Hardwick Township, NJ 2021 BLUR TIMESTAM

It's been happening for decades. Small planes falling out of the sky and crashing after the engine just shuts down mid-flight. Critics of federal regulators contend it is because of a design flaw in thousands of planes. It all centers around fuel tanks on some of the most popular planes in the sky. 

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WSB-TV investigative reporter Justin Gray dug through decades of NTSB reports and found 307 Cessna accidents where water was found in the fuel. 37 were fatal crashes.
 
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“When I read the report that said that I didn't do my procedure, I was like what are they talking about?” Leon said.

"That's the runway right there where I crashed," Luis Leon said.  He points 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. It was his first trip back to the Kissimmee, Florida airport since the crash.

He has not flown since. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in its official findings determined Leon was at fault for not properly checking for water in his fuel tanks. 

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Luis Leon's Forced Landing
(FAA Photo)

 

Gray spoke with an an Arkansas pilot. He says nine seconds after taking off, his engine quit. He was able to walk away after gliding to a cotton field, the plane tipping 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 writing “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.
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2018 Forced Landing England, AR
(FAA Photo)

 

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Flushing, MI 2015 (150)

Flushing, MI

Lincoln Park, NJ 2011 (182P)
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And there are others: Jasper, Georgia, South Carolina, Washington State, New Jersey, Maine, Texas. The list goes on and on. All 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 say, like Luis Leon they are certain they did their preflight check. 
 

Lincoln Park, NJ

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Tamarac, FL 2017 (152)
Tamarac, FL 2017 (152) (Courtesy FAA)
Hardwick Township, NJ 2021 (150L) (photo courtesy of FAA)
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Tamarac, FL

Hardwick Township, NJ

Campobello, SC

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

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Bob Scovill and his 1981 Cessna 172P

"It’s taking lives. Pilots' lives, their passengers," Scovill said.

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 despite refusing to fly it for the last 20 years. That's because Scovill believes he knows what is causing these crashes. 

"It’s taking lives. Pilots' lives, their passengers," Scovill said.  Scovill says he is confident it's not pilot error. 

“Why won't you fly that plane?” Justin 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.  

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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. 

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

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FAA
Memorandum

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Scovill got the attention of the FAA who witnessed several experiments. Photos from one of those tests show thirty-two ounces of water - dyed red - poured into the tanks to see what it does. An FAA memo says how, after sumping, even shaking the wings "thirteen ounces of water remained entrapped" inside the tank. Then FAA supervisor Larry Williams who is now retired was alarmed. 
"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.   
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Excerpt from FAA letter to Cessna March 13, 2000

Soon after, the FAA sent a letter to Cessna, determining "an unsafe condition exists" and "design changes are necessary”.
March 13, 2000 FAA Small Airplane Directorate Letter to Cessna Aircraft Company
The paper trail essentially ends there in 2001. But 6 years later in 2007, the FAA sent Cessna another letter reversing its findings and giving the planes a clean bill of health after Cessna performed their own tests. 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 quote "incorrect".
And with that letter, the FAA closed the case with no design changes mandated.
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Excerpt from FAA letter to Cessna July 24, 2007

But planes continued to crash. Like the Cessna 172 that crashed in a Florida parking lot in 2017. Again, the pilot saying he “sumped several times”. Larry Williams says even a small amount of water in the engine is dangerous.

"Two or three ounces would
probably shut an engine down."

 

Larry Williams, Retired FAA Supervisor

And Bob Scovill showed Gray, using water dyed red, how it stays in the wing fuel tanks of his plane. After a few sumps, the fuel is clear of water in the test. But inside the tank, the red-dyed water is collecting and hiding.  Scovill says he replicated the experiment on three other Cessna's.
"Gravity doesn't actually force water all the time," Luis 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.”












 
The bulletin
states 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 I think,” Leon said. And so, while Bob 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.

Statement from Cessna

Sarah White
Senior Manager, Communications & Media Relations
Textron Aviation

"Mr. Scoville’s claims regarding the issues of detection and elimination of water from Cessna aircraft fuel systems, and the FAA concerns prompted by those claims, were carefully investigated and tested by Cessna, with direct FAA participation and oversight. No safety concerns were found to exist and the matter was closed. We don’t have any additional information to provide."

More Pilots Come Forward

The video posted to YouTube shows security camera footage that captured a force-landing in Jasper, Georgia in 2012. The pilot, David Mathews, reached out to Gray after seeing Gray's initial small plane crash investigation. Mathews suffered serious injuries after his Cessna 150's engine quit midflight.

"And I remember coming to and covered in blood, I mean, just covered in blood," Mathews said. 
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David Mathews wasn't just on a routine flight that day.  He had just purchased the plane and was conducting its biennial review and spent more than an hour performing a pre-flight inspection. A post-crash investigation by the NTSB found "water-contaminated fuel." And like so many pilots Gray spoke with, the NTSB blamed him saying his preflight inspection was inadequate. But Mathews says he checked for water twice.

“The plane I knew had been sitting outside for the past couple of months. So, water in the fuel line was a very front of mind concern to us. We were surprised that there wasn't any water,” Mathews said. 
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David Mathews' NTSB Report

“What I can tell you with absolute certainty is that there was no water that was detectable from the ways that we were supposed to verify whether there was water there.” 

-David Mathews

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“No pilot will fly in his right mind knowing he's got water in the fuel.”  
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Pilot Joe Mazzone

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Pilot Joe Mazzone reached out to Gray about his 1991 crash in a Carrollton, Georgia field. He says seeing Gray's original story gave him a new perspective thirty years after he nearly died when his engine quit. Listed as the probable cause: "undetectable water."  
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"It's easy to blame the pilots, especially a civilian pilot, you know, you can't defend yourself," Joe Mazzone said. 
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Among the pilots Gray spoke with, Joe Mazzone was unique. He doesn't just fly small planes, he spent 23 years as a Delta pilot flying commercial jets. 
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“I hadn't considered that possibility that maybe the tanks are designed possibly, where water can be trapped in it. And lead to these incidents," Mazzone said.  
Mazzone was one of a very small number of pilots Gray found who was not blamed by the NTSB. That could have cost him his job. He says although pilots like Mathews may heal from their injuries, that determination can have a lasting impact. 
“I'm sure they carry guilt, because they've been blamed. It's like tarnishing your family name in a way," Mazzone said.
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Gray repeatedly asked for an on-camera interview with the FAA. They told him they are unable to accommodate an interview.