Many of us have been waiting along time to find out why Tony Kelly's RV's broke up over Hamilton Township, New Jersey in late 2013.
Tony, an air traffic controller, was a great friend on Van's Air Force and his loss probably hit the RV community harder than any other fatal crash since Bill Benedict, a Van's Aircraft executive, and his son were killed in April 2000.
An RV-7A, obviously, shouldn't break up in the air. That it did caused the usual amount of speculation -- he had suffered a damaged rudder some time earlier, and a Van's service bulletin on elevator hinges all fueled massive amounts of speculation.
The National Transportation Safety Board has now released its report. And it suggests Kelly was performing aerobatic maneuvers that exceeded the plane's design limits.
After taking off, the pilot climbed the experimental amateur-built airplane to 6,500 feet mean sea level in visual meteorological conditions; the airplane remained in level flight for about 13 minutes and was traveling about 130 knots indicated airspeed. The airplane then suddenly lost about 3500 feet in altitude, accelerated to about 220 knots, and reversed direction within a 10 second period. Moments later, the airplane was observed traveling in a northwesterly direction at a low altitude, almost completely upside down at one point, with pieces of the airplane falling to the ground. Recorded radar data revealed that the airplane had entered a steep descending and accelerating left turn, and portions of the empennage separated from the airplane. The airplane continued on a descending, turning flight path until it impacted terrain. A postimpact fire ensued.The wreckage path was about ½-mile long and contained three distinct areas of debris. The first area contained the lower half of the rudder. The second area contained the vertical stabilizer, the rudder balance weight, the left horizontal stabilizer, the left elevator, the left wingtip, the left elevator balance weight, and the cockpit canopy—all of which had separated from their mounting locations. The third area contained the main wreckage (the fuselage, engine, and wings), which struck the top of a tree, fell to the ground, and came to rest inverted. Examination of the wreckage revealed no evidence of an inflight fire, explosion, flight control failure, bird strike, or any preexisting structural anomaly.Review of the airplane’s design revealed that at an aerobatic gross weight of 1,600 pounds, the airplane complied with the +6/-3G standards of the FAA’s aerobatic category.
It had a maximum maneuvering speed of 124 knots and a never exceed speed of 200 knots. At the time of the inflight breakup, the airplane was traveling 20 knots above the published never exceed speed.A friend of the pilot noted that he had seen the pilot recover after falling out of a maneuver at low altitude before, and that it was not uncommon for the pilot to sometimes fall out of a maneuver (loop and/or roll). Review of a video taken by his friend revealed that, during that flight, the pilot performed a left roll. During that maneuver, the pilot allowed the nose to drop and the airplane lost approximately 1,000 feet of altitude.
The accident airplane’s abrupt and sudden maneuvering, which exceeded its design limitations, is consistent with the pilot’s loss of control after attempting an aerobatic maneuver.
The NTSB used a video from Vladyslav V. Karpayev (known on VAF as "Vlad") in making its determination. In an early flight, it showed Kelly allowing the nose to drop, losing approximately 1000 feet in the maneuver.
In its report and accompanying 23-page structural analysis, it noted that there was no evidence of previous damage, and that a service bulletin from Van's on cracks on the elevator showed no evidence of any problem in this area, proving that, despite speculation at the time, the SB was unrelated to this accident.