A recent NTSB accident brief raises some interesting issues regarding an airman’s post-accident/incident conduct. The accident involved a 15,000 hour commercial pilot who took off in his C-210 and shortly thereafter realized that he was unable to retract or extend the main landing gear. Fortunately for the airman, the nose landing gear continued to function normally and this allowed him to return to the airport and land on a grassy area adjacent to an asphalt runway with the main landing gear only partially extended. The aircraft slid across the grass until it came to rest upright, tilting to the left and leaning on the left horizontal stabilizer.
The airman then had the aircraft towed to a hangar where he manually locked the main landing gear in the down position. Here is where it gets interesting. Although the airman indicated that the horizontal stabilizer sustained minor damage, he nonetheless elected to depart the airport and flew to another airport without incident. Subsequently, several photos taken by witnesses revealed that the aircraft’s left horizontal stabilizer had sustained structural damage, and, in fact, the outboard section had bent upwards.
It is unclear how the NTSB learned of the accident. It may be that the airman provided notification pursuant to 49 C.F.R. Part 830 (for more information regarding accident/incident reporting requirements you can read my article on the topic here). Or perhaps one of the witnesses taking pictures notified the FAA, who then notified the NTSB. What is clear to me, is that notification was likely required given the extent of the damage to the horizontal stabilizer.
What is more important for the airman is not how or whether the NTSB was notified, but rather that the FAA likely learned of the accident and post-accident flight either as a result of the NTSB notification or by some other method. This should raise the concern about possible enforcement action. Probably not relating to the accident itself, since the NTSB was unable to determine the cause of the gear malfunction. But certainly with respect to the airman’s post-accident flight.
If the damage to the horizontal stabilizer was in fact substantial, which it probably was if the stabilizer was bent upwards, then the aircraft was not in an airworthy condition when the airman flew it post-accident. At a minimum, this could expose the airman to claims that he violated FARs 91.7 (operating an unairworthy aircraft) and, of course, 91.13 (careless and reckless).
What could the airman have done differently? Ideally, the airman should have had an A&P inspect the aircraft to determine whether the damage rendered the aircraft unairworthy. If the A&P determined that the aircraft was airworthy, but later investigation revealed to the contrary, at least the airman could then assert his reliance upon the A&P’s opinion as a defense. If the aircraft was unairworthy, the airman would then have two options: 1) Leave the aircraft at the airport until the aircraft is repaired and returned to service; or 2) Obtain a ferry permit from the FAA to fly the aircraft to another airport where the repairs can be performed.
These NTSB accident briefs rarely tell the whole story. The brief doesn’t include pictures or a more detailed description of how the horizontal stabilizer appeard to the airman post-accident. So we don’t know exactly what the airman based his assessment on when he determined that the damage was minor. Also, we don’t know whether the FAA is pursuing enforcement action against the airman in this case. It wouldn’t surprise me if it is. However, the limited information that is provided in an accident brief can give us insight into some do’s and do not’s in a post-accident/incident situation.