Safety Pilot: Reflections from the ‘Leading Edge’

A backward look and predictions confirmed

December 23, 2013

bruce landsbergThis month’s column had its genesis in my blog, “Leading Edge,” a little more than two years ago. It was a tough Thanksgiving weekend that saw many fatal accidents. I ignored the usual caveat that we ought not to be speculating too publicly, too soon, but the preliminary investigations did not bode well for pilot decision-making. Here’s how it played out.

From the blog: Medical flight with five people on board crashes in Illinois. There were three fatalities. The flight from Georgia to Illinois had only a few miles to go to its destination. Strong northwest winds apparently slowed the groundspeed of the Piper Navajo. The pilot told air traffic control moments before the accident, “We are out of fuel and we are coasting.” The NTSB noted there was no fuel in the tanks or on the ground. Fuel exhaustion?

Probable cause: “The pilot’s inadequate preflight planning and in-flight decision-making, which resulted in a loss of engine power due to fuel exhaustion during approach,” according to the NTSB.

The blog: Turbo Commander 690 on a beautiful VFR night slams into a mountain with six fatalities. There is speculation about configuration of Phoenix Class B airspace and the pilot’s attempting to stay below it to avoid ATC. Controlled flight into mountainous terrain at night while VFR?

Probable cause: The NTSB notes, “Mountainous terrain rises to 4,500 feet less than 1 nm east of the 5,000-foot Class B airspace, and the terrain rises to a maximum elevation of 5,057 feet about three and one-half miles east.” The regulations require that turbine aircraft, such as the Commander with six or more passenger seats, must be equipped with terrain avoidance warