On February 7, 2024, just over the Colorado State line in Grand County, UT, a Hawker 900XP, registered as N900VA, met a tragic fate when it crashed in a remote area, killing both pilots. Our hearts go out to the pilot’s families and friends. The aircraft had allegedly recently undergone maintenance at Grand Junction Colorado Airport.

The Incident Overview

The ADS-B data indicates that N900VA departed from Grand Junction Airport, CO (GJT), at 17:37 UTC. Approximately ten minutes later, the aircraft was recorded at a high rate of descent, nearly 13,000 feet per minute, roughly 30 miles west-northwest of GJT, marking the last known position before the crash. Early reports suggest the aircraft was on a test flight following maintenance.

As the aircraft climbed to its assigned altitude, the pilots requested a block altitude to do some checks. This is a common procedure when a pilot wishes to do performance and stall testing of an aircraft. The block gives the aircraft an area free of other traffic in which it can do the maneuvers.

Shortly after requesting the block of altitude, the aircraft slowed to 165 knots and entered a right-spiraling descent. This slowing of airspeed and rapid descent indicates a rapid loss of control of the aircraft by the flight crew. The cause of the loss of control could be attributed to failures in the post-maintenance equipment or unanticipated changes to the aircraft’s flight characteristics after maintenance, or simply a loss of control of the aircraft during the testing portion of the flight.

Historical Context and Industry Implications

This accident calls attention to the series of Hawker Jets that have a historical challenge with stall recovery and the general dangers of stall recovery of swept-wing aircraft. Instances of erratic behavior during stall maneuvers, including unexpected rolls and recovery difficulties, have been documented in various models over the years. These accidents underscore the inherent risks associated with stall tests, particularly when conducted at low altitudes or without comprehensive pre-flight planning and risk assessment.

One notable accident occurred on September 20, 2003, near Beaumont, Texas, involving a Hawker training flight that resulted in three fatalities. During this flight, an instructor-pilot was preparing two pilots for Part 135 flight checks. The cockpit voice recorder captured a conversation that revealed a potential underestimation of the aircraft’s stall behavior. At 5,000 feet, following steep turns and approaches to stalls, the instructor asked for a demonstration of an approach-to-landing stall. This incident tragically illustrates the dangers of performing intentional stalls at low altitudes without sufficient recovery margins, emphasizing the need for comprehensive stall recovery training and heightened awareness of aircraft capabilities and limitations.

Another significant example involves a wing-maintenance stall check on May 4th 2006. The NTSB report for this accident reflects the following: The pilot-in-command (PIC) reported that the flight was entering a stall series in accordance with the planned flight test procedures. The PIC was the pilot flying at the time of the incident. The PIC stated that “as the airplane slowed through [approximately] 126 knots [indicated airspeed], it abruptly rolled off / dropped the right wing and the nose fell rapidly.” He noted that, although the autopilot was on as required by the test procedure, he was holding the control wheel and felt “no vibration or abnormal indication” prior to the event. He reported that the airplane rolled 5 to 7 times, both to the right and the left.

The PIC reported that during the resulting uncontrolled descent, the airplane entered an underlying cloud layer at 12,000 feet msl. The airplane exited the cloud layer about 10,000 feet msl and was “descending vertically.” He stated: “I neutralized the ailerons with the yoke and began a higher than normal back pressure pull-out, experiencing [approximately] 4 – 5 Gs. The aircraft responded, and we stopped the descent somewhere below 7,000 [feet msl].”

Moving Forward: Legal and Regulatory Considerations

The recent Grand County, Utah accident serves as a somber reminder of the possible risks associated with aviation maintenance and test flights. The aviation industry’s reliance on post-maintenance stall tests, as evidenced by practices with Hawkers and other business jets like Learjets, necessitates reevaluating current safety protocols, training standards, and regulatory compliance to mitigate risks effectively.

The legal implications of the crash, including adherence to FAR 91.407 and the responsibilities of maintenance facilities, will undoubtedly be scrutinized as investigations proceed. FAR 91.407 requires that operational checks must be made in the aircraft before it can return to flying passengers. This is usually done with a test flight after completing major work.

However, the aircraft was on a flight plan to Tacoma, Washington, with the flight testing to be slotted in along the route. This dual purpose of the flight as a cross-country repositioning flight and post-maintenance test flight raises questions on decision-making and risk assessments done by the maintenance facility and operators.

Ensuring that aircraft returning from maintenance are tested under the safest possible conditions is paramount, as is the need for continuous improvement in both regulatory frameworks and industry practices.

Aviation Law Group (ALG) is a law firm with offices in Washington, Florida, and Hawaii that limits its law practice to only aviation accident cases. For over 30 years, the attorneys at Aviation Law Group have litigated complex aviation accidents such as this accident. ALG attorneys bring their substantial aviation experience to litigating complex aviation cases. For instance, ALG attorney Kerry Kovarik was a head mechanic at a general aviation jet center, and other ALG attorneys have flown small business jets and Bombardier regional jets similar to the Hawker that was involved in this accident. 

ALG attorney Casey DuBose is an attorney in Seattle, Washington and is licensed to practice law in Washington and in Federal Court.