NASA Technology Means No More Flying Blind

Synthetic Vision Systems Technology

  September 04, 2006

By David Angier
Florida Freedom News

PANAMA CITY  Earle Martin didn't like his plane being referred to as a Widowmaker. Martin has been flying the Mitsubishi

 MU-2 for 17 years, the same kind of aircraft that crashed Friday, killing Panama City pilot Hardy Buddy Head.

The MU-2 is a very safe airplane, Martin said.

Twin-engine airplanes like the MU-2 are sometimes referred to as Widowmakers because inexperience pilots can be fatally unprepared for the aircraft's performance abilities. But the Federal Aviation Administration will soon implement a mandatory training program for MU-2 pilots, said Scott Sobel, a Mitsubishi company spokesman.

Martin and Sobel flew to Panama City on Saturday together and disseminate information.

Sobel said there have been three MU-2 crashes in the last few months. Two people were killed in August near Ormond Beach when their MU-2 crashed.

Despite that, he said, the plane is considered one of the safest of its kind, but its use as a cargo hauler contributes to the number of crashes seen in the last few years. Sobel said cargo pilots have a tendency to fly when they're tired at night or in bad weather.

Sobel said Head was an experienced pilot who had ample experience with the MU-2. Head's family said he used to train pilots in MU-2s for Mitsubishi and was very familiar with the aircraft.

Alexus Purdy, one of Head's daughters, said Saturday that her family is convinced the crash was not her father's fault. None of us believe it is, she said.

Sobel didn't offer any information about Head's crash, saying the agencies investigating the incident would be responsible for that.

But Sobel did say that the FAA was planning to implement a training program for MU-2 pilots.

We've seen overseas, when these training programs go into effect, the accident rates plummet, he said.

Martin said he goes through a refresher course once a year, despite the hours he puts in at the wheel of a MU-2. Flight simulators will be used in the training, which is important because many of the problems pilots have with the aircraft are with its speed.

The MU-2 is a high-performance plane with twin propeller-driven engines. Sobel said because of its ability to haul cargo it's sometimes treated like a truck.

It should be treated like the pet Porsche, he said.

Martin said things happen faster in the MU-2. Pilots, he said, have to learn to think ahead of the aircraft and be comfortable with its speed and climbing ability.

Because of its high-performance, Martin said, it's critical that things be done properly.

Pilots who are unfamiliar with the aircraft can get into trouble quickly. Martin said that's why the mandatory training program, which was brought about by pressure from the manufacturer, is so important.

Head's plane crashed Friday morning five miles southeast of DeFuniak Springs in Walton County. Head was returning to the Panama City-Bay County International Airport from Tulsa, Okla., in a loaner plane he was using while his regular MU-2 was in for service.

Witnesses said the plane appeared to spiral down into a wooded area. The FAA and National Transportation Safety Board were investigating.

According to statistics compiled by Robert E. Breiling and Associates, there were 473 MU-2s in use worldwide in 2005. Between 2001-2005, there were 24 accidents, 14 with fatalities, involving the MU-2. That ranked the aircraft in the middle of the pack for planes of its kind.

Friday's crash was the second involving a Mitsubishi MU-2 in Florida in a week. A Michigan couple died Aug. 26 when their MU-2 crashed about five miles northwest of Ormond Beach. Weather could have been a factor in that crash since heavy rain was reported over most of the county at the time, officials said.

Federal officials are investigating whether Friday's crash was weather-related. Witnesses said it was raining at the time of the crash.


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