Air-Minded: Propellers of the Stars

I am the Nancy Grace of celebrity plane wrecks.

When I saw the first photos of actor Harrison Ford’s crashed airplane on the golf course in Santa Monica, I immediately zeroed in on the propeller. Probably only someone trained as an aircraft accident investigator would do that. I am such a someone, and that is what I did.

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Left side, undamaged propeller blade (photo credit: unknown)

 

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Right side, snapped propeller blade (photo credit: unknown)

Propellers can give you essential clues right off the bat: was the prop producing thrust at impact, merely spinning in the wind, or stopped altogether? The prop, in turn, tells you what the engine was doing.

Metal prop blades are an easy tell: they bend. If the engine and prop are running and producing thrust at impact, the blades bend forward. If the engine and prop are merely windmilling, producing no thrust, the blades bend back.

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Forward bend, power on (photo credit: unknown)

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Backward bend, power off (photo: myalaska.net)


Wooden and carbon fiber prop blades snap or shatter, so they’re not reliable indicators of whether the engine and prop was running and producing thrust at impact. But if all the blades are snapped, you at least know the prop was spinning at impact; if one blade is snapped off and the other blade or blades are okay, the prop wasn’t moving at impact.

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Messerschmitt with wooden prop (photo: Ekstrabladet)

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Carbon fiber prop (photo credit: unknown)


In the photos of Ford’s vintage Ryan PT-22 trainer at the top of this post, you can see it has a wooden propeller, so there’s no bending. One propeller blade, the one in the top photo, is whole and undamaged. In the second photo, taken from the other side of the airplane, you can see the snapped blade. From this I believe the prop wasn’t spinning at impact — the down blade snapped on impact; the up blade never hit the ground.

If the prop wasn’t spinning, the engine was stopped or seized, and that’s consistent with initial reports that Ford experienced an engine failure shortly after takeoff. By all accounts, he performed a textbook engine-off glide and landing; it’s too bad he didn’t have enough altitude to glide all the way back to the runway.

Astute observers might look at the photo of the crashed WWII Messerschmitt fighter in the farmer’s field and wonder why, if Ford flew such a good engine-off glide and landing, his airplane is so horribly damaged when the Messerschmitt isn’t. Here’s why:

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Ford’s PT-22 in September 2013 (photo: London Ent/Splash News)

Belly landings are best done on a smooth, flat belly. The Messerschmitt’s retractable landing gear were up and locked when its pilot was forced to land in that field. Ford’s Ryan PT-22 has fixed landing gear: the wheels and struts most likely dug into the soft ground of the golf course on landing, flipping the airplane onto its nose before it came to rest as we see it in the photos. Frankly, I’m surprised there wasn’t more damage.

The Nancy Grace of celebrity plane wrecks is happy Mr. Ford knew what he was doing and wasn’t seriously hurt. She’s heartbroken there’s one less vintage Ryan PT-22 in the world, but hopes that perhaps, if the structural damage isn’t too severe, the loss will be a temporary one.

© 2015, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

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2 thoughts on “Air-Minded: Propellers of the Stars

  • Fabulous post! Absolutely fascinating. But let’s not refer to you as Nancy Grace who is shrill, sententious, self-righteous, and just generally obnoxious. Maybe the Sam Spade of aircraft crashes, or maybe the CSI of aircraft crashes, heavy on the detail.

    Anyhow, thanks for the explanation.
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  • I cross-posted this one to Daily Kos, where it’s getting lots of traffic and comments. As do many of these air-minded posts. Only a few regular readers post comments here at the mothership blog, and I treasure each one. Especially yours! Sam Spade … hmmm.

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