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Report on Southerland Freebird Fatal First Flight

On December 2, 2010, Larry Southerland was cleared by the Decatur Airport control tower in Illinois for a high-speed taxi test of his newly completed amateur-built Freebird Litesport Ultra registered as N415US. According to the just released NTSB factual report, what followed was apparently an inadvertent takeoff in an airplane that couldn’t be controlled in pitch, leading to an in-flight breakup consistent with structural overload. The right wing separated from the fuselage and was located 285 feet from the main wreckage, and the pilot was found about 63 feet from the wreckage.

The Freebird is a conventional strut-braced high-wing pusher aircraft with tricycle landing gear constructed of bolted-together aluminum tubing and covered with aircraft fabric. Single- and two-seat versions have been in production since 1992. Over 257 Freebird Ultras are said to have been completed and flown worldwide. Around 20 N-numbered Freebirds can be found in the U.S. registry with an additional unknown number of single-seat versions being flown in the United States as ultralights. Learn more about the design and see pictures at the website for Free Bird Innovations at Detroit Lakes, Minnesota.

The pilot had serious problems from the start of the flight. He told the air traffic controller he had no control and couldn’t seem to get the nose down. He was given clearance to land on any available runway but was said to have replied he didn’t think he was going to make it back. The airplane was observed by airport rescue and firefighting personnel as coming “tail-end down” and then “nose down.” At the coroner’s inquest, Macon County sheriff’s Lieutenant Jim Root said witnesses saw Southerland’s plane flying erratically before it went down, at one point going into a spin and losing one of its wings. The pilot fell out of the craft about 100 feet above the ground and impacted before his plane did. The NTSB confirmed the damage was consistent with structural overload and reported that no other anomalies were found.
The aircraft had been recently constructed by the pilot who was reported to be a meticulous craftsman and a talented wood worker by profession. An FAA-designated airworthiness representative inspected the airplane and issued its special airworthiness certificate on October 15, 2010. The pilot passed his airman’s practical flight test in a Flightstar IISC and was issued a sport pilot certificate on November 1, 2010. He reported on the pilot certificate application that he had accumulated a total flight time of 60.7 hours of which 15.2 hours were pilot-in-command flight time.

The NTSB factual report for this accident (ID number CEN11LA090) took nine months to be issued and still doesn’t find a specific cause for the accident. The inspection for its airworthiness certificate could have missed an error in the weight and balance calculations, and there’s the possibility of a construction error or change in the design that caused the problem. Airworthiness documents indicated the airplane was powered by a three-cylinder Chevy Geo Metro G10 instead of the Rotax 447 or Rotax 503 typically used on this model.

Regardless of the cause for this accident it reminds all pilots to take extra care and avoid unplanned takeoffs when conducting high-speed taxi tests and to be ready to abort the flight before leaving ground effect if needed. Building and flying the Freebird was the culmination of a dream for the pilot who was estimated to have spent about $30,000 on the project. If the nose was high on takeoff, pulling off the power to abort the flight would have likely damaged the airplane; a pilot in that situation has barely a second or two to make the decision.

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