When Pre-Flight Prep Becomes Criminal
The accident took place on the 9th of September 2017 shortly after take-off from Manchester City Airport, a municipal airfield near the Manchester Ship Canal in the north of England. Manchester City Airport opened in 1930 and has not changed much since then: the control tower, terminal building and hangar are all the original buildings (now listed). There are four grass runways but the airfield is often closed because they become waterlogged; the airfield is on the edge of Chat Moss, a large area of peat bog. Additional drainage was added in 2011 as the original clay pipes had deteriorated but the low-lying land is still vulnerable to becoming waterlogged.
There had been a significant amount of rain that morning and standing water was forming at the airfield. A NOTAM (notice to airmen) warned that further heavy rain might lead to the airport closing at short notice and the automatic terminal information service advised pilots to avoid the centreline and southern sections of the active runway, 26R.
The departure path from runway 26R crosses the M62 motorway about 600 metres beyond the end of the runway. After the motorway is an overhead power line, about 1,400 metres beyond the end of the runway.
The accident aircraft was a Piper PA-28-140 Cherokee, registration G-BAKH. The pilot received his Private Pilot’s Licence in 1986 and he had 15,000 hours with 10,000 hours on type. The flight was listed as a general aviation pleasure flight to the Scottish
island airfield of Oban. The flight consisted of the pilot and three passengers: bird watchers who were promised a flight to the nearby island of Barra, where an American Redstart bird had been spotted for the first time in 30 years in the Outer Hebrides.
The pilot fully refuelled the aircraft and then waited while a runway inspection was carried out. After hearing that the runway was very wet, he requested permission to conduct an “accelerate and stop run”, in order to verify that they’d be able to take off within the runway available.
This was sensible: a grass runway requires a longer take-off run and if the grass is wet, then the take-off run is longer again. The Skyway Code states that on a wet grass runway, you should increase the distance needed by a factor of 1.3 to take off.
Tower cleared the pilot to do a test run and he entered the runway and accelerated before braking, as planned, and backtracking along the runway, ready to do it for real this time.
Once cleared for departure, the pilot set two stages of flap for a short field take-off, hoping to reduce the amount of runway needed to get off the ground. During the take-off roll, he kept the aircraft to the right of the runway to avoid the worst of the wet grass. Somewhere between halfway and three-quarters of the way down runway 26R, he began applying back pressure to the yoke to rotate.
A witness described the Piper Cherokee as crawling into the air, nose high. It made it some twenty feet into the air before running out of energy; the pilot complained that the aircraft was completely unresponsive, failing to climb or accelerate.
They were heading directly towards the power line so the pilot began a left turn before the motorway in order to avoid it. I’m not sure he had much choice now that he was in that position but the effect of the turn was a further reduction in energy and the aircraft was no longer capable of flying.
The birdwatchers in the aircraft later spoke to the Daily Mail. The passenger in the front right seat described the take-off:
The pilot pulled the throttle and off we went. He didn’t say what to do in an emergency or in a crash, no life jackets or procedures were given. Visibility was very poor, it was raining heavily and it was a small tiny windscreen.
We were in the air and all of a sudden the plan banked to the left, it tilted, I looked below and I could see the motorway. A few more seconds went in and then I heard the comment: ‘not enough power’. It wasn’t very reassuring.
The impressions from the backseat were slightly different, as they did not have the view of motorway stealing their attention. One of the two men in the backseat said:
When the plane was in the air, it wasn’t too long before it sounded like when a car goes up a hill on a low gear and it’s making a lot of noise, there seemed to be a loss of power on the aircraft – but there was no discussion or talking about it.
‘We just seemed to lose power and I remember seeing pylons in the distance and I thought if we didn’t get any more power we’re not going to make this. The plane banked sharply and we hit the top of the trees going over the motorway then we landed with a sudden jolt. There was a really strong smell of fuel and a lot of blood from Alan’s injuries.
The pilot aimed for the only landing area available, a dark field directly in front of him. Unfortunately, the field was planted with potatoes and, upon touching the ground, the landing gear sank deep into the soil, causing the aircraft to come to an abrupt stop. The pilot and front seat passenger both hit their heads on the instrument panel (hence the blood) and the rear seat passengers also suffered minor injuries.
All four swiftly evacuated the aircraft as the wing had partially broken off and the fuel tank had ruptured. Luckily there was no fire. Emergency services made it to the scene in less than ten minutes.
No significant faults were found with the engine, which had been rotating on impact, but there was some wear of the camshaft which was typical for such an engine. This damage could account for a 5-8% reduction in available power. This was clearly not the cause of the lack of power in the initial climb.
However, the report of the aircraft “crawling” into the air with a nose-high attitude gives us a pretty good hint as to what might have been the cause. The investigators quickly focused on the weight and balance of the aircraft.
Time for some quick maths. The maximum take-off weight (MTOW) for the pilot’s Piper Cherokee was 2,150 pounds (975 kilos). The aircraft had a basic weight of 1,370 pounds (621 kilos). Items in the aircraft weighed 19 lbs (9kg). The pilot, the three passengers and their baggage weighed a total of 899 pounds (408kg).
I should mention that the passengers, pilot and baggage were weighed after the crash. The pilot admitted that he had not weighed them before the flight, quipping that he worked on the principle that if they fitted through the door then they could fly. Later he said his big mistake was that he forgot to include his own weight into the equation.
