Heavy Retract Safety

We see a comparable safety record but watch fuel management in Comanches and engine burps in Mooneys and Commanders.

When it comes to buying an airplane, the phrase higher, farther, faster sometimes has a not-so-savory rejoinder: heavier, more complex, harder to fly. we’ll admit were taking some license for its not accurate to say that all faster airplanes are harder to fly.

But faster is often a problem and training is clearly part of the safety equation, for its not unusual for an inexperienced pilot who has stepped up to something faster too soon to make a hash of it. Graduating from a Cessna 152 to a Bonanza B36TC can be done, but its not recommended, as evidenced by how painful an insurance company will make the premiums.

Nonetheless, heavier high-performance singles are the serious traveling machines in general aviation so a look at the typical safety records of this class of aircraft is valuable.

In the March issue of Aviation Consumer, we examined light retractables. In this article, weve expanded the purview to include heavier retracts: Mooneys K, L, R and T models, the Commander 114, the Piper 250/260 Comanche, the Cessna 182RG and Beechcrafts popular 33/35 Bonanza series.

A word about our selection process: heavy versus light single is a misnomer of sorts, since the weight differences arent all that great among these aircraft. We merely use these terms as a convenient way to sort the large number of models found in the retractable market. In a subsequent article, we’ll look at six-place and cabin-class retractable single-engine aircraft.

How We Did This
As in our previous safety reviews, we looked at all of the accidents for these types during the five-year period between 1994 and 1998, relying on raw NTSB records for our data. The NTSB sometimes assigns probable cause for accidents and sometimes doesnt. In the interest of consistency, weve assigned our own accident categories when none exist.

The usual cautions apply, which is to say NTSB data is often sketchy and incomplete. Moreover, although the accepted way of establishing any kind of statistical safety comparison is to calculate an accident rate based on exposure-hours flown-the best we can do is an informed estimate.

The relative accident rates for these models was calculated using the estimated hours flown provided by the Aircraft Bluebook Digest multiplied by the total number of each model that appears in the FAA registration records. The average hours-flown numbers are based on price surveys at time of sale and may or may not reflect reality.

Thus, while weve made every effort to make these comparisons accurate, theyre hardly airtight, given the lack of accurate data. We feel it only fair to make this caveat crystal clear. In our view, the hours-flown estimates for these aircraft do pass the sniff test for reliability. Many of these models are relatively expensive and are thus more likely to be flown than a Cherokee 140 parked off in the weeds. Still, as far as we know, no one has unassailable hours data for these aircraft.

Worth noting is that we found too few datapoints to even consider any of the Socata aircraft and the Bellanca Viking. Indeed, even the Cessna 182RG barely rates a nod because of its low population and few accidents. Nonetheless, there are enough mishaps to draw some general conclusions.

Usual Suspects? No
In reviewing accident records, weve discovered some generalities. The most salient, in our view, is that runway-loss-of-control accidents lead the list of accident causes for most types. These are often thought of as fender benders and usually are. But on rare occasions, theyre fatal and, in any case, they always result in significant damage to the aircraft if theyre serious enough to merit the NTSBs notice.

For the heavy retracts, losing it on the runway during takeoff or landing isn’t the leading cause of accidents for all of these models, a bit of a surprise to us. In the Cessna 182RG, the Bonanza 33/35 series, and the Mooneys, runway accidents are the leading factor. But for the Comanche, the lead hitter is fuel exhaustion and in the Commander, its engine failure.

Worth noting is that because of the small total numbers of accidents, our categories tend to be somewhat suspect, especially with regard to the Cessna 182RG. For that reason, we expanded the accident review to a full 10 years, from 1989 to 1998, rather than the five years used for other models.

