Pilots say one problem is causing hundreds of small planes to crash and the FAA won’t fix it

ATLANTA — It’s been happening for decades — small planes falling out of the sky and crashing after the engine suddenly shuts down mid-flight.

Critics of federal regulators contend it is because of a design flaw in thousands of planes.

Channel 2 investigative reporter Justin Gray discovered it all centers around fuel tanks on some of the most popular planes in the sky.

“That’s the runway right there where I crashed,” Luis Leon said, pointing to an area near the airport runway where his Cessna 172 went down in 2015.

Leon says the engine simply stopped in midair.

“Next thing I remember I was awake, not fully conscious, at a hospital nearby,” Leon said.

The National Transportation Safety Board in its official findings determined Leon was at fault for not properly checking for water in his fuel tanks.

“When I read the report that said that I didn’t do my procedure, I was like, ‘What are they talking about?’” Leon said.

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Gray dug through decades of NTSB reports and found 160 Cessna accidents where water was found in the fuel. Eight were fatal crashes.

Gray spoke with an Arkansas pilot who said 9 seconds after taking off, his engine quit. He was able to walk away after gliding to a cotton field. The plane tipped over.

The pilot said he checked for water. But in the NTSB report he was blamed for “failure to detect water in the fuel system during the preflight inspection.”

The confused pilot wrote, “I don’t know how we could have been any safer than we were. The plane was ready to fly by all indications.”

According to investigators “substantial water” was found in his engine.

There have been other cases in Georgia, South Carolina, Washington, New Jersey, Maine, Texas. The list goes on and on. All involved loss of engine power from water in the fuel.

Gray spoke to several other pilots by phone, but none wanted to talk on camera. That may be because in virtually all of the accidents, the NTSB puts the blame squarely on the pilot for failing to detect water in their fuel.

All of the pilots Gray spoke with, like Luis Leon, say they are certain they did their preflight check.

“There’s got to be a reason for it. It cannot just be pilot error,” Leon said.

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At a Tennessee airport, Bob Scovill pushes open a hangar door to reveal what was once his pride and joy: a 1981 Cessna 172P airplane.

For nearly 40 years, Scovill has kept the hangar and maintained his plane even though he refuses to fly it. That’s because Scovill believes he knows what is causing these crashes.

“It’s taking lives. Pilots’ lives, their passengers,” Scovill said.

Scovill said he is confident it’s not pilot error.

“Why won’t you fly that plane?” Gray asked Scovill.

“The fuel tanks are severely flawed. The NTSB would prefer to use pilot error than where the problem really lies,” Scovill said.

Scovill points to one of the many routine safety checks pilots do before flying.

It’s called “sumping the fuel.” That’s how small plane pilots check for water.

Using a cup, pilots take samples of the fuel from various points in the fuel system, primarily along the wings, where the fuel tanks are.

Water is heavier than aviation fuel, so it stays separated and is easy to spot.

If they see a layer of water, pilots are instructed to take another sample until only fuel flows from the drain.

Once the sample is clean, pilots are good to go.

But Scovill says his years of research shows that’s not the case. He says water can hide inside the wing fuel tanks.

“And depending on what maneuvers you make, the water ends up going to the engine pickup. The engine sputters, ceases operation and gravity takes over,” Scovill said.

Scovill has experienced it firsthand three separate times.

“The engine just quit on me, and I glided to an airport. And that’s the last time I ever flew it,” Scovill said.

Scovill got the attention of the FAA who witnessed several experiments. Photos from one of those tests show 32 ounces of water — dyed red — poured into the tanks to see what it does.

An FAA memo says that, after sumping and even shaking the wings, “13 ounces of water remained entrapped” inside the tank.

Retired FAA supervisor Larry Williams said he was alarmed.

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“When you look at this with your years of training your years of experience, do you think this is a problem on more planes than Bob’s?” Gray asked.

“It appears that way. There’s too many unexplained engine stops and engine failures,” Williams said.

Soon after, the FAA sent a letter to Cessna, determining “an unsafe condition exists” and “design changes are necessary.”

The paper trail essentially ends there in 2001. But six years later in 2007, the FAA sent Cessna another letter reversing its findings and giving the planes a clean bill of health.

The FAA writing there was “no reaction” of the test flights engine to deliberate water contamination and based on those tests their original concerns and warnings were “incorrect.”

With that letter, the FAA closed the case with no design changes mandated. But planes continued to crash. Like the Cessna 172 that crashed in a Florida parking lot in 2017. Again, the pilot said he “sumped several times”.

Williams said even a small amount of water in the engine is dangerous.

“Two or three ounces would probably shut an engine down,” Williams said.

Scovill said he replicated the experiment on three other Cessna’s.

“Gravity doesn’t actually force water all the time,” Leon said.

“Water just lays in the bottom of the tank,” Scovill said.

In a series of airworthiness information bulletins in 2010 and 2011, the FAA essentially agreed with that concern, telling pilots first of Cessna, then of all small planes of what it termed “hazards associated with water contamination of fuel tank systems.”

It said pilots “should assume some water exists in the fuel tank system on the airplane.”

But the FAA maintains “that this airworthiness concern is not an unsafe condition.”

The bulletin goes on to suggest sumping multiple locations in your fuel tank to be safe. That’s something pilots who have survived an engine failure say isn’t enough.

“So many other people being into accidents, fatalities, wouldn’t happen. Something needs to be done,” Leon said.

And so, while Scovill keeps what was his pride and joy locked up on the ground, he continues to push for action from federal regulators.

“I’ve been flying since 1966. I loved aviation. But I’m never going to be done as long as I’m breathing, to try to give my fellow aviators a heads up that they have a potential life-taking flaw in their aircraft,” Scovill said.

A Cessna spokesperson told Gray that Scovill’s theory was “carefully investigated and tested by Cessna, with direct FAA participation and oversight.”

They say “no safety concerns were found to exist, and the matter was closed” by the FAA.

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