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Pilotless Plane Crashes at California Airport

Feb. 01, 2019
3 min read
Pilotless Plane Crashes at California Airport
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Autonomous cars are one thing, but planes? We're a ways away from the days planes fly themselves — intentionally, anyway. So imagine the surprise of those at the Modesto Airport (MOD) in Northern California when a Beech V35B began moving with one small detail missing: the pilot.

But that's exactly what happened recently to the single-engine plane. Unable to get the plane to start, the owner had "walked away from the plane, the engine engaged and [the plane] started rolling down the runway," according to Fox News. The plane began moving "at speeds of around 40 miles per hour" then "clipped a parked car before crashing into a chain-link fence." On the other side of the fence was a busy road.

"If [the plane] was to get over that [grass] and get onto [the road], we would really have had a problem on our hands trying to stop that plane with nobody inside it," Modesto Police Department Sgt. Mark Phillips told KOVR-TV.

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Although the plane, a popular single-engine model commonly known as Beech Bonanza, sustained significant damage, fortunately no bystanders were injured, according to police, as the plane made its way unmanned down the runway.

So how exactly does this happen? We asked a commercial pilot to weigh in. Here's his take on what can be a very dangerous situation:

"[The pilot] was probably hand-propping it. If your battery is dead, then you can’t use the electric start motor. If you don’t have time or resources to remedy the dead battery, then you can hand prop it to achieve the same goal.
[He] had a hot magneto — the component that produces an electric charge that gets sent through a spark plug and ignites the compressed air/fuel mixture in the cylinder — and then walked away. Mags have to be hot for the plane to start. So if you're hand propping then you’d want the mags on, fuel on — everything the engine needs to run. [The hot magneto] could produce a spark if it’s turned over either by the electric starter motor or in this case a person [physically] turning the engine over by the prop.
Of course he could’ve charged or replaced the battery, but maybe he didn’t have the time or [didn't] feel like it. You’d expect someone to be holding the brakes or at least have the plane chocked or tied down or parking brake set before hand propping."

This story has been edited to show the crash happened at the airport, but not on the runway as originally stated.

Featured image by Alberto Riva