NYC97LA125A
NYC97LA125A

On June 22, 1997, about 1600 eastern daylight time, two homebuilt Sonerai-I airplanes, N20CS and N77TY, were destroyed when they collided during an airshow at The Francis S. Gabreski Airport (FOK), Westhampton Beach, New York. The certificated commercial pilot of N20CS sustained serious injures. The certificated commercial pilot of N77TY was fatally injured. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed for the scheduled air race which originated at FOK. No flight plan had been filed for the air race conducted under 14 CFR Part 91.

An air show had been in progress at FOK, which included air races conducted by the Formula V Air Racing Association, Inc. Several races had been conducted during the day, and the last race of the day included four Sonerai-I airplanes. The airplanes had crossed the finish line and several witnesses observed the airplanes enter a left turn. The second place blue colored airplane was N77TY, followed by the third place yellow colored airplane, N20CS.

In a written statement, the pilot of the first place airplane stated that the takeoff was normal, and during the first lap around the course he encountered light turbulence. He also stated that on subsequent laps the turbulence "...seemed worse, but was probably due to the increase in speed. At no time was the turbulence severe." He further stated that during the race, while passing other airplanes, he did not observe them "buffeting around abnormally." At the completion of the race he flew past pylon #1 and climbed normally at full power.

The race announcer stated that the race had been scheduled for eight laps around a 2 mile course, marked by colored pylons. He also said, "...after the race was completed, as the race planes were in a climbing left turn in the process of establishing a landing pattern, I observed two of the planes collide in midair..."

One witness on the ground stated that he observed three airplanes in a steep left banking turn. He observed the blue plane, N77TY, approximately 200 feet above the ground. He further stated:

"...The next plane up was the yellow one...I then observed the right wing of the blue plane strike the left wing of the yellow plane. The blue plane immediately went straight down, striking the grass area...on the southwest corner of the airport."

A Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Inspector conducted a telephone interview with the pilot of N20CS. According to the FAA Inspector's summary of the interview, the pilot stated that he was the third-place airplane as the first and second place airplanes crossed the finish line. He was following both airplanes for landing, and that the airplanes customarily maintained racing power and speed for the post race lap. He stated that the race had been "very fast," and that he had been unable to close the distance to the second place airplane (N77TY) during the race.

The pilot said that he was about half way around the course after passing the finish line, following N77TY at a customary distance of 150 to 300 feet. He was about 50 feet above, and slightly to the right of N77TY's flight path, when he lost sight of N77TY "...because that aircraft slowed rapidly and went under...[my] aircraft."

The FAA Inspector's report further stated, "...[The pilot] stated he looked right and left for the second-place aircraft, but didn't see it. When asked if he considered maneuvering to increase distance from the second-place aircraft's flight path, [the pilot] had no answer. [The pilot] stated he then felt his aircraft being struck from below..."

The pilot of the fourth place airplane provided a statement to the New York State Police. In the statement he said that at the beginning of the race, as well as when he landed after the race, the weather conditions included a steady wind of 15 knots from the west, with no precipitation. While flying the course he experienced moderate turbulence which could be considered "normal for racing conditions at low altitude."

The statement continued, "At no time either prior to, during, or immediately after the completion of the race, did the weather create an unsafe condition for the air race competitors."

He further stated:

"...The winner...was about a half lap ahead of the remaining three aircraft which were closer to each other as we crossed the finish line...I was the last of the group and had visual contact with the other two. Approx 100 feet in front of my plane, at my altitude and slightly to my left was...number 20 [N20CS]...to [his] left, about a half a planes length ahead, about 10 feet, and at the same altitude was...number 6 [N77TY]...As the three of us proceeded towards pylon #1 which marks the start of the first turn, we all started a gradual climb prior to actually reaching pylon #1. After passing the pylon, the three aircraft began a gradual left turn. I observed numbers 6 and numbers 20 fairly close during the climb out. I climbed higher then them to keep them in sight...I was about 500 feet behind them and at least 100 feet above. It appeared to me that #20 was closing on #6 at a fairly fast rate. As #20 got close to #6, it appeared #6 pitched up slightly, by that I mean the front of the plane pointed slightly upwards. I then observed #20 appear to impact #6 on the top of the aircraft in an area known as the turtle deck, which is just behind the pilot's seat..."

