PC-12 Medevac Crash
The Pilatus PC-12 is a Swiss made airplane powered by a single Pratt & Whitney turbine engine. Because it has only one engine and therefore burns only half the fuel of its twin engine competitors with similar cabin volume, it is particularly attractive to medevac operators. And, because it is a single engine airplane with a gross weight less than 12,500 pounds and requires no type rating from the FAA, it is almost always operated in medevac configuration as a single pilot aircraft. Herein lays a particular danger since single pilot operation of complex airplanes in adverse weather can be a recipe for disaster, specifically if the sole pilot experiences spatial disorientation. It costs the operator a lot less money to run a single engine, single pilot airplane than it does to have two pilots, much less two engines, on the airplane.
When an airplane is operated (particularly at night) without reference to a visual horizon, spatial disorientation becomes a particular risk of single pilot operations. Spatial disorientation occurs when a pilot cannot correctly interpret an aircraft’s attitude, heading, altitude and airspeed, and the pilot becomes confused and loses control of the airplane. The risk of an accident from spatial disorientation is greatly reduced if not eliminated with dual pilot operations because it is unlikely that both pilots will experience spatial disorientation at the same time. Thus, in dual pilot operations, the second pilot doesn’t become disoriented, and the airplane remains properly controlled.
Information is still preliminary. The area of the flight was covered by a winter storm, but many airplanes were operating over the area and in the vicinity of the crash. The crash airplane was climbing through flight level 190 (19,000 feet) toward its assigned altitude of flight level 250 (25,000 feet) when radio contact was lost. Air Traffic Control (ATC) had advised the pilot of reports of light to moderate turbulence in the area. After radio contact with the medevac PC-12 was lost, ATC reported severe turbulence around the accident flight. Single pilot nighttime flights in inclement weather are the most likely scenario for a pilot to experience spatial disorientation. The radar flight path in this crash shows a classic ‘graveyard spiral’ to impact, which is essentially a dive. This is a common flight profile in spatial disorientation accidents.
While a description of the wreckage pattern is consistent with inflight breakup, turbulence alone rarely brings down an aircraft; and the PC-12 has a robust construction. Spatial disorientation becomes a consideration. The determination of turbulence and spatial disorientation as causative factors in the crash will depend largely on objective examination, including metallurgical analysis, of the primary flight controls, including the elevator and ailerons, along with careful examination of the wing attach bolts and the spars and review and analysis of weather and radar data.
The NTSB will investigate this crash and will invite Pilatus and Pratt and Whitney to evaluate the integrity of their products. The victims of the accident and their families will not have any input into the government’s investigation, which will be led by the manufacturers. The rights of the people affected by this crash can only be protected by retaining experienced aviation counsel who will independently evaluate the wreckage once the NTSB officially releases the evidence. Only then can the families be sure that an objective evaluation of the evidence has occurred.
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