Home for the holidays

December 1, 1996

This is a special time of year. Everyone is busy, focused on shopping, getting to social events, and traveling by air. It might be a cross-country visit or just a local pleasure flight. When the AOPA Air Safety Foundation received the NTSB's preliminary accident reports for December of last year, I was concerned by the increase in fatal accidents from 1994 to 1995, enough so to dedicate a column to reminding our pilots to be extra vigilant during this month of celebration.

My initial reaction was that the rise might be caused by travelers flying over the river (and hopefully not through the woods) to grandma's for a seasonal turkey visit. The pressure would be on — getting off from work late and trying to wring the most out of a holiday weekend. Takeoff might be after dark, not unusual at this time of year, since dusk is upon most of us by 5 p.m. The pilot would flog the old bird into the darkness, in hopes of making grandma's fireside by 9 o'clock. The weather might not be so good, with some snow showers; but they were widely scattered, the briefer said. The visibility could go down to a few miles or less in the snow, but good VFR was expected otherwise. The pilot might have agonized, but the family was all excited by the prospects of a visit and...well, we'll just take a look. There's a lot of urgency at this time of year. If it looks marginal, we'll land and get things sorted out.

It was a plausible scenario, right down to visions of sugarplums; but with one notable exception, which we'll get to momentarily, all catastrophes last year fell into the category of accidents as usual. And the categories fit the traditional themes that are frequently discussed in Air Safety Foundation literature and elsewhere.

There was one suicide and one alcohol-related mishap, which can be considered anomalies, since both causal factors are extremely rare. There was also a midair collision that is worth mentioning because it did not fit the normal scenario of being close to a nontowered airport. A Cessna 182 and a Piper Archer collided in cruise flight in visual flight conditions. The Archer carried a CFII and an instrument student on his fifth lesson. The Cessna pilot told friends at his home airport that he was going to verify the accuracy of his newly purchased handheld GPS. The aircraft collided head-on, with the left wings of each becoming entangled. Internal cockpit distractions for both pilots in command proved fatal.

A Piper Malibu struck trees and a power line while trying to land on a road after fuel exhaustion. Nothing unusual here — it happens roughly 100 times a year.

There were five accidents with unknown causes (at this time), ranging from collision with terrain on approach to several unexplained descents from cruise flight.

And now we start coming to the usual suspects that claim so many year after year, holiday season notwithstanding. A CFI, commercial pilot, and a passenger, all obviously suffering from insomnia, departed from Stillwater, Oklahoma, en route to Tulsa at 1:25 a.m. Twenty minutes later they struck high-tension lines at very low altitude while following the turnpike. There are hundreds of wire strikes each year, with the majority of them occurring lower than 100 feet agl. Roaming the countryside at that altitude during daylight is hazardous. Doing it at night is incomprehensibly so.

There were nine other maneuvering flight accidents involving a variety of activities. In hindsight, all the pilots involved would probably ask for a recount and avoid the following: a steep pullup by a homebuilt, in which the left wing departed the aircraft; a terrain following exercise that ended with a vertical dive into the ground; a wildlife spotting effort that resulted in a "moose stall"; and some repeat night aerobatics attempted in a Cessna 150 by a commercial pilot who was egged on by bystanders who had missed an earlier exhibition.

December weather is not the best in many parts of the country, and instrument conditions are quite common. Sadly, so were the accidents involving pilots on IFR flight plans, but many more who were not. As mentioned in ASF's safety review of weather accidents (" Safety Pilot: The Weather Accident Picture," July Pilot), continued VFR into instrument conditions claims many more pilots than it should. There were 580 recorded from 1982 to mid-1993, with about 30 percent of these occurring at night, which is far out of proportion to the amount of night flying done.

According to preliminary estimates, last December there were five night IMC accidents in which pilots were either not rated or had not taken the time to file an IFR flight plan. A Cessna 340 in mountainous terrain drilled into a 5,867-foot peak at 5,520 feet; result: Mountains — 1, Aircraft — 0. A Navion with a VFR pilot attempted a night landing where witnesses stated that the visibility was about one-quarter mile and the ceiling was below 300 feet in light rain and fog. The aircraft struck an 80-foot-tall stand of trees.

A Cessna 152 with a VFR private pilot declared "Mayday" when, upon returning from a day trip, he found the home field fogged in. He became lost, and after some confusion, the flight was identified on radar. The pilot was advised that he was below minimum obstruction clearance altitude and should climb immediately for vectors to a nearby airport in the clear, but the flight missed clearing the top of a 2,600-foot hill by 400 feet: Mountains — 2, Aircraft — 0. Perhaps you can see a pattern developing here.

Day IMC claimed six airplanes, with four on IFR flight plans. All the IFR mishaps occurred in the airport vicinity, and three were on approach or executing the missed approach. In several of these the weather was low, really low — as in below minimums — and the pilots either were trying for the runway or lost control on the missed approach. Again, this is not unique to the holiday season, so my theory about holiday pressures, up to this point, has been disproved.

However, last December 23 a Rockwell Commander 112 flew from Texas to New Mexico to attempt a landing at Carlsbad. The pilot filed an IFR flight plan and arrived in the area after dark, with marginal VMC. The weather was estimated at 1,700 feet overcast, with 7 miles visibility. After missing the approach, the pilot asked to go to Midland,Texas; when he was 10 miles from the Carlsbad VOR, however, he apparently changed his mind and asked for another approach into Carlsbad.

We'll never know if the passenger pressured the pilot or whether a view of Texas oil wells on Christmas Eve was too much of a break in the traditional holiday vision. In any case, something happened to override what had been sound thinking on the pilot's part. Could it have happened at any other time of the year? Certainly, but it was Christmas Eve. The flight was cleared to fly a 14-mile DME arc and maintain 7,000 feet. The pilot subsequently made two Mayday calls and then stated that he was "Totally disoriented." Result: Mountains — 3, Aircraft — 0. If there was any doubt before, perhaps you're convinced by now that trying to move mountains with aircraft is a losing proposition.

Being home for the holidays is something we all look forward to. Our airplanes help us to transport friends and business associates efficiently and pleasurably most of the time. But there will be occasions when you just can't get there from here, and then you've got to go with Plan B. Fly safely this season so that you can join us next year for more adventures. The AOPA Air Safety Foundation wishes you a wonderful holiday.

See also the index of "Safety Pilot" articles, organized by subject. Bruce Landsberg is executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.