Thus, the Cherokee with the passengers and baggage on board weighed 2,288 pounds (1,038 kilos), already over the maximum take-off weight of 2,150 pounds (975 kilos). The pilot didn’t realise or didn’t care. In any event, he was happy that they were ready to go and fuelled the Cherokee to full capacity, adding another 288 pounds (131 kilos).
At 2,576 pounds, with an MTOW of 2,150 pounds, the aircraft was now clearly overweight and would continue to be so even when it was out of fuel, so taking fuel burn into account doesn’t really help.
The Piper Cherokee at maximum weight requires a take-off distance of 2,090 feet. The grass was wet, which means that distance needs to be increased by a factor of 1.3 which gives us a take-off distance of 2,717 feet. Taking into account the fact that the Cherokee was beyond the maximum take-off weight but still in balance, and allowing that some fuel would have been burned in the taxi and the test run, the take off distance required was calculated to be approximately 3,912 feet (1,192 metres).
The pilot did ask to check the take-off run required that day before his departure. However according to one witness, when the pilot then attempted the “accelerate-stop run” to check the take-off run, the aircraft showed no sign of being able to lift off.
That’s no surprise. They didn’t have 3,912 feet in which to accelerate. Runway 26R at Manchester City Airport has a total take-off distance available of 2,103 feet (641 metres).
The distance that the overweight Cherokee needed to lift off safely was nearly double the length of the runway.
Note that none of this is taking into account the condition of the engine, which was running fine but probably was delivering 5-8% less power than expected.
The pilot clearly never considered his weight and balance for the flight. His test run did not prove that he had enough runway for acceleration. He decided to continue with the flight with two stages of flap, which he described as setting up the aircraft for a short field departure.
Now, this take-off technique was not based on anything in the Airplane Flight Manual (AFM) but the pilot is correct that would have helped to reduce the take off run required by increasing the lift. However, with the nose high and two stages of flap, it did nothing to increase the aircraft’s ability to fly. Between the drag from the flaps and the slow rotation speed, it’s actually pretty amazing the aircraft managed to crawl into the air.
Having managed that, the pilot might have kept the Cherokee flying if he’d dropped the nose long enough to increase his airspeed to allow him to climb. But this is counter-intuitive at such a low level and besides, they were rapidly approaching the power line. Flying twenty feet above the motorway and under the powerline might look good in an action film but it isn’t a viable plan. To the pilot’s credit, he turned instead and did the only thing he could: pick a field and attempt to land.
Somewhere in all this, a further fact came clear. The pilot, who did not hold a Commercial Pilot’s Licence, had offered to fly the birdwatchers for a fare of £500 per person for the flight to the Scottish island. They had no idea that he was not entitled to charge for the flights. These days, regulations are a lot more lax when it comes to pilots asking for help paying the fuel of a flight but this was clearly not a cost-sharing exercise: the passengers believed they were purchasing a commercial service and the pilot was making about £1,000 in profit.
Before the final report was released, the pilot was arrested. He reacted furiously, telling the police that his actions that day had saved four lives; he should receive a commendation! He then joked that Warner Brothers had already contacted him to make a film of the event, which would be titled Miracle on the Ship Canal.
One does not receive the impression that the police were impressed by his wit.
Once in court, he told the jury that he was a hero, that the crash was a deliberate act to save the lives of his passengers and that the only error he made, which he admitted was grave, was not to include his own weight in his calculations.
Based on photographs, the pilot is not a small man and yet it seems hard to believe that he felt that this was his only error. He was charged on seven counts most of which related to the reckless endangerment of the aircraft, the passengers and the people on the ground and that he was charging his passengers with the intention of making a profit.
The pilot was the first in the UK to go to Crown Court trial for either reckless endangerment of an aircraft or of illegal public transport. The prosecuting lawyer received his PPL when he was 17 and says he still flies regularly, which meant he had the expertise and experience to make it clear to the jury what could reasonably expected from a pilot under these conditions.
In February 2019, the Crown Prosecution Service announced that the case was completed
Robert Murgatroyd’s reckless actions could have had fatal consequences that day. Out of pure greed he put his passengers, road users and anyone else in the immediate area’s lives at risk.
Throughout the case he denied he was responsible in any way for the plane crash or that he had flown it for profit. In police interviews he described himself as a hero for the way he handled the forced landing and said that there should be a Hollywood film made about him.
However the CPS presented to the jury the overwhelming evidence against him proving he charged his passengers £500 each, filled the fuel tanks to the brim, made no checks on the weight of the full plane and had the wrong flight manual on board.
Robert Murgatroyd (DOB: 19 May 1966) was convicted of the following charges:
- Endangering the safety of an aircraft
- Endangering the safety of a person
- Illegal public Transport
- Flying otherwise than in accordance with a licence
- Flying otherwise than in accordance with any conditions/limitations contained in the aircraft flight manual
- Failure to comply with the insurance regulation
- Flying without the aircraft flight manual
He was sentenced with three and a half years in prison and then, on the back of the police investigation, charged and found guilty of insurance fraud which led to a further 22 weeks, to be served concurrently.
All of the passengers have recovered fully but the Cherokee was written off.
A special thank you to Ian Howat for allowing me to use his photograph of the accident aircraft.