Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Loss of Control in Flight: Cessna 172N Skyhawk, N734FT; accident occurred September 15, 2018 at St. Johns Industrial Air Park (KSJN), Apache County, Arizona

The National Transportation Safety Board did not travel to the scene of this accident.

Additional Participating Entity:

Federal Aviation Administration / Flight Standards District Office; Scottsdale, Arizona

Aviation Accident Factual Report - National Transportation Safety Board:

Investigation Docket - National Transportation Safety Board:

Location: St. Johns, AZ
Accident Number: WPR18LA262
Date & Time: 09/15/2018, 1540 MST
Registration: N734FT
Aircraft: Cessna 172
Aircraft Damage: Substantial
Defining Event: Loss of control in flight
Injuries: 3 Serious
Flight Conducted Under: Part 91: General Aviation - Personal 

On September 15, 2018, about 1540 mountain standard time, Cessna 172N airplane, N734FT was substantially damaged shortly after takeoff from St Johns Industrial Airpark (SJN), St Johns, Arizona. The commercial pilot, pilot rated passenger and one passenger were seriously injured. The airplane was registered to R2D2 LLC and operated by the pilot as a Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91 personal flight. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed for the cross-country flight, and a flight plan was not filed. The flight was originating at the time of the accident, with a reported destination as Phoenix Goodyear Airport (GYR), Goodyear, Arizona.

In a report submitted to the National Transportation Safety Board investigator-in-charge, left seat pilot-in-command reported that he initially attempted takeoff from runway 21, but when he noticed that the airplane was not accelerating [fast enough] he elected to abort the takeoff. He then decided to take off from runway 14, which had a longer runway. The pilot stated that after he took off from runway 14, the airplane ascended to about 100 ft above ground level, but then observed that the airplane was not continuing to climb. At this time the right-seat occupant, who was a rated pilot and owner of the airplane, advised the pilot to turn left, as the terrain was lower in that direction. The pilot opined that the airplane then began to sink before the airplane collided with a stand of trees in his flight path. The pilot mentioned that there were no mechanical anomalies with either the airframe or the engine which would have precluded normal operation. The pilot reported that the airplane's weight at the time of the takeoff was 50 pounds less than its maximum gross takeoff weight.

In a postaccident telephone interview with the pilot-rated owner of the airplane, he reported that during the initial climb from runway 14, and at a low altitude, the stall warning horn sounded. At this time the left seat pilot-in-command said to the right seat pilot/owner, "You better take it," which was almost immediately followed by the airplane colliding with a stand of cottonwood trees. The airplane subsequently came to rest inverted with substantial damage to both wings, the forward fuselage, and empennage. The owner stated that they had just "topped off" both fuel tanks prior to departing. The owner also stated that he thought the accident was the result of the high density altitude condition.

At 1554, the automated weather observation system located at SJN reported wind from 180° at 5 knots, sky clear, visibility 10 miles, temperature 31°C, dew point 3°C, and an altimeter setting of 30.10 inches of mercury. The SJN airport elevation is 5,737 ft. The calculated density altitude was about 8,600 ft at the time of the accident.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration Koch Chart, considering the surrounding temperature and field elevation, the airplane would have likely experienced a 68% decrease in the normal climb rate. 

Pilot Information

Certificate: Commercial
Age: 48, Male
Airplane Rating(s):  Multi-engine Land; Single-engine Land
Seat Occupied: Left
Other Aircraft Rating(s): Airship; Helicopter
Restraint Used:
Instrument Rating(s):  Airplane; Helicopter
Second Pilot Present:  Yes
Instructor Rating(s): None
Toxicology Performed:  No
Medical Certification: Class 3 With Waivers/Limitations
Last FAA Medical Exam: 10/17/2017
Occupational Pilot: No
Last Flight Review or Equivalent: 10/26/2017
Flight Time:  440 hours (Total, all aircraft), 59 hours (Total, this make and model), 332 hours (Pilot In Command, all aircraft), 10 hours (Last 90 days, all aircraft), 6 hours (Last 30 days, all aircraft), 6 hours (Last 24 hours, all aircraft)

Co-Pilot Information

Certificate: Private
Age:  64, Male
Airplane Rating(s):  Single-engine Land
Seat Occupied: Right
Other Aircraft Rating(s): None
Restraint Used:
Instrument Rating(s):  None
Second Pilot Present: Yes
Instructor Rating(s): None
Toxicology Performed: No
Medical Certification:  Class 3 With Waivers/Limitations
Last FAA Medical Exam: 10/12/2017
Occupational Pilot: No
Last Flight Review or Equivalent: 12/08/2017
Flight Time:   547 hours (Total, all aircraft), 480 hours (Total, this make and model), 547 hours (Pilot In Command, all aircraft), 6 hours (Last 90 days, all aircraft), 5 hours (Last 30 days, all aircraft), 3 hours (Last 24 hours, all aircraft)

Aircraft and Owner/Operator Information

Aircraft Make: Cessna
Registration: N734FT
Model/Series: 172 N
Aircraft Category: Airplane
Year of Manufacture: 1977
Amateur Built: No
Airworthiness Certificate: Normal; Utility
Serial Number: 17268826
Landing Gear Type: Tricycle
Seats: 4
Date/Type of Last Inspection:  12/01/2017, 100 Hour
Certified Max Gross Wt.: 2299 lbs
Time Since Last Inspection:  20 Hours
Engines: 1 Reciprocating
Airframe Total Time:
Engine Manufacturer:  Lycoming
ELT:  C126 installed, activated, aided in locating accident
Engine Model/Series: O-320 SERIES
Registered Owner: R2D2 LLC
Rated Power: 160 hp
Operator:  On file
Operating Certificate(s) Held:  None 

