We have an update on a Channel 2 Action News investigation on small plane crashes.
In February, we told you how critics think some may be caused by a design flaw in the fuel tanks. After our first story aired, more pilots reached out to us to share their crash stories. Channel 2 investigative reporter Justin Gray went back to digging through decades of federal crash data where he uncovered even more deadly crashes.
Security cameras captured the 2012 crash landing of a Cessna 150 near the Pickens County airport in Jasper, GA. The two pilots suffered serious injury.
“And I remember coming to and covered in blood, I mean, just covered in blood,” David Mathews said.
That was 10 years ago. But when pilot David Mathews saw Channel 2′s investigation, he says it all came rushing back. Mathews wasn’t just on a routine flight. He had just purchased the plane that day and was conducting a top-to-bottom review. A post-crash investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found “water-contaminated fuel.”
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And like so many of the pilots we spoke with, the NTSB blamed him, saying his preflight inspection was inadequate. But Mathews said he checked for water twice.
“The plane, I knew, had been sitting outside for the past couple of months. So, water in the fuel line was a very front of mind concern to us. We were surprised that there wasn’t any water,” Mathews said.
In February, Gray uncovered crash after crash where water was found in the fuel in some of the most popular planes in the sky. Since then, Gray did more digging all the way back to 1982. Gray found 307 Cessna crashes from water contamination with 37 deaths.
“What I can tell you with absolute certainty is that there was no water that was detectable from the ways that we were supposed to verify whether there was water there,” Mathews said.
“The fuel tanks are severely flawed,” Bob Scovill said.
At a Tennessee airport, Bob Scovill pushes open a hangar door to reveal what was once his pride and joy: a 1981 Cessna 172P airplane. For nearly 40 years, Scovill has kept the hangar and maintained his plane even though he refuses to fly it. He alerted the FAA back in 1999 after three forced landings triggered by undetectable water in his fuel tanks.
The FAA witnessed several experiments conducted on his plane. Photos from one of those tests show thirty-two ounces of water, dyed red, poured into the tanks to see what it does.
An FAA memo says how, after sumping, even shaking the wings “thirteen ounces of water remained entrapped” inside the tank. Gray was there when Scovill did a similar test, again with water dyed red. After a few sumps, the fuel is clear of water in the test. But inside the tank, the red-dyed water is collecting and hiding.
“Water just lays in the bottom of the tank,” Scovill said.
“No pilot will fly in his right mind knowing he’s got water in the fuel,” Joe Mazzone said.
Pilot Joe Mazzone reached out to Gray about his 1991 crash in a Carrolton, Georgia field. He says seeing Gray’s story gave him a new perspective thirty years after he nearly died when his engine quit. The NTSB determined the probable cause was “undetectable water” in his fuel tanks.
“It’s easy to blame the pilots, especially a civilian pilot, you know, you can’t defend yourself,” Mazzone said.
Among the pilots we spoke with, Joe Mazzone was unique. He doesn’t just pilot small planes, he spent 23 years as a Delta pilot flying commercial jets.
“I hadn’t considered the possibility that maybe the tanks are designed, possibly, where water can be trapped in it. And lead to these these incidents,” Mazzone said.
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Gray followed a paper trail starting in 1999 when the FAA sent a letter to Cessna after Scovill’s tests, determining “an unsafe condition exists” and “design changes are necessary.”
But eight years later, in 2007, the FAA sent Cessna another letter reversing its findings, giving the planes a clean bill of health after Cessna performed their own tests.
The FAA wrote “there was no reaction of the test aircraft’s engine to the deliberate water contamination,” and went on to say that based on those tests, their original concerns and warnings were quote “incorrect.”
With that letter, the FAA closed the case, and no design changes were mandated. But planes kept crashing. Mazzone was one of a very small number of pilots Gray found who wasn’t faulted by the NTSB. That could have cost him his job. He says although pilots like David Mathews may heal from their injuries, that determination can have a lasting impact.
“I’m sure they carry guilt, because they’ve been blamed. It’s like tarnishing your family name in a way,” Mazzone said.
A Cessna spokesperson told Channel 2 that Scovill’s theory was “carefully investigated and tested by Cessna, with direct FAA participation and oversight.” They say “no safety concerns were found to exist and the matter was closed” by the FAA.”
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The FAA declined Gray’s request for an interview.