Deadly Cessna 414 Crash: Looking Beyond Pilot Error

On Tuesday morning, April 7, 2015, a twin-engine Cessna 414 was recovered after crashing near the Central Illinois Regional Airport in Bloomington Illinois. Seven victims of the crash were recovered including Scott Bittner (42), Bittner’s Meat Co.; Terry Stralow (64), a partner in Pub II; Aaron Leetch, (37), ISU deputy director of athletics for external operations; Torrey Ward, (36), associate head coach of the Redbirds men’s basketball team; Thomas Hileman, (51), the pilot; Andy Butler, 40, a regional representative for Sprint; and Woodrow “Jason” Jones, (45), a senior vice president and certified financial adviser at Wells Fargo Advisors.

First responders on the scene

First responders on the scene

The plane was registered to “Make It Happen Aviation” of Towanda, Illinois. The plane was being piloted by Thomas Hileman, who held a valid flying certificate, had over 12,000 hours of flight time, and had undergone a medical check-up in early February.

At the time of the accident conditions at Central Illinois Regional Airport showed declining visibility and light wind. According to reports, the plane had been in contact with air traffic control in Peoria, which typically handles communication with airplanes after the Central Illinois Regional Airport radio tower closes at 10:00 p.m.

According to Carl Olson, director of the airport, Peoria air traffic control lost contact with the plane just after midnight. Olson also said the pilot did not indicate any trouble and had not made any alterations to the registered flight plan.

While the airport control tower normally closes at night, it is common for planes to land after hours with runway lights illuminated. Pilots also have the ability to remotely indicate they need the runway lights turned on. In a Chicago Tribune report, Todd Fox, an air safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, said the pilot had been cleared for an instrument landing on Runway 20 at the airport and that the plane began to climb out of its descent into Central Illinois Regional Airport as if it had missed its approach. According to Fox, if that is what happened, the plane should have climbed and turned west. Instead, according to Fox, it turned east. “The aircraft was seen (on radar) to climb and then descend well on this easterly heading before crashing in a farm field just east of the airport,” Fox said. The final radio communications from pilot Thomas Hileman, as the plane neared the airport, included no sign of distress.

Reports state that the plane went down in a bean field north of Illinois Route 9 off a paved county road. Emergency crews located the plane around 3:15 a.m. The wreckage was found “within one wingspan” of the main fuselage, according to Fox, which should help investigators inspect the aircraft. All seven passengers were found dead still strapped into their seats. All had died from blunt force trauma resulting from the crash, said Coroner Kathleen Davis.

While weather conditions have been sighted as a possible cause of the accident a preliminary report is expected sometime next week. The FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the accident and a final report will most likely take a year to 18 months to complete.

There have been other unexplained crashes of Cessna 414A aircraft. Back in 2000, a Cessna 414A crashed near Hyannis, MA.  Immediately before the crash the pilot had told air traffic control that he lost the artificial horizon on his instrument panel. While a survey conducted by Aviation Consumer says the Cessna 414 twin-engine has a fairly low fatal accident rate (boasting 0.8 fatal accidents for each 100,000 hours of flight time), questions are sure to be asked during the investigation regarding why the plane tuned east instead of west, were the flight control instruments working properly, how many hours of flight time Pilot Hileman had in this particular model and type of multi-engine aircraft and when was his last proficiency check?

 

Compliance with Airworthiness Directives and Service Bulletins

In an article titled: “Cessna 414 Used Aircraft Report: Buying Before Extinction,” written by Peter A. Bedell, AOPA Pilot, Bedell states that the Cessna’s 414 is among a large group of aircraft headed for extinction. However, he notes, the market for these airplanes remains active.

Bedell states that early 414s can be recognized by their tip tanks and stubbier nose. In 1976 Cessna redesigned the 400 series beginning with the 421. The changes eventually made their way to the 414 in 1978 and it was renamed the 414A Chancellor.

The redesigned airplane had a wingspan that was 4.5 feet longer and a nose extending nearly 3 feet. The fuel capacity reached 206 usable gallons, and the fuel system was made simpler with an On/Off/Crossfeed valve for each engine. Previous 414s had as many as six tanks and made for difficult fuel management. Continental’s TSIO-520-J powered the original 414s, while the TSIO-520-Ns pulled the 414A. Both models were rated at 310 hp at 2,700 rpm. Since most of these airplanes are operated in the unpredictable environment of the flight levels, the 414’s engines have had their share of problems. The engines are sensitive and don’t respond well to abrupt throttle movements or casually monitored engine operations.

The engines began life with a TBO of 1,400 hours, which was later extended to 1,600 hours; but, according to many owners, Bedell says, the 1,400-hour figure is a more accurate estimate of the engine’s lifespan.

Given the airplane’s average of logging 200 or more flight hours per year, one could ask if the aircraft owner had complied with most of the engine ADs or service bulletins, such as those requiring replacement of crankshafts made via the airmelt process. Exhaust manifold clamps and elbows have a 100-hour inspection requirement. Finally, a recent AD regarding recurrent inspections of McCauley three-blade propellers covers the 414 line as well.

 

Limited Load-Carrying Capacity

Although the 414s have a huge cabin-class interior, they have never been a large load hauler. A typically equipped 414A has a full-fuel load of about 500 to 700 pounds, depending on equipment. Although you could fly for about 1,100 miles, you would be able to bring only two friends and a few bags. In a well- equipped airplane weighing in at 5,100 pounds, you could fill the cabin with six people and a little baggage and fly for about 2 hours with IFR reserves. It’s because of this limited load-carrying ability that many operators opt for modifications. Among the questions Nolan Law Group is asking are: how old is the plane? What modifications have been made and how recently? What baggage was on board in addition to the seven occupants?

The Cessna 414A is a large cabin class, piston twin. Flying high with its comfortable pressurized cabin, the 414 can carry up to 7 passengers.

The Cessna 414A has a large comfortable pressurized cabin. The 414 can carry up to 7 passengers.

As part of its’ own preliminary independent investigation Nolan Law Group has reviewed accident reports compiled by the AOPA Air Safety Foundation. Reports state there were 46 accidents involving 414s between 1983 and 1993. The pilot has been cited as being responsible for almost every 414 accident, and weather was a common link in the accident chain. However, many accidents that occurred after engine failures involved airplanes loaded far beyond the maximum gross weight and flown improperly with a failed engine (for example, with the gear and/or flaps down). Single-engine rate of climb is listed as 240 feet per minute for the 414 and 290 fpm for the 414A with the gear and flaps up.

The 414’s have a spacious cabin. Unfortunately, the stock 414s have more room than the useful load allows.

The 414 can fly six people on a 2-hour trip in a comfortable pressurized cabin or it can fly two people some 1,200 miles. On the other hand, the big cabin results in an equally big speed penalty.

While many facts and circumstances of the accident remain unknown and the NTSB investigation is expected to take more than a year, attorneys at Nolan Law Group continue to question factors beyond “pilot error” as causal or contributing to this crash. Ultimately, those causes and contributing factors must be analyzed to determine who bears liability for the crash, an analysis that the NTSB is prohibited from making.  As a firm concentrating in aviation accident claims, Nolan Law Group routinely monitors accident investigations such as the Bloomington tragedy for similarities, differences and safety trends. The firm handles claims and litigation on behalf of victims and families of victims of aviation accidents ranging from small, general aviation aircraft to large commercial airliners.