Meteorological Information and Flight Plan

Conditions at Accident Site: Visual Conditions
Condition of Light: Day
Observation Facility, Elevation: SJN, 5737 ft msl
Distance from Accident Site: 1 Nautical Miles
Observation Time: 1554 MST
Direction from Accident Site:
Lowest Cloud Condition: Clear
Visibility:  10 Miles
Lowest Ceiling: None
Visibility (RVR):
Wind Speed/Gusts: 5 knots /
Turbulence Type Forecast/Actual: None / None
Wind Direction:180° 
Turbulence Severity Forecast/Actual: N/A / N/A
Altimeter Setting: 30.1 inches Hg
Temperature/Dew Point: 31°C / 3°C
Precipitation and Obscuration: No Obscuration; No Precipitation
Departure Point: St. Johns, AZ (SJN)
Type of Flight Plan Filed: None
Destination: Goodyear, AZ (GYR)
Type of Clearance: None
Departure Time: 1540 MST
Type of Airspace: Class E  Airport Information
Airport: St Johns Industrial Airport (SJN)
Runway Surface Type: Asphalt
Airport Elevation: 5737 ft
Runway Surface Condition: Dry
Runway Used: 14
IFR Approach: None
Runway Length/Width: 5322 ft / 75 ft
VFR Approach/Landing: None

Wreckage and Impact Information

Crew Injuries: 2 Serious
Aircraft Damage: Substantial
Passenger Injuries: 1 Serious
Aircraft Fire: None
Ground Injuries: N/A
Aircraft Explosion: None
Total Injuries: 3 Serious
Latitude, Longitude: 34.513611, -109.370278


  1. "You better take it," ... pretty much says it all about the commercial rated pilot in the left seat

    1. I had a flight instructor do that to me as a student pilot when he almost ran us off the end of the taxiway at a high speed. I stomped the right brake and spun the 172 in a circle to successfully avoid the fence. It was our last session.

  2. I'm not sure what you mean by, "pretty much says it all about the commercially rated pilot". The copilot had more total time and 480 hrs in type/model vs pilot's 59 hrs. When you see the situation going sideways, sometimes the smarter choice is to let the more experienced pilot handle the emergency while you provide support. Take the ego out of the equation.


    1. The problem is that he'd lost control of the aircraft and his "hail Mary" was an even greater distraction. By turning at low altitude and near the stall, he immediately sacrificed any climb performance he had, mushed or even stalled, and had no altitude for recovery. Chuck Yeager wouldn't have been able to save the plane.

      The rule of thumb is no turns below 700 AGL due to the loss of lift in a turn at low airspeed. It's not mandatory, of course, but good for safety. I'm not going to rag on the pilot--i hope they're all ok--but taking off from a high altitude airport on a hot day is difficult and dangerous.

      It's only my opinion, but that's a good time to reevaluate whether the flight is necessary or not. If it is, sit down with the POH and do your W&B, density altitude calculations, and establish minimum (pessimistic) rate of climb and takeoff distance. The FAA uses a standard 200ft/NM climb rate for instrument departures and even greater rates at airports with surrounding terrain. If your can't make that, maybe leaving later or not at all is a good idea.

      Just one guy's opinion. It's from accidents like these that we can all learn valuable lessons, or at least remind ourselves to be careful.

    2. 70% of take off speed by 50% of runway probably would of saved it. Also they had 1 balked takeoff which suggests they probably hold of not tried again. DA was ridiculously high in a lowe powered plane. Im grateful they survived and passed on a great lesson for the rest to learn by.

  3. Report omits whether the pilot attempted to lean the engine to peak power before takeoff. It is a common sea-level pilot mistake. At 8600'D.A. he could make around 75% power if leaned. At full rich he might only be making 65% or less. The owner lived at a 630' elevation (St Joseph, MI) and likely never had to lean for takeoff. A bad report that omitted important clues.

    1. My thought exactly. I've flown at high-density altitude airports in 172, 182 and 210 aircraft. I always used the charts even with just two people on board. It's just physics.

  4. First thing I thought was why turn with not making power. Also yes lean the engine. Hope all are doing well.

  5. I was out practicing yesterday, the "impossible turn." I THINK I can make it in about 200 feet AGL in a Cessna 172s.

  6. Comments about the commercial pilot here are dead on. I noticed the numerous ratings in different categories and classes of aircraft, so he logged a lot of time flying a lot of dissimilar aircraft. The hours of experience are spread way across the board. Probably the biggest mistake, as others have mentioned was forgetting his commercial training (performance charts). High density altitude, full fuel, three occupants. Was aircraft leaned for best power? Seems like all involved were quite surprised by the lack of performance. W&B was provided by operator and nothing in the docket where it was calculated for the investigation, so would not be surprised if it was over gross, as the reported weight was just 50 pounds under gross. To avoid a stall, you have to push nose over, climbing out at Vx or Vy is the best the plane is going to do, no matter how much you pull back on the yoke.

  7. The distance to Phoenix Goodyear Airport is only 163 miles, but "The owner stated that they had just “topped off” both fuel tanks prior to departing."

    Not adding unnecessary fuel load was the only option available to lighten the ship other than eliminating the passenger, but the right seat pilot/owner maxed it out instead of stick-checking and planning the required fuel. 10 gallons less and no turn, they might have made it.