Originally published April 11, 1973
The probable cause of the fiery crash of a jet fighter into Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour Restaurant last fall, killing 22 persons, was “inadequate pilot proficiency in the aircraft.”
This is the conclusion of the National Transportation Safety Board in its formal report on the tragedy.
The F-86 jet was trying to take off with its nose three times higher than the usual angle, resulting in failure to become completely airborne.
There was no evidence of anything wrong with the 18-year-old former military fighter, and the runway was adequate for the plane to take off, the board concluded.
The pilot, Ricard Bingham, who survived the crash, overrotated the plane – in effect, he pulled up the nose too high. “The overrrotation was the result of inadequate pilot proficiency in aircraft and misleading visual cues,” the report says.
“Although this accident was a result of pilot technique . . . the catastrophic consequences resulted from two entirely separate circumstances: (1) Inadequacies in the rules governing the operation of experimental aircraft; and (2) the location of the ice cream parlour.”
Normally, it said, the F-86 lifts off with its nose at an angle of 5 degrees to the ground.
But the Bingham plane was at 11 degrees on liftoff and increased to 15.5 degrees. Speed then decreased, and the plane touched down, its nose now at 10 degrees. Again it lifted, this time to 16.5 degrees. The plane got no more than 5 feet off the ground, touching down 5,005 feet from the takeoff end of the runway and plunging across Freeport Boulevard into Farrell’s.
Bingham subsequently reported he felt a vibration shortly after the initial takeoff, and the board report says “the vibration experienced was precipitated by disturbed airflow, because of excessive nose-high attitude during take-off.”
The board report says Bingham logged three and a half hours of flying time in the F-86 and claimed another four hours. It says the high nose-up takeoff was “undoubtedly” due to his lack of familiarity with the plane and the effect of “visual cues” at Sacramento’s Executive Airport compared to the Oakland airport – the only other place Bingham ever had taken off from in that plane.
Most of his jet experience, says the report, was with the Lear Jet, “which may have developed habit patterns which would increase the tendency of over-rotation in the Sabre.”
But a “perhaps more significant factor” was his takeoffs from Oakland, where the San Francisco Bay creates a feeling of a “wide open” expanse and of an “unlimited runway,” it adds.
By contrast, the Sacramento runway is short, and is surrounded by trees, buildings, water towers and other objects, and these together with the viewing angle from the cockpit “could result in a sense of urgency about becoming airborne as soon as possible.”
Ironically, the aircraft would not have been authorized to land or takeoff from Sacramento had there been no air show in progress.
And the report says the inadequacies of the rules governing experimental aircraft – technically the F-86’s designation – are best demonstrated by changes in rules which since have taken place.
Among them are tougher pilot qualification procedures and more strict requirements for flying over populated areas.
It was obvious, says the report, Bingham could not qualify under the new directives “because he had not completed the appropriate training and because he lacked the pilot-in-command experience.”