Plane Design Faulted In Denver Crash

By Don Phillips
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 27, 1999; Page C02

John Denver's fatal plane crash apparently resulted from faulty ergonomics.

The popular singer died on Oct. 12, 1997, when his small experimental plane plunged into the Pacific Ocean just off Pacific Grove, Calif. According to investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board, the crash was the culmination of a series of small mistakes. But the key factor seems to have been the decision by the plane's builder to place a fuel valve switch in a hard-to-get-at location behind the pilot.

Denver's final act apparently was to reach behind his left shoulder to switch the plane's engine from one fuel tank to another. The uncomfortable stretch caused his right foot to press against the right rudder, according to a final board report. The aircraft -- a single-engine Long-EZ -- pitched up, rolled to the right and slammed into the ocean.

George Petterson, the board's investigator-in-charge for the Denver crash, appeared in a board video showing what it would be like to turn the fuel switch in the cramped cockpit. His pretzel-like pose, coupled with the involuntary movement of his right foot, proved persuasive to the five-member board.

The plane had no flight data or voice recorder, so investigators had to piece together their account of the plane's final minutes.

Denver's aircraft was the only Long-EZ ever built with the fuel valve in that location. All 1,200 of the others -- based on a design by experimental guru Burt Rutan -- have the switch on the console directly between the pilot's legs.

Texan Adrian Davis, who built the plane from the Rutan plans, told investigators he put the switch behind the pilot because he did not want to have fuel lines running into the cockpit, especially down where they might rupture in a belly landing. In truth, investigators said, Rutan had accounted for that possibility by strengthening the fuselage below the fuel switch.

Some of the links in the accident chain were not Denver's fault. One was his stature: He had to have a cushion behind his back to allow him to reach the rudder pedals. This also meant he had to stretch farther to reach the fuel switch.

The plane also was new to Denver; he had just bought it from its second owner. And investigators believe he was unaware that he was so low on fuel.

"He must have exhausted the fuel in his left tank," said investigator Ron Price.

Witnesses reported the engine sputtered as he climbed away from one of his practice landings. Denver likely made his final stretch in an effort to switch to the right tank, which had fuel remaining.

Experimental and amateur-built aircraft like the Long-EZ are not subject to all the rules of the Federal Aviation Administration. The safety board recommended that the FAA, the Experimental Aircraft Association and insurers cooperate to "strongly encourage" pilots of new experimental planes to undergo formal training, which is not now required.

The board also recommended better markings: The plane that Denver flew did not even have a marking on the fuel selector switch to indicate in which position the engine was drawing from the left tank, which from the right tank, and which shut the fuel lines altogether.

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