NTSB: Wrong runway choice contributed to plane crash that killed Duluth doctor

National Transportation Safety Board

The National Transportation Safety Board has determined that a decision to attempt to land on the wrong runway contributed to the plane crash that killed a Duluth doctor.

Donald Kundel, 79, died in the 2012 incident in Laramie, Wyoming. He had left Duluth several hours earlier to visit his son.

According to the just-released NTSB report:

The pilot approached runway 21 straight in from the northeast, after having completed a cross-country flight. Before attempting to land at the non-towered airport, the pilot overflew runway 21 before making a left turn and entering a left downwind for runway 21.

A witness reported seeing the airplane while on final approach just east of the airport about 300 to 400 feet above ground level (agl), “…and everything looked normal,” but as the airplane got closer he observed some “wing rock,” similar to a small Dutch Roll.

Shortly thereafter, when the airplane was about 100 to 150 feet (above ground level), its left wing dipped a little, followed by the right wing dropping very fast, which was then followed by a spin to the right and subsequent impact with terrain.

A post-impact fire subsequently erupted, which consumed the forward section of the airplane. The wind was reported to be 350 degrees at 14 knots, with gusts to 24 knots, about the time of the accident. A wind of such direction and velocity would have likely resulted in a significant tailwind for the pilot to contend with.

The pilot’s decision to attempt a downwind landing in gusting wind conditions likely resulted in his loss of airplane control and subsequent impact with terrain. The airport was also equipped with a 90-degree intersecting runway, runway 30, which should have been the runway of choice given the prevailing wind; it was not clear why the pilot did not elect to use this runway.

A postaccident examination of the airframe and engine revealed no mechanical anomalies that would have precluded normal operation.

With the tailwind, a sudden gust would reduce the plane’s airspeed. A 10 knot gust reduces the airspeed by about 10 knots and if the pilot is already flying within 10 knots of stall speed (the speed at which a plane’s wings can no longer provide lift), the plane will stall, roll, and crash as this one did.

Typically, a pilot lands into the wind and compensates for gusty conditions by flying a few knots faster than a normal landing.

  • David

    beginner/basic question: how does one know which runway to attempt a landing on and from which direction at a non-towered airport. how do they know the conditions?

    • At most airports without a control tower, there’s a frequency that just broadcasts the weather/wind conditions, and you can plan your entry to the traffic pattern that way. Failing that, you just fly over the airport a little higher than normal and look down at the wind sock to see which way the wind is blowing, select the runway you want to use.

      In this case, the runway the chose is longer (8,000 feet) and wider than the more appropriate one considering the weather (6300 feet) and sometimes that can lull you into selecting it despite the wind.

  • kevinfromminneapolis

    Are commercial jets affected the same way? I know they usually follow the same principle but I’d think it takes a lot stronger wind to mess them up.

    • The principle is the same but the effect is different. A typical landing speed for an aircraft is 1.3 times stall speed. So in this case for an RV-7A, that’s about 63 knots. When you land in gusty conditions, you add one-half the gust speed to your airspeed. So for an additional 10 knot gust (note: ignore sustained wind speed), you’d land at 68 knots.

      The landing speed of an airliner is also 1.3 times stall speed, although the stall speed varies according to weight (it varies according to weight in a small plane, too, but the margin is fairly small). My airliner pal says the stall speed would be somewhere between 125-155. 1.3x that is 162-201.

      Because the speed is so much faster, the 1.3 gives you a pretty large cushion. If you’re in a 10 knot gust that disappears, your airspeed at 162 decays to 152. But that’s still 27 knots faster than stall speed.

      Compare that to an RV-7A. You’re traveling 63 when the gust disappears. Now you’re airspeed is 53, and you’re only 5 knots above stall speed,.