For the second time in as many months, a Chinese air show has been rocked by the fatal crash of a participating aircraft.
In August, South African aerobatic pilot Michel Leach was killed when his plane plunged into the Gobi desert in north-west China. He failed to pull out of a dive while performing with three other South Africans at the inaugural Silk Road International General Aviation Convention in Gansu Province.
That was followed by another fatal accident this September at the Shijiazhuang AVIClub Exhibition held at the Luancheng airport (ZBLC) in Hebei Province. What made this crash all the more heartbreaking was that the ill-fated passengers were reported to be one adult and two children who had taken one of the joy flights being offered to spectators. Amateur video shows the Chinese-made Little Eagle 500 single-engine 4-5 seat utility aircraft flying nearly overhead at low level, banking to the left, straightening, slowing considerably, then entering a sharp turn to the right. The turn steepens into an uncontrolled dive into the ground, with the nose of the aircraft and the right wingtip impacting first. It looks like a classic stall/spin with no room to recover. The 30-year-old pilot and his three passengers were killed. There were no ground casualties.
The LE-500 is a Socata TB-20 lookalike designed and manufactured ironically, at AVIC’s Shijiazhuang facility. It is touted as the first aircraft to be designed to Part 23 of the Chinese CARs, and with independent intellectual property rights. Although not a great success in the market, there are a few of the type operated by various AVIC subsidiaries including show host AVIClub.
It seems the accident aircraft and pilot had been doing the rounds of AVIClub shows throughout the country. The flying displays and the joy flights (or “flight experiences”) are core elements of these “Carnivals of Flight,” with spectators paying around 500 yuan per ride.
The early responses of commentators and “industry insiders” as reported in Chinese media raise interesting questions about the level of understanding of general aviation in general, and about aviation safety culture in particular, in China.
While the possibility that the LE-500 pilot had simply made a false move was not overlooked, there was also speculation that he had been attempting to maneuver away from the crowd in order to ensure the plane would go down in the cornfield. This, of course, resonates with the narrative of the heroic pilot who sacrifices himself (and his passengers in this case) to save the masses. But the scenario is too hastily drawn. Why would the pilot have thought the plane was in danger of going down into the crowd in the first place? If there had been some sort of engine failure, a factor also hinted at by one official who raised the specter of poor quality fuel, it is not possible to tell from the available video footage.
Some of the other speculation focused on the presence of child passengers and the general vulnerability of joy flight operations. One reporter questioned whether or not children, with their shorter stature, could be harnessed into the aircraft as effectively as adults; or whether they had interfered with the flight in some other way. Commentators also drew the implication that joy flights “lack control” because they simply depart from and arrive at the same place with no fixed route in between.
This kind of analysis begs so many questions that one hopes it is merely a reflection of a lack of understanding on the part of the media and their sources rather than an indication of real problems with basic safety procedures and awareness. I would like to take a closer look at such questions by studying this and other recent general aviation accidents in China in future blog posts.