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On May 23, 2009, about 1315 central daylight time, an experimental amateur-built RV-8, N875MH, and an experimental Nanchang China CJ-6A, N81817, collided in midair shortly after takeoff from Pryor Field (DCU), Decatur, Alabama. The RV-8 was substantially damaged and the CJ-6A sustained minor damage. The certificated private pilot onboard the RV-8 was killed and the certificated private pilot onboard the CJ-6A incurred minor injuries. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed and no flight plans were filed for the planned flights to Big River Airpark (5AL5), Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The personal flights were conducted under the provisions of 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91. The RV-8 departed DCU about 1305 and the CJ-6A departed DCU about 1310.
A Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) inspector interviewed several witnesses and the pilot of the CJ-6A at the accident site. They reported that there was an "open house" at DCU. The accident pilots were friends and neighbors, who were visiting the airport. The pilots departed DCU with the intention of returning to their home airport. Prior to takeoff from DCU, the pilots did not preplan any formation flying. The RV-8 departed first, performed aerobatics over the runway and in the traffic pattern, then orbited the airport at a higher altitude. The CJ-6A departed and remained in the traffic pattern for a low pass over the runway. The pilot of the RV-8 then flew in formation with the CJ-6A during the low pass. The RV-8 began to overtake the CJ-6A, while the pilot of the RV-8 announced his relative position over the common traffic advisory frequency (CTAF). The pilot of the CJ-6A did not realize how close the RV-8 was, and began a climbing right turn. At that point, as the RV-8 overtook the CJ-6A from left to right, the left wing of the RV-8 contacted the right wing of the CJ-6A. The left wing of the RV-8 partially separated. The RV-8 subsequently descended uncontrolled and impacted a grass area at a local community college. The CJ-6A landed at DCU uneventfully.
According to the CJ-6A pilot's written statement, he and the pilot of the RV-8 discussed if they would be flying home together or separately. The pilot of the RV-8 decided to fly home separately, and departed first. As the pilot of the CJ-6A prepared to depart, a photographer asked him to make some low passes over the runway, so that the photographer could take pictures. Prior to departure, the pilot of the CJ-6A also saw the RV-8 perform a low pass over the runway, execute an aileron roll, and then fly an orbit around the airport at approximately 2,000 feet above ground level (agl). The CJ-6A took off and remained in the left airport traffic pattern at approximately 1,000 feet agl. As the CJ-6A turned onto a downwind leg, the pilot of the CJ-6A asked the pilot of the RV-8 if he had the CJ-6A in sight. The pilot of the RV-8 replied affirmative. As the CJ-6A turned from base leg to final leg, the pilot of the RV-8 radioed that he was at the CJ-6A's 6 o'clock position. He then radioed that he was at the CJ-6A's 4'oclock position. The CJ-6A then began a pass over the runway at approximately 200 feet agl. As the pilot of the CJ-6A began a climb, the RV-8's left wing contacted the CJ-6A's right wing. The pilot of the CJ-6A further stated that he thought the pilot of the RV-8 planned to leave the area and fly home. When the RV-8 pilot reported at the 6 and 4 o'clock positions, the pilot of the CJ-6A could not see the RV-8 behind him, but thought that the RV-8 pilot could see the CJ-6A in front of him.
One of the witnesses at the airport, who was also a pilot, was listening to the CTAF frequency. She heard the pilot of the RV-8 announce, "RV-8 orbiting over south end…runway…Decatur." As the CJ-6A was on an approximate midfield downwind position for runway 18 (for the low pass), the witness heard a transmission over CTAF from the RV-8 pilot, "form fly, okay?" There was no reply from the CJ-6A pilot. The witness then went to retrieve her camera. Subsequently, several other witnesses confirmed the RV-8 pilot's reports of his relative position to the CJ-6A.
Another witnessed was later interviewed via telephone and provided a written statement. The witness reported that he had never previously met either pilot, but was seated near them during lunch. He heard the pilots discuss flying home and there was no mention of formation flight during the time the witness overheard the conversation. The witness subsequently watched the CJ-6A approach for a low pass over the runway for a photo opportunity. During the approach, the witness recalled hearing the pilot of the CJ-6A ask the pilot of the RV-8 his position. The pilot of the RV-8 replied 6 o'clock, but did not provide a distance. During the low pass, the RV-8 closed "dramatically," greater than 30 knots, from above and behind the CJ-6A. The CJ-6A then initiated a right climbing turn and the airplanes collided.
The pilot of the RV-8, age 41, held a private pilot certificate, with ratings for airplane single-engine land and instrument airplane. His most recent FAA third-class medical certificate was issued on July 31, 2007. At that time he reported a total flight experience of 769 hours.
An autopsy was performed on the pilot by the State of Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences, Huntsville, Alabama, on May 26, 2009. The autopsy report noted the cause of death as "multiple blunt force injuries." Toxicological testing was performed on the pilot by the FAA Bioaeronautical Science Research Laboratory, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The results were negative for drugs and alcohol.
The pilot of the CJ-6A, age 59, held a private pilot certificate, with ratings for airplane single-engine land, airplane single-engine sea, and instrument airplane. His most recent FAA second-class medical certificate was issued on March 17, 2009. At that time he reported a total flight experience of 3,600 hours. The pilot also obtained formation training under the Formation and Safety Training (FAST) program through the Red Star Pilot's Association. He had been formation trained since 2003 and had been a lead pilot since 2006.
Both airplanes were equipped with handheld global positioning systems (GPS), which were forwarded to the National Transportation Safety Board Vehicle Recorders Laboratory, Washington, DC, for data download. Review of the plotted GPS data revealed that as the CJ-6A flew a left traffic pattern for runway 18, the RV-8 followed behind and to the right of the CJ-6A. About the midpoint of runway 18, the CJ-6A began a climbing right turn just before the collision.
The recorded weather at DCU, at 1353, was: wind from 080 degrees at 6 knots, visibility 10 miles in light rain, sky clear, temperature 22 degrees Celsius, dew point 19 degrees Celsius, altimeter 30.02 inches of mercury.
Review of Federal Aviation Regulation (FAR) 91.119 revealed, in part, "Minimum safe altitudes: General.
Except when necessary for takeoff or landing, no person may operate an aircraft below the following altitudes:
(b) Over congested areas. Over any congested area of a city, town, or settlement, or over any open air assembly of persons, an altitude of 1,000 feet above the highest obstacle within a horizontal radius of 2,000 feet of the aircraft.
Review of FAR 91.303 revealed, in part, "No person may operate an aircraft in aerobatic flight –
(B) Over an open air assembly of persons;
(D) Below an altitude of 1,500 above the surface."