According to our sweep, half of the 182RGs accidents are due to runway loss of control and the rest are divided between miscellaneous stuff to weird to categorize, engine failures and VFR-into-IMC accidents. Although were using the best data available for our analysis, we cant put too much stock in these numbers because of the small total number of accidents. While its true that Cessna 182RG owners complain about poor gear reliability and ponderous handling, they don’t complain about the airplane being difficult to land once the gear is down and locked. The fact that it occasionally doesnt is cause for the odd slide down the concrete but this can happen to any retractable, not just the 182RG. (We found three such instances during the 10-year period but suspect there are many more that simply arent reported.) Somewhat more believable, in our view, is the Mooneys record. Forty-four percent of its accidents are runway loss-of-control. Again, the model is not hard to land but attention to speed control is a must, especially with the heavier TLS and even in the K-model, which wont fly nearly as slowly as the J-model without entering into a nerve-wracking sinkfest on short final. If flown on speed, the TLS will actually yield consistently softer touchdowns than other Mooney models and even the Bonanza, with its much touted trailing-link gear. Speaking of the Bonanza, we found that takeoff/landing biffs account for 27 percent of its accidents, a decent record in our view and testament to the aircrafts ease of handling. Actually, the Bos accident causes are somewhat more evenly spread among various factors than are other models, suggesting that it has fewer quirks and sins.

Engine Failures
In our review of lighter retracts, we were surprised to find that among Mooneys and Commanders, engine failures represent a higher-than-average percentage of accident causes. This turns out to be true among the heavier/higher performance versions as well.

In the Commander 114, for instance, engine failures are the leading cause of accidents by a substantial margin. Again, a grain of salt warning here: the total number of Commander accidents was low by dint of low aircraft population. We don’t think its fair or accurate to damn the model solely on the basis of these sketchy numbers, but we also think there’s a worrisome pattern there.

The same is true of the Mooney, in which engine failures are the second leading accident cause. In the lighter retracts, we could blame that on Lycoming but in the higher performing Mooneys, turbocharged versions of both Lycoming and Continentals are used.

Advice: don’t defer critical engine maintenance, least so on any Mooney model. Oil wear trend analysis and proactive engine inspections are a must, in our view.

The Comanche and Bonanza models post a better engine reliability record and very close to what we view as the fleet average of engine-failure crashes, about 10 to 12 percent.

The Stall/Spin Bogey
We don’t think any of these airplanes represent a stall/spin waiting to happen. Indeed, we couldnt find any records of stall/spin at all for three of the models, the Cessna 182RG, the Mooney and the Commander. However, due to weight and speed considerations, the Cessna 182RG, Mooney long body and the Bonanza series may be likely candidates for stall/mush land-short fiascos. All three models are draggy with the gear down and don’t like to be flown slow without liberal application of power. Get slow without that power, and a high sink rate will result, followed by a hard landing or a mush-in if you try to arrest the sink with backpressure. This can be avoided with proper technique.

Fuel Exhaustion
Heres a theory: pilots of higher performance aircraft are less likely to run out of gas because insurance companies wont let them into the airplanes unless they have experience. And perhaps superior judgment. Does the accident history support the theory? Perhaps. Maybe. A smidge…well, okay, no. This seems especially true for Comanche pilots, for whom fuel exhaustion is the leading cause of accidents, accounting for 29 percent of the total. Thats a terrible record. Part of it may be due to the fuel system, which consists of aux and main tanks.

Although its not especially complex as fuel systems go, when pilots are given the opportunity to select an empty tank, theyll find a way to do it. Although a fuel system with aux tanks can be learned, the idiot factor dictates that additional tanks will always be troublesome.

When hunting for explanations for accident trends, were inclined to blame some fuel exhaustion incidents on the mere fact that the airplane has an engine with high fuel consumption but, frankly, the Comanche doesnt.

The same is true of the Bonanza series and the Commander, in which fuel exhaustion ranks as the number two cause. Both have similar fuel systems, that being two selectable tanks and both have ample fuel capacity. The more we read of these accidents, the more were convinced that some pilots will find a way to run any airplane out of gas regardless of the fuel system design or capacity.

