time, a Schleicher ASW-27, N127HC, veered off the runway during the takeoff roll at the Tonopah (uncontrolled) Airport, Tonopah, Nevada. The glider collided with a spectator and an automobile. The glider pilot, who held a commercial pilot certificate, was not injured. The glider sustained substantial damage, and the spectator was seriously injured. The glider was owned and operated by the pilot. The accident occurred during a sanctioned Soaring Society of America aviation event (air race) known as the United States 15-Meter National Soaring Championships. The pilot was operating under the provisions of 14 CFR Part 91. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed. The flight was originating at the time of the accident.

The pilot indicated to the National Transportation Safety Board investigator that his wife was serving as his ground crew. During the initial portion of the takeoff roll from runway 15, she was responsible for holding the glider's right wing level until the pilot could acquire sufficient aerodynamic control to prevent the wings from contacting the ground.

Spokespersons for the soaring event indicated to the Safety Board investigator that there was no evidence of any irregularities with the initial portion of the aero tow. However, a few seconds after the glider commenced rolling down the runway the ground crew (wing runner) no longer maintained contact with the glider's wing, and it dropped to the ground. Thereafter, the glider yawed right and veered off the edge of the 80-foot-wide runway. The glider then collided with a county employee who was standing 3.5 feet beyond the edge of a theoretical "clear zone." The lateral distance between the runway's right side and the county employee (point of impact) was 78 feet (see diagram).

Event spokespersons acknowledged to the Safety Board investigator that the clear zone had not been identified with specific markers, "Do Not Cross" signs, or physical barriers. They indicated, however, that the county employee was familiar with the airport. He had performed previous maintenance on the airport's facilities. At the time of the accident the county employee was believed to have been positioned beyond the "clear zone" for personal reasons.

According to an event spokesperson, about the time of the accident the surface wind was from the southwest. Its speed was about 5 knots.

In the pilot's completed "Aircraft Accident Report," NTSB Form 6120.1/2, and in a supplemental statement, he reported the following (in pertinent part): On takeoff, he should have done what he did on the two practice days---that is, held his brakes until the tow rope was tight and stable and the tow plane had started running up. The pilot stated that he did not take that action on the accident day because he thought it might be considered an insult to the tow pilot and ground crew in a national contest not to let them do their thing (as was briefed by the contest manager). What happened was the tow plane never came to a complete stop, but accelerated the glider in a sling shot manner out of the wing runner's hand, and then accelerated slowly. Meantime, during the slack, the pilot had insufficient airflow to control the sailplane during the initial part of the roll.

The pilot also reported that he did not pull the tow release the instant he observed his sailplane was heading off the runway's centerline because he thought he could salvage the situation. According to the pilot, he was heading back toward the runway when the wing hit the spectator, whom he never saw (amidst the clutter of vehicles and other spectators).

Moreover, the pilot stated that "...I, the pilot of the sailplane involved, was responsible for allowing the sailplane to run off the runway. I should not, however, be held responsible for hitting a spectator, because he should not have been there in the first place.... This contest was the only situation I have ever seen in 36 years of flying with obstacles so close to an operating runway...." The pilot further reported that earlier another sailplane had run off the runway and had stopped further from the centerline than he, but he was early in the sequence and no crew vehicles were out in front of him. If he had been further back in the launch sequence, he would have hit several vehicles and who knows how many spectators with his 15-meter wingspan. This should have turned on a red light in the minds of contest officials, but they made no effort to move vehicles...."

Several of the aviation event's officials, including its local organizer, operations director, contest manager, and competition director, were present at the airport when the accident occurred. In a July 18, 2002, letter the National Soaring Championships Chair reported that its procedures were being changed, in pertinent part as follows:

1. All crew vehicles are now required to be behind a line perpendicular to the axis of the sailplane being launched;

2. No persons may be ahead of the sailplane being launched except for the front flagman;

3. The flagman will be at the edge of the cleared area parallel to the runway. The flagman is an active participant in the launching process, and is facing the launching aircraft. The flag man is always an experienced sailplane person and understands that if a sailplane turns off of the axis of the runway to move rapidly away from the runway till well clear of the area; and

3. Only the pilot's own crew and our launch crew will be allowed in the area around the sailplane currently preparing to launch.

NTSB Probable Cause

Air event management's failure to adequately separate spectators and vehicles from the takeoff path. Also causal was the glider pilot's failure to maintain directional control and failure to abort the takeoff attempt in a timely manner.

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