Vintage Plane Crash Possibly Done For Video Views
I’m not much one for April Fools Day, I have to admit, but it seemed a good opportunity to look at the controversy surrounding a young man who is accused of faking an engine failure and crash in order to get more views on YouTube.
The accident took place on the 24th of November 2021 in a vintage Taylorcraft BL-65, registration N29508.
The Taylorcraft B is a single-engine high-wing monoplane designed by CG Taylor as direct competition to the Piper Cub, which was also designed by CG Taylor. Taylor had founded a company called Taylor Brothers Aircraft Corporation in 1926, later Taylor Aircraft, which struggled with financial issues during the Great Depression. William Piper, known as “an oilman” bought the company for $761, keeping Taylor as the company president. Within five years, Piper ousted Taylor from the company and changed the name to the Piper Aircraft Corporation. Meanwhile, CG Taylor went into direct competition with Piper with the Taylorcraft Aircraft Company. The B was the second model that the company produced and the BL-65 naming convention becomes obvious once you know that it had a Lycoming 65 horsepower engine.
Looking at the video, it has to be said that it looks like a Cub to me! But that’s jumping ahead.
The pilot is a former Olympic snowboarder and has a popular YouTube channel with 133,000 subscribers which shares his adventures ranging from flying to skydiving to freight train hopping.
On the day of the accident, the pilot departed Lompoc Airport in California for a flight to Mammoth Yosemite Airport, where he planned to spread the ashes of a friend. The friend had been in the public eye since he was seventeen, when he became the youngest person ever to climb the “Seven Summits”. He was killed at age 23 in a wingsuit accident after calling a California radio station to say they were shooting a very dangerous video.
The pilot had recently bought the aircraft and had it fitted with cameras inside and out. But during the flight to Mammoth, the pilot lost engine power. He was wearing a parachute and holding a handheld camera mounted on a selfie stick, the pilot bailed out of the aircraft and landed with only minor injuries. The Taylorcraft BL-65 descended and crashed in Los Padres National Forest, suffering fatal injuries, sorry, “substantial damage”.
On the 23rd of December, the pilot posted a video showing the sequence of events, with the title, “I crashed my plane”. It is his most popular video with 1.6 million views. (If you are reading this on the mailing list, you may need to click through to the Fear of Landing website to watch the videos)
The video shows the aircraft departing Lompoc Airport on a beautiful and clear California day. The pilot waves a small plastic bag at the cockpit camera which, in the introduction to the original video (since removed), he explains that these are the ashes of his friend which he plans to scatter. Coincidentally, I happen to know that in the state of California, you cannot scatter human ashes over land without the written permission of the landowner. In the case of State Parks, this permission would be granted by the Park Superintendent, who will ensure that the scattering is not over lakes, streams or sites which hold the remains of Native Americans. I never thought I’d need that information twice but I’m just saying, you can’t simply take a sandwich bag of someone’s ashes and empty it from the plane.
At any rate, at about 0:58 point, the engine cuts out. Although there are clearly multiple cameras, none of the footage gives us any view of the instruments or the controls, so it is very difficult to know what the situation is other than the propeller has stopped. At no point does the pilot appear to be attempting any sort of restart or recovery. He never appears to even consider the possibility of a forced landing. In the original video, which has since been replaced with a new version without details of the sponsor, the pilot can be heard to say “There was no safe space to land.”
There are definitely flat areas and a riverbed visible on the video around the 3:20 mark.
The original version of Fear of Landing had a page with Frequently Asked Questions and one of the questions was whether I wore a parachute while flying the Piper Saratoga. My answer was that I did not, because if I could get the aircraft stable enough to open the cockpit door and climb out for a safe jump, then I could almost certainly attempt a landing. The pilot explains in the video that he always wears a parachute while landing but, as many have pointed out, a quick scan through his other videos shows that this is not actually true.
As the pilot exits the cockpit, the aircraft can be seen descending as the propeller begins to windmill. The pilot watches the aircraft go down and then he comes down in rough ground nearby, suffering a few bruises and, he shows us later, a poison oak rash on his neck. He was able to make his way to the aircraft, after which he hiked until sunset, when he was forced to stop. At some point shortly after then, he heard a car and was able to flag down farmers passing by on a dirt road and ask for assistance.
AThe pilot reported the accident to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA). Normally, the NTSB would not investigate an engine failure such as this one, however, a preliminary report was released in January under the accident number WPR22LA049 and the status is marked as “in work”. The docket has not been released.
About four minutes have been cut by the revised video, including an explanation at the start that he posted his video so that other pilots could learn from his experience. It has been claimed that the pilot and a friend chartered an aircraft to remove the aircraft from the site. The NTSB preliminary report states that no representative travelled to the scene, so presumably they knew there was no evidence to be found there.
Sources at the Lompoc airport have been quoted by the press as saying that the aircraft was in need of major maintenance; however, the pilot did only minor fixes on his own before the fated flight.
Other people have highlighted additional anomalies which I did not notice when I first watched the video. At the 0:53 timestamp, the cockpit door seems to be ajar although the engine had not yet failed; it appears to have been left open for easy egress. A set of three screengrabs have been posted on Reddit which appear to show that the pilot had a fire extinguisher strapped to his leg under his trousers, which is certainly not where any pilot would think to keep an extinguisher as protection against an onboard fire.
An anonymous pilot familiar with the area posted this Google Maps link to the accident location and points out that the valley east of the Manzana Schoolhouse Camp would be an obvious area for an emergency landing but is not visible from the careful framing of the pilot’s video. He or she also states that there are multiple flat areas (meadow and fields) within five miles of the aircraft at the point when the engine failed.
There are so many re-creations of the flight in Microsoft Flight Sim, I couldn’t possibly pick one. However, I did want to share this local pilot who flew to the area and pulled the throttle to idle at the same location. His video shows that not only are there a number of opportunities for a forced landing but he was able to glide to an airport for a safe landing.
I also very much enjoyed this parody video analysis of the dangers of being unexpectedly sucked out of your aircraft done by Just Plane Silly.
The FAA announced that they were investigating the crash after the video went viral, but their investigation was seen to be opened on the 29th of November, that is, after the pilot reported the accident but before he posted the video on his YouTube channel.
I’m not sure what the charge would be if evidence is found that the crash was staged. I suppose reckless and careless operation which can lead to a large fine or even jail time but most commonly results in the revocation of the offender’s airman’s certificate. When approached for comment by the Daily Mail, an FAA spokesperson said that the FAA investigation is being led by the NTSB and no comment will be made during the investigation.
It seems clear that the cameras all over the place stole the pilot’s attention when he had more important things to worry about. But that doesn’t mean the crash was necessarily staged: it is possible that the man is just an incredibly bad pilot.
However, there is also the point that the crash was exactly fifty years after an infamous parachuting event: 24 November 2071 was when DB Cooper parachuted out of a Boeing 727 with $200,000 in random money.
Coincidence? What do you think?