Other Patterns, Causes
VFR-into-IMC accidents-which are almost always fatal-are a minor plague in the general aviation business, although they lag behind runway prangs as a leading overall cause. But weather-related causes are by far the leading factor in fatal accidents.

Typically, a third of all fatal accidents are weather related, whether VFR-into-IMC or improper IFR, which is often the IFR version of the former. Because of the aforementioned insurance requirements, pilots of high-performance retractables are more likely to be instrument rated, although some with money to burn will buy their way into more airplane than they can handle.

Accordingly, we would expect to a relatively lower percentage of VFR-into-IMC accidents when these models are compared to trainers and cruisers. Another theory shot to hell.On average among this group of aircraft, 5 percent of the accidents were VFR-into-IMC, compared to 7 percent among fixed-gear cruisers and less than 5 percent among trainers. Essentially, we don’t see statistical difference in these numbers.

What is surprising is the rather higher percentage of pilots who are instrument rated who still lose it in the clouds, not on IFR flightplans, mind you, but just by accidentally blundering into the clag. Obviously, this is easily fixable by remaining current through regular recurrent training. While insurers often require this, the quality of training is not regulated and pencil whipping is but one way to do it. Pilots, of course, often pay the price for this sort of subterfuge.

Low flying and CFITs continue to be a problem among all pilots but more so among these models, especially the Mooney and Commander, the former being thought of as a sporty ride suitable for ground strafing missions. CFITs in this context may be related to VFR ops or simply ducking under on an IFR approach and banging into unseen obstacles.

Comparing Rates
Looking at the overall rates among these airplanes, we can only draw the broadest conclusions about their relative safety. As weve noted time and again, we are using the best data available but its fundamentally flawed in lacking accuracy from the source NTSB investigations and the critical hours-flown figures are, at best, an educated guess. In this review, more so than in any other, we found wide disparity between the number of aircraft registered by type, the estimated hours flown and number of accidents. You cant make an informed judgment on the basis of a dozen accidents. For that reason, we don’t put too much stock in the Commanders above average accident rate and the Cessna 182RGs below average rate. More illuminating, we think, are the causes of the accidents we found. The fact that the Comanches leading accident cause is fuel exhaustion and mismanagement is telling and, we think, real. Its trivial to address it: don’t run out of gas and learn how the tank system works. If there’s enough gas aboard and you don’t select empty tanks, the engine wont quit for lack of fuel, although it may quit for other reasons.

Engine failures continue to rank high in the Commander and Mooney series. We think these findings are also valid, since engine failures generally arent mistaken for other causes, although some are. As we noted in our report in the March issue, all the smaller Mooneys are Lycoming powered but the higher performance models have either Continental (in the K and R models) or Lycoming, in the T model.

The point of this article is to draw some bottom-line safety conclusions about this class of aircraft. Conclusion 1: train regularly and learn to handle the aircraft in close proximity to the runway. If you can handle stiff crosswinds and normal landings at night and in poor weather, your risk of an accident is reduced.

Conclusion 2: take seriously all those accident reports about fuel exhaustion. Absent an undetected tank leak or hose rupture, this shouldnt happen at all. Ever. The fact that it does happen daily reveals more about lack of proficiency than it does anything to do with airplane design.

Conclusion 3: Although this is a small sampling for all the aircraft covered, we think the fact that engine failures rank high among Mooneys and Commanders is not just the luck of the draw. For whatever reasons, engine failure rate higher as an accident cause in these models than in other types.To address it, we think regular engine inspection, oil wear metal analysis and a policy of not deferring engine maintenance items is probably prudent.

Also With This Article
Click here to view “Beech 33/35 series and Mooney K/M/R.”
Click here to view “Commander 114 and Commanche 250/260.”
Click here to view “V-Tail Break-Ups: Forgotten, Not Gone.”
Click here to view “Cessna 182RG.”
Click here to view “Rankings by Model.”

-by Jane Garvey and Paul Bertorelli