Sunday, October 18, 2020

Loss of Control in Flight: Van's RV-4, N534MM; fatal accident occurred September 26, 2018 near Dogwood Airport (73AR), Lonoke County, Arkansas

Reagan Kyle Whitlow
January 24th, 1973 - September 26th, 2018

The National Transportation Safety Board traveled to the scene of this accident. 

Additional Participating Entities: 
Federal Aviation Administration / Flight Standards District Office; Little Rock, Arkansas 
Lycoming Engines; Dallas, Texas 

Aviation Accident Factual Report - National Transportation Safety Board:

Location: Austin, AR
Accident Number: CEN18FA389
Date & Time: 09/26/2018, 1442 CDT
Registration: N534MM
Aircraft: Vans RV 4
Aircraft Damage: Substantial
Defining Event: Loss of control in flight
Injuries: 1 Fatal
Flight Conducted Under: Part 91: General Aviation - Personal 

On September 26, 2018, about 1442 central daylight time, an amateur-built Vans RV-4 airplane, N534MM, was substantially damaged when it was involved in an accident near Austin, Arkansas. The private pilot was fatally injured. The airplane was operated as a Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 91 personal flight.

Radar data showed that the airplane departed North Little Rock Municipal Airport (ORK), North Little Rock, Arkansas, about 1424 and flew at an altitude between 2,600 ft and 2,700 ft mean sea level (msl) and a ground speed of between 110 and 120 knots until just west of the pilot's home (see figure 1). The airplane started to descend about 1439 and the ground speed increased to about 145 knots. The last radar location was recorded at 1440:41 about over the pilot's home and the accident site was located in an open field a few hundred feet east of the pilot's home.

Figure 1 - Radar data of accident flight

In a postaccident interview, the pilot's wife stated that, before the pilot left the house for work, he said the weather was "not good" for flying and he did not plan to fly the airplane that day. Later, he called her from the airport and told her he was going to fly. She asked him if he was "sure about flying due to the weather," and he said the winds had decreased and it looked good for the flight. Then he told her when to stand outside their house to see him fly by.

As the airplane flew overhead, the pilot's wife reported that she saw the right wing "tip up," the airplane climbed briefly, and then, "all of sudden," the airplane went upside down and dove down. She added that the airplane was flying so low and so fast that she knew he was not going to be able to recover. 

Pilot Information

Certificate: Commercial; Private
Age: 45, Male
Airplane Rating(s): Multi-engine Land; Single-engine Land
Seat Occupied: Front
Other Aircraft Rating(s): None
Restraint Used:
Instrument Rating(s): Airplane
Second Pilot Present: No
Instructor Rating(s): None
Toxicology Performed: Yes
Medical Certification: Class 1 With Waivers/Limitations
Last FAA Medical Exam: 03/06/2006
Occupational Pilot: Yes
Last Flight Review or Equivalent:
Flight Time:  (Estimated) 5623 hours (Total, all aircraft), 10 hours (Total, this make and model)

The pilot actively flew Lockheed C-130 military transport airplanes, with the United States Air National Guard (US ANG). According to US ANG records, the pilot had logged a total of 5,613 hours of total time in the C-130.

The pilot had received a tailwheel endorsement on September 21, 2018. According to the pilot's wife, the accident flight was the pilot's first flight in the airplane without a flight instructor. According to the pilot's flight instructor, most of the pilot's training in the airplane consisted of takeoffs and landings and minimal time was spent training maneuvers and performance characteristics.

The pilot's Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) first-class medical certificate was issued on March 6, 2006, with the limitation that he must wear corrective lenses, and it expired on March 31, 2008. The pilot's military medical clearance was active. According to 14 CFR 61.23(b)(9), "Operations not requiring a medical certificate," pilots that have a current military medical clearance with the US armed forces are not required to hold a current medical certificate for domestic flights that require a third-class medical clearance.

Aircraft and Owner/Operator Information

Aircraft Make: Vans
Registration: N534MM
Model/Series: RV 4 Undesignated
Aircraft Category: Airplane
Year of Manufacture: 1997
Amateur Built: Yes
Airworthiness Certificate: Experimental
Serial Number: MM3756
Landing Gear Type: Tailwheel
Seats: 2
Date/Type of Last Inspection: 02/08/2018, Annual
Certified Max Gross Wt.:
Time Since Last Inspection:
Engines: Reciprocating
Airframe Total Time: 811.7 Hours as of last inspection
Engine Manufacturer: Lycoming
ELT: C91A installed
Engine Model/Series: O-360-A1A
Registered Owner: Herc Drivers Llc
Rated Power: 180 hp
Operator: On file
Operating Certificate(s) Held: None

The instrument panel was destroyed by the postimpact fire; as a result, investigators were unable to determine the airplane's total time.

