Eclipse Overrun at Leadville, Part 1

Credit: NTSB

After an EA500 Eclipse jet overran the end of the runway at Colorado’s Leadville Airport (KLXV) in 2020, the pilot-owner emerged unhurt. He was able to step out of the airplane and walk away even though the airplane was badly damaged and firmly lodged against a stout pine tree.

The pilot later gave a lengthy statement to the NTSB about what happened. In it he said he was mystified that the airplane seemed to behave so differently during the accident landing than it had when he landed at the same airport two days earlier. He was surprised at the airplane’s lack of stopping performance on the night of the accident.

Leadville is the highest elevation airport in the U.S. at 9,934 ft. ASL. Airplanes taking off and landing there will always experience higher true airspeeds than at lower elevation airports.

A major factor in the accident was the airplane’s speed during landing, which was excessive. But there was another factor in play, one revealed by the pilot’s remarks.

On the afternoon of Dec. 13, 2020, the pilot took off from Leadville, headed for Montgomery-Gibbs Executive Airport (KMYF) in San Diego. The pilot’s son was onboard, and after an uneventful flight, the airplane landed in San Diego and the son got off.

At 1754 MST, the Eclipse jet was again airborne, headed back to Leadville with just the pilot aboard. The pilot climbed to 41,000 ft. and cruised there until commencing a descent into Leadville at 1931. The sun had set, and the pilot decided to fly past the airport and align himself to fly the RNAV (GPS) RWY 16 approach into the airport.

As he commenced his inbound turn, his groundspeed was about 280 kt. He gradually slowed as he continued his descent, reducing to a groundspeed of 118 kt. at 12,300 ft.

The visibility was good, and he saw the airport from several miles out. He ran his before-landing checklist and verified that the anti-skid brake system (ABS) was armed, the landing gear was down and the flaps were set to 30. His planned approach speed was 100 kt. (Vref plus 10).

When the pilot announced his arrival on UNICOM, the operator reminded him that the runway was contaminated. However, there had been no change to runway conditions since the pilot had departed earlier in the day, and he was familiar with them, which consisted of some relatively minor patches of packed snow.

Late in the approach, the pilot sensed he was high, and he attempted to slip the airplane to increase his descent rate. In the last minute before touchdown, his groundspeed and descent rate increased. Shortly before landing, at about 316 ft. above the runway, ADS-B data shows his ground speed was 139 kt. and his descent rate was 1,786 fpm.

If the winds were light and the true airspeed was 139 kt., under the existing conditions the airplane’s indicated airspeed was 121 kt., which is 31 kt. above Vref for its landing weight of 5,200 lb.

An airport employee noticed that the airplane was higher and faster than normal and assumed the flight would go around. However, the pilot decided to, in his words, “fly it on” the runway in order to avoid floating. After a firm touchdown, he applied brakes, but the airplane did not decelerate normally.

The pilot did not sense any pulsing or modulating feedback in the brake pedals, even though he was applying maximum brake pressure. The airplane continued down the 6,400-ft. runway, off the end and down a steep embankment.

According to a statement by the airport operations employee, the airplane broke several runway end identifier lights (REILs), went through a wildlife fence, and rolled another 75 ft. before striking the large evergreen tree. The airplane left its nosewheel in the vicinity of the fence and its right wing was broken off by the tree.

The airport employee made his way down to the airplane and escorted the pilot back up to the airfield, where emergency medical services (EMS) staff evaluated and released him.

The Investigation

The NTSB conducted a limited investigation. Under its current investigative scheme, the accident was placed in investigation class 4, the next-to-lowest class. These cases are “of the shortest duration” and the Safety Board attempts to issue a final report within six months. The investigations are generally done remotely and only actions and conditions directly related to the accident are examined.

The NTSB investigator did not travel to the scene of the accident and the only other party assisting was an FAA inspector. The final report was published about nine months after the accident and the supporting docket materials were not released until six months later.

