A federal agency’s preliminary investigation of the crash that claimed the life of 58-year-old Bill Walker during an air show at the Flagler County Airport in March suggests that Walker may have blacked out or had other health issues immediately before the crash.
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The report, by the National Transportation Safety Board, stresses that it is based on preliminary information subject to change. The report includes evidence from interviews with Walker’s fellow pilots, one of whom was performing aerobatics with him moments before the crash. Two others were flying, but not performing maneuvers. The aerobatics Walker was performing with another pilot were taking place inside an imaginary “box” set up for the show—an invisible zone 5,000 feet high, 5,000 feet long and 2,000 feet wide space south of the airport.
The report doesn’t refer to Walker by name, but as “the accident pilot.”
Walker’s fellow-pilot “reported that at the completion of one maneuver (heart) while crossing at the bottom of the maneuver,” the report states, “the accident pilot was to pull up to perform a loop, while he was to pull up and do a Half Cuban Eight maneuver. While at the top of the Half Cuban Eight maneuver, he had visual with the accident pilot and at that time all appeared normal. As he completed the half roll he saw the accident flight in a position that was not expected.
Half Cuban Eight Explained
“He broadcast the first name of the accident pilot on the air-to-air frequency they were using but there was no response. He then broadcast on the frequency to ‘knock it off’ and expected all to stop maneuvers and to re-group; again there was no response from the accident pilot. He then heard on the frequency ‘no, no, no,’ and he returned for landing. While on base to final he noted smoke from the crash site, and he landed uneventfully.”
The report does not specify who had spoken the three no’s at the end. From the report’s description, it is possible, but not conclusive, to draw various theories: Walker may have blacked out due to gravitational forces during the maneuver, when blood flow to the brain is briefly constricted. He may also have had other issues, such as a heart attack.
The report continues: “The pilot of another airplane who was flying at the same time as part of the aerial routine reported that after completion of the heart maneuver, the accident pilot and the right wing position pilot flew vertical with the accident pilot to perform a loop and the right wing position pilot to perform a Half Cuban Eight. The pilot further reported that he next saw the accident pilot’s airplane was upright in an approximately 45 degree down line angle flying down runway 24. The accident airplane continued on the same line of flight until impact. He initially reported he did not detect any deviation during the last 300 feet of the descent.”
Some of the report’s details, based on what witnesses saw on the ground, are almost identical to descriptions of the crash previously reported. “Witnesses on the ground who witnessed the accident reported seeing the airplane continue descending during one aerobatic maneuver,” the report states. “The witnesses did not perceive any change in pitch down attitude from the top of the maneuver until losing sight just before impact.”
The crash took place at 4:27 p.m. (the NTSB report places the time of the crash 10 minutes later), half an hour before the end of the first day of the second annual Wings Over Flagler fly-in, organized by Bill Mills. There were still between 100 and 200 people at the show when the accident occurred. Many saw it happen before their eyes, as they’d been watching the maneuvers.
The show resumed the next day, with tributes to Walker, who was from Cookeville, Tenn., and had logged some 4,000 flight hours in his career. Walker, father to a daughter, two sons and two stepsons, was a founding member of the Red Thunder Air Show Team, with whom he was performing in Flagler in march. He was also the owner of Walker Investment Company in Cookeville. Wings Over Flagler, which will return next year, established a scholarship in his name.
The NTSB is expected to file a more conclusive report in about six months.