Meteorological Information and Flight Plan

Conditions at Accident Site: Visual Conditions
Condition of Light: Day
Observation Facility, Elevation: KLRF, 311 ft msl
Distance from Accident Site: 10 Nautical Miles
Observation Time: 1456 CDT
Direction from Accident Site: 221°
Lowest Cloud Condition:
Visibility:  10 Miles
Lowest Ceiling: Broken / 4200 ft agl
Visibility (RVR):
Wind Speed/Gusts: 6 knots /
Turbulence Type Forecast/Actual:
Wind Direction: 20°
Turbulence Severity Forecast/Actual:
Altimeter Setting: 30.09 inches Hg
Temperature/Dew Point: 21°C / 15°C
Precipitation and Obscuration: No Obscuration; No Precipitation
Departure Point: N Little Rock, AR (KORK)
Type of Flight Plan Filed: None
Destination: N Little Rock, AR (KORK)
Type of Clearance: None
Departure Time: 1424 CDT
Type of Airspace: Class G

The upper air sounding chart created for the accident site at 1500 indicated a surface wind from about 30° at 10 knots with the wind remaining northeasterly through 4,000 ft. The wind increased in speed to 15 knots by about 800 ft msl and to 20 knots by about 1,700 ft. Wind decreased to 10 knots at 4,000 ft msl, and about 5,000 ft msl the wind direction shifted to about 10ยบ. The chart indicated below about 3,000 ft msl the atmosphere was unstable or conditionally unstable. 

Wreckage and Impact Information

Crew Injuries: 1 Fatal
Aircraft Damage: Substantial
Passenger Injuries: N/A
Aircraft Fire: On-Ground
Ground Injuries: N/A
Aircraft Explosion: None
Total Injuries: 1 Fatal
Latitude, Longitude: 35.040000, -92.019444 (est) 

The airplane impacted an open field, vegetated in grass, in a wings-level, nose-low attitude, between 35° and 40° nose down. The main wreckage came to rest about 185 ft south/southeast of the initial impact point oriented on a heading of 323°, on the edge of Rick Lake (see figure 2).

Figure 2: Aerial photograph depicting initial impact point and location of main wreckage

During the on-scene investigation, investigators located fiberglass and metal fragments, the left aileron, and both propeller blades in the debris field between the initial impact point and the main wreckage. The grass between the initial impact point and the main wreckage was discolored, which was consistent with fuel blighting. The main wreckage included the engine, fuselage, empennage, and both wings. A postimpact fire damaged the fuselage, the inboard portion of both wings, and the skin of the empennage. The main landing gear separated partially from the airplane but remained with the wreckage.

The first ground scar was several inches deep, about 6 inches wide, and extended 5 ft to a larger ground scar. The larger ground scar consisted of three distinct sections; a center section, a left section, and a right section. The left section extended about 7 ft to the east and was about 1 ft 6 inches wide at its widest point. The right section extended about 7 ft to the west and was about 2 inches deep and 6 inches wide at its widest point. The center section extended south towards the main wreckage and was 9 ft long, several inches deep, and full of water. A dark substance consistent with oil pooled at the top of the water. Dirt was displaced out of the larger scar towards the main wreckage to the south.

One propeller blade was on the right side of the debris field and was bowed aft and twisted. The second blade was 38 ft from the end of the main scar with the tip buried in the ground. The second blade also exhibited leading-edge scoring at the tip and was otherwise unremarkable. One half of the propeller hub was 70 ft from the second blade while the other half was buried about 1 ft 6 inches deep in the large ground scar.

A line of trees and bushes between the initial impact point and main wreckage exhibited torn and separated bark. Witness marks on the trees and vegetation and discoloring of the leaves were also consistent with fuel blighting.

A postaccident examination of the airframe and engine conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board and parties to the investigation revealed no preimpact anomalies that would have precluded normal operation. 

Medical And Pathological Information

The Arkansas State Crime Laboratory, Medical Examiner Division, Little Rock, Arkansas, performed an autopsy of the pilot. The autopsy indicated that the cause of death was multiple injuries.

Toxicological testing of the pilot's specimens performed by the FAA Forensic Sciences Laboratory was negative for carbon monoxide, ethanol, and drugs.


  1. in conclusion, "According to US ANG records, the pilot had logged a total of 5,613 hours of total time in the C-130."
    yet "The pilot had received a tailwheel endorsement on September 21, 2018. According to the pilot's wife, the accident flight was the pilot's first flight in the airplane without a flight instructor. According to the pilot's flight instructor, most of the pilot's training in the airplane consisted of takeoffs and landings and minimal time was spent training maneuvers and performance characteristics."
    a professional making a deadly rookie decision!

  2. And certainly not the first time either. KR has many fatal crash reports in GA aircraft by professional pilots (airline, military, and a few having combined experience of both). Also Vans aircraft seem to have regular appearances on KR reports for the amount that are out there, unlike say 172 and PA-28 reports which are common here. However, they are top two active registered GA aircraft in the US (~35,000 between the two). Vans have about 10K registrations and that includes global - couldn't find reliable info on the web for US numbers - FAA website registration database only shows 38 active registered Van's aircraft in 2019 which can't be right.

  3. How horrible for his wife...standing there on the ground watching that happen.