Factual material gathered by the investigator included the NTSB Form 6120 completed by the pilot, the pilot’s statement, a report done by Leadville Airport, and a video of the airplane’s arrival provided by an unnamed person. An excerpt from the airplane’s diagnostic storage unit (DSU) was obtained, but it included only a listing of fault events recorded during the flight in consecutive order.

Flight parameters normally recorded by the DSU were not included in the report, nor was ADS-B flight track information.

Photos provided by the KLXV airport staff showed the runway was basically clear, with only a few small areas of patchy snow. The staff report documented skid marks from the accident airplane on the runway and the airplane’s path beyond the runway. Although the skid marks were minimal and located near the runway end, they show that at that point the brakes were operating.

On his report to the NTSB, the pilot noted that the right wing was substantially damaged, the left main strut was pushed up into the left wing, and the airframe was damaged.

The airplane was moved to a storage facility in Greeley, Colorado. A salvage report produced three months after the accident reported that the airplane had 1,844.1 hr. of flight time and 1,160 cycles since new and the airplane was on Eclipse’s continuous aircraft maintenance program (CAMP).

The salvage report further said the radome was shattered, the forward pressure bulkhead was bent, belly skins were abraded and AHRS sensors were damaged. There was a dent in the left-wing leading edge, the left flap was deformed, and the left fuel tank was dented and abraded.

Additionally, the Eclipse’s right wing was torn in half at mid-wing, the right flap and aileron were twisted and dented, the right main gear was torn from its attach points, and the right fuel tank was breached. The right engine had FOD damage, and its inlet and nacelle were damaged. The right engine pylon fairing was torn, and lower skins on the tail and the right horizontal stabilizer were dented.

The pilot, who was 63 years of age, reported having an ATP certificate and a Class 3 medical certificate, with a requirement to wear corrective lenses. His most recent medical was done only six weeks before the accident, and his last flight review was completed only 11 days before the accident. He reported 5,300 hr. total flight time, including only 31 logged in the Eclipse. All of that Eclipse time had been logged in the previous 30 days. He reported type ratings in the EA500S and in the Boeing 757/767.

Details of the pilot’s training in the Eclipse were not given in the report. The Leadville Airport report stated that the airplane was “newly based” at the airport.

Runway 16 at KLXV is 6,400 ft. long and 75 ft. wide, asphalt, in good condition. It has non-precision markings and medium-intensity edge lights, and there is a two-light PAPI on the left side with a 3-deg. glidepath. Aircraft operations at KLXV average only 96 per week, and there are only five aircraft based there.

Leadville is situated in a broad valley defined on both the east and west by some of the highest peaks in North America. The RNAV (GPS) RWY 16 approach flown by the pilot bisects terrain rising as high as 14,007 ft. on the right and 14,286 ft. on the left. The approach provides circling, LNAV, LNAV/VNAV and LPV minima. For a properly equipped airplane, vertical guidance is available and can be used down to as low as a 250-ft. decision altitude (DA).

The pilot did not say whether he was using the available vertical guidance during his approach.

The NTSB did not obtain full meteorological information for the Leadville area at the time of the accident. The pilot reported that conditions were good, with scattered clouds, good visibility, light and variable winds, and some occasional light turbulence.

The pilot said in his statement to the Safety Board that “I believe something in the braking system and its associated components was a causal factor,” and that the ABS was “the culprit.” He based this idea on the fact that the airplane behaved differently on the night of the accident than it had two nights previously. The pulsing feedback he had felt through the brake pedals on the same runway two nights before was not present on the night of the accident.

The NTSB examined the fault codes from the airplane’s DSU and found no malfunctions or failures. The Board cited a witness’s observation that the airplane floated or stayed in ground effect until it was beyond the midpoint of the runway, and it also cited an airport surveillance video that showed the airplane’s long touchdown.

In Part 2, we’ll discuss the NTSB’s determination of the probable cause of this accident.

Roger Cox

A former military, corporate and airline pilot, Roger Cox was also a senior investigator at the NTSB. He writes about aviation safety issues.