After barely recovering from an in-flight emergency just after takeoff from Felts Field, pilot Richard Runyon somehow managed to get the single-engine plane stabilized over Newman Lake and had nearly made it back to the airport when the craft again banked sharply to the right and crashed into the Spokane River, a preliminary federal investigation shows.
Runyon, who died in the May 7 crash along with his friend and fellow pilot Lyndon Amestoy, advised the Felts Field tower that he was having difficulty controlling the Piper Malibu, indicating it was having aileron problems, according to the National Transportation Safety Board report. An aileron is the hinged portion of an airplane wing that controls the craft’s lateral balance.
Air traffic controllers already knew something was amiss because of what witnesses described as a near-crash about 10 minutes earlier just after takeoff and had cleared Runyon for what’s known as a straight-in landing.
“We have a control emergency there, a hard right aileron,” Runyon, a commercial pilot and U.S. Air Force veteran, advised while on final approach. The aircraft suddenly banked hard right as it reached the front edge of the runway, flew over a taxiway where onlookers reported loud engine noise, and crashed into the river at 4:04 p.m., breaking apart on impact.
The NTSB preliminary report was completed Friday and provides the first detailed look at what was supposed to be a 40-minute test flight.
The plane, owned by Flying Colors Aviation LLC, had undergone its FAA-required annual inspection at Spokane-based Rocket Engineering, which also had performed a federally approved aircraft conversion designed to improve its performance.
Runyon and Amestoy both worked for Rocket Engineering.
Meanwhile, those who knew the victims said it appears the men may have used their final moments doing whatever they could to minimize potential harm to those on the ground as they realized the plane was again veering out of control.
“Knowing my husband, he would sacrifice himself,” said Karen Runyon, explaining that those who flew with him knew he would constantly survey the landscape to identify potential landing zones in the event of an emergency. “He was a great pilot.”
Runyon’s flying skills are credited with keeping the struggling plane aloft just after takeoff, when the first indication of serious problems surfaced.
The plane rapidly lost altitude and banked so sharply to the right that control tower personnel radioed the pilot to determine if everything was OK.
Runyon responded, “That’s negative.”
Witnesses told investigators the plane was banking so sharply and losing altitude so quickly they feared it was about to crash.
Instead, it eased out of the sharp bank and began regaining altitude while flying in what’s described as a meandering easterly direction.
“We are trying to get under control here,” Runyon told the tower. “Be back with you.”
The plane eventually reached the Newman Lake area, about 11 miles east of Felts Field, and had climbed to about 5,600 feet, the report shows. Runyon reported “things seem to be stabilizing” and when asked by air traffic controllers about his flight intentions replied: “We are going to stay out here for a little while and play with things a little bit, and see if we can get back.”
The plane began what investigators describe as a gradual left-hand turn and the pilot requested and received clearance for a straight-in landing. At 7 miles out, the plane became aligned with the runway, investigators said, and that’s when Runyon advised the tower of the problem with the aileron.
The plane appeared to hold steady, with the pilot saying at 3 miles out that he was on final approach. Radar data shows the plane was tightly aligned to the runway centerline through the descent.
Then, as the aircraft passed above the runway numbers at the edge of the asphalt it appeared to be flying “in a 20 degrees right wing low altitude” and passed above a taxiway before crashing into the river about 11 minutes after its initial takeoff, according to the report.
Both wings and other parts of the aircraft broke apart on impact and the forward cabin sustained heavy damage, the NTSB said.