28 Jan Henry Deutschendorf Letter
On 12 October 1997, Henry Deutschendorf was killed when his experimental Rutan Long-EZ plane, aircraft registration number N555JD, crashed into Monterey Bay near Pacific Grove, California, while making a series of touch-and-go landings at the nearby Monterey Peninsula Airport. The National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) accident ID is LAX98FA008. Deutschendorf was the only occupant of the aircraft. The crash badly disfigured the pilot’s head and body, making identification impossible by dental records, so records of his fingerprints were used to confirm that the fallen pilot was indeed Deutschendorf.
A pilot with over 2,700 hours of experience, Deutschendorf had pilot license ratings for single-engine land and sea, multi-engine land, glider, and instrument. He also held a type rating in his Learjet. He had recently purchased the Long-EZ aircraft and had taken a half-hour checkout flight with the aircraft the day before the accident.
Deutschendorf was not legally permitted to fly at the time of the accident. In years prior Deutschendorf had a number of drunk driving arrests. In 1996, nearly a year before the accident, the Federal Aviation Administration had learned that Deutschendorf had failed to maintain sobriety by failing to abstain entirely from alcohol, and thus the FAA was compelled to revoke his medical certification. The accident, however, was not influenced by alcohol use, as there was no trace of alcohol or other drugs in Deutschendorf’s body at autopsy.
Post-accident investigation by the NTSB showed that the leading cause of the accident was Deutschendorf’s inability to switch fuel tanks during flight. The quantity of fuel had been depleted during the plane’s transfer to Monterey and in several brief practice takeoffs and landings performed by Deutschendorf at the airport immediately prior to the final flight. His newly purchased experimental Rutan had an unusual fuel selector valve handle configuration. Intended by the plane’s designer to be located between the pilot’s legs, the fuel selector had instead been placed by the plane’s builder behind the left shoulder of the pilot, with the fuel gauge also behind the pilot’s seat and thus not visible to the person at the controls. An NTSB interview with the aircraft mechanic servicing Deutschendorf’s plane revealed that he and Deutschendorf had discussed the inaccessibility of the cockpit fuel selector valve handle and its resistance to being turned.
Before the flight, Deutschendorf and the mechanic had attempted to extend the reach of the handle, using a pair of Vise-Grip pliers. However, this did not solve the problem, as the pilot could still not reach the handle while strapped into his seat. NTSB investigators’ post-accident investigation showed that given the positioning of the fuel selector valves, switching the craft’s fuel tanks required a pilot to turn his body 90 degrees to reach the valve. This created a natural tendency to extend one’s right foot against the right rudder pedal to support oneself while turning in the seat, causing the aircraft to yaw (move off course) and pitch up.
According to the mechanic, after he had noted to Deutschendorf that the fuel sight gauges were visible only to the rear cockpit occupant, Deutschendorf asked him about the quantity of fuel shown. The mechanic told Deutschendorf that he had “less than half in the right tank and less than a quarter in the left tank”. The mechanic then provided Deutschendorf with an inspection mirror so that he could look over his shoulder at the fuel sight gauges; the mirror was later recovered in the wreckage. Deutschendorf told the mechanic that he would use the autopilot inflight, if necessary, to hold the airplane level while he turned the fuel selector valve. Deutschendorf declined an offer to take on additional fuel, telling the mechanic that he would only be flying for about one hour.
The NTSB interviewed 20 witnesses of Deutschendorf’s last flight; six of them had observed the plane’s crash into the ocean near Point Pinos. Four of the witnesses indicated that the airplane was originally heading west; five of them observed the airplane in a steep bank, with four of those five reporting the bank was to the right (north). Twelve witnesses saw the airplane in a steep nose-down descent. Witnesses estimated the plane’s height at 350 to 500 feet while heading toward the shoreline. Eight of the witnesses said that they heard a “pop” or “backfire”, along with a reduction in the engine noise level just before the airplane descended into the water.
In addition to Deutschendorf’s failure to refuel the plane prior to takeoff and his subsequent loss of control while attempting to switch fuel tanks, the NTSB determined there were several other key factors that led to the accident. Primary among these was the inadequate transition training on this type of aircraft by the pilot, and the builder’s decision to locate the unmarked fuel selector handle in a difficult-to-access location.
Following its investigation the board issued recommendations regarding the requirement and enforcement of mandatory training standards for pilots engaged in operating experimental aircraft. The board also emphasized the importance of mandatory ease of access to all controls, including fuel selectors and fuel gauges, in all aircraft.
I can remember sitting a new race car for an hour just looking at where everything was. I can remember it taking 15 or more laps in a rental Car to learn a new track. Then walking through twisting handles, clicking switches, pushing buttons, adjusting brake bias valves, critical gauge locations, fuel shut off, power kill switch, parachute release, window net release, fire bottle, hooking up and unhooking belts and getting out with my eyes closed. Then while holding my breath. Then with my full fire suit, helmet and Hans on.
Same thing with an airplane. It is why we have check lists. It is why one veteran SWAT element member checks his partner before a mission. Testing a new race car or airplane are one of the most dangerous things I have ever done. I tell new drivers today think about Mark Donohoe, Lee Sheperd, Eric Medlen, Bruce McLaren, Wes Hansgen, Ken Miles to name a few who personally effected my life. Top level Champions, professionals, that all died in testing crashes.
None of us are guaranteed tomorrow.
and one more thing. Henry Jonathan Deutschendorf, the pilot, was much better known as singer/songwriter John Denver. Now you know, the rest of the Story.