The pilot also stated:

"In my opinion...the plane [#6]...appeared to have slowed more then the [#20] plane...along with a change in pitch attitude upward of [#6]..., and the failure of [#20]...to see and avoid the other aircraft. [#20] should have maintained visual contact with the other aircraft, he should have began a climbing right turn."

Excerpts of FAA Handbook 8700.1, stated:

"A fundamental principle of closed-course air race safety, including demonstration events, is that all of the participants need to be associated with an organization that is dedicated to the sport. The structure and existence of a credible air racing organization provides an internal level of safety that would not otherwise exist. It is recommended that the IIC determine the following before issuing a waiver for an event that includes closed-course air races. (1) Determine whether an air race organization exists that is capable of evaluation of the participating pilots and aircraft. (2) Determine whether the participants are qualified by the air race organization...(5) Determine whether the organization has established safety operation rules..."

The handbook further stated, "The FAA has determined that the following air race organizations have credible programs for determining air racing pilot competence...Formula V Air Racing Association..."

The Formula V Air Racing Association (FVARA), Inc., published a guide for "THE NEW AIR RACE PILOT, or ...So You want to be a race pilot, eh??" Under the section, RISKS, it stated:

"Air racing, like virtually all other competitive motorsports, contains an element of danger. Pilots have been killed in air racing accidents.....you must be aware that the potential for injury or death is present..."

The guide then went on to describe the different facets of air racing, including FVARA requirement and qualification procedures.

Under the section, FLYING THE RACE COURSE, it stated:

"...It is extremely important that you fly a consistent course line at a constant altitude, so that overtaking race pilots can predict your flight path and pass you safely."

Under the section, RACE COURSE TURNS, it stated:

"...Remember, all the other race pilots in the race expect you to fly a predictable, steady line around the course. If you fly in an unpredictable manner, it makes you more difficult to be passed by the faster raceplanes."

Under the section, WATCHING YOUR POSITION, it stated:

"It is important that you are always aware of any race aircraft near you on the course...It is important that you are aware of the range of vision of any aircraft near to you, and that you position yourself to stay in your competitor's vision. Since most raceplanes are mid-wing configuration, it is very hazardous to pass directly below another pilot, since the other pilot cannot see you as you pass."

Under the section, PASSING OTHER AIRCRAFT, it stated:

"As you approach an aircraft in front of you, be sure to fly so that the pilot ahead can see that you are about to pass him. Never pass directly above or below another aircraft, always to the OUTSIDE...Do not come closer than 50 feet to the other aircraft as you pass..."

Under the section, WAKE TURBULENCE, it stated:

"...Never follow directly behind another race aircraft...In turns, it is better to fly outside and slightly higher than the aircraft in front of you, to avoid the most extreme wake turbulence."

Under the section, LANDING AFTER THE RACE, it stated:

"After you have completed your last lap, gently pull up off of the race course and enter the landing pattern. Race aircraft land in trail in the order in which they finish the race..."

Items not discussed in the LANDING AFTER THE RACE section included speed and power to maintain.

Under the section, IN AN EMERGENCY, it stated:

"...If you have an emergency yourself - GENTLY pull up off of the race course and away from the crowd...If another aircraft has an emergency - WATCH for him until the aircraft leaves the race course.

The IN AN EMERGENCY section did not discuss what to do during a loss of engine power.

A letter from the current president of the FVARA stated that the pilot of N77TY had been the president of the association until the accident. The letter further stated the pilot had been trained and completed the FVARA air race competency examination during August 1996. He then participated in five different race events, in five cities.

The pilot of N20CS was in his first year of competition. He had been trained and passed his competency examination for the FVARA. He then competed in two different race events in two different cities.

According to the letter, both pilots held a "Letter of Air Racing Competency," issued by the FVARA.

The FAA Handbook, 8700.1, included air race course design criteria. One criteria stated that racing classes with a maximum speed of 250 miles per hour or less required a distance of 500 feet between the spectators and the showline.

The FVARA provided the FAA the race course design, overlaid on an airport diagram. The overlay included the 500 foot safe area between the raceplane flight path and the spectator area. When the wreckage of both airplanes was plotted on the diagram, it revealed that the wreckage came to rest 200 to 300 feet outside the 500 foot safety zone. When the wreckage location was transposed onto a map, to the opposite side of the race course off of pylon #6, the location was in the spectator area.

A weather observation at the time of the accident indicated the visibility was 4 miles, and winds were from 220 degrees at 16 knots.

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