Accident — Inflight Airflame Failure

July 1982

The thought of an airplane coming apart in the air brings chills to most aviators and certainly to aircraft designers. Despite many horror stories related to severe weather, drastic over speed In dives, and even airframe flutter (unbalanced elevators), we had yet to hear of an in-flight failure of a Rutan design - until June 21st when the caller described a winglet ripping off a VariEze at 200 + mph during an airport buzz job. Within two hours Mike Melvill and Dick Rutan were airborne in the Defiant for a non-stop flight to Dallas, Texas to investigate. What they found, though, did not lead to grounding or flight restrictions of other VariEzes. The cause was tantamount to leaving the wing attach bolts off your Cessna and expecting the fairing strip to hold the wing on. Their report follows:

An aerobatic pilot witness standing nearby described what happened when the winglet came off. The aircraft yawed, rolled, and pitched up 90 degrees. The calculated 13-g loads did not fail the wings but twisted the fuselage enough to shed most of the Plexiglas from the canopy frame. The aircraft impacted inverted on the prop and top cowling, then it slammed down, shearing the pilots rollover structure, the top of the instrument panel and impacted the canard/fuselage fairing.

It then bounced back into the air, rolled left to upright, and struck the ground upright, failing the main gear (pulled brackets and major glass structure from the fuselage). The aircraft came to rest 90 feet from the initial impact point at a heading of 110 degrees right of flight path. The nose gear was retracted. The right winglet was located about 1900 feet short of the wreckage. Parts of the Plexiglas canopy were found 1000 feet short. With the exception of the right winglet and rudder assembly, and parts of the Plexiglas canopy, the wreckage was essentially complete and in one spot . Although it had sustained major damage, the airplane was located in a small area, not over 20’ x 30.

The right winglet failed inward during the high-speed low pass. Sample sections were cut out of the winglet - root/wingtip. Skin coupons were burned out and the number of plies was counted. The type of glass and fiber orientation was determined.

Figure 1 shows the VariEze design structure and the structure found on the wreckage of N11CH. The major tension lay-up (#8) that was omitted was, without question, the primary weakness, which allowed the winglet to fold inward and fail at high speed. The winglets lift inward and, at high speed (with zero sideslip) have an inward bending moment that is equal to that attained in a 15-degree sideslip at the maneuvering speed. Note that with lay-up #8 omitted and with lay-up # 9 not extending to the lower skin, the only structure opposing the bending was the foam core acting through rib #6 to the bottom skin. It is conservatively estimated that the structural strength of the winglet-to-wing joint of N11CH was less than 1/20 of what It should have been. It is very surprising that it did not fail sooner.

The incredible thing that was not answered was how the builder could have omitted the primary structure and why it had not been noticed. Even after the final paint job, it was obvious that the #6 rib could be seen on the surface. This aircraft throughout showed evidence of poor workmanship.

Poor workmanship In itself had not precipitated structural failure with these construction materials. Prior to this accident the VariEze type had amassed approximately 150,000 hours flying without in-flight airframe failure, even though many of the aircraft have relatively poor workmanship. The omission of important primary structure was clearly the cause of the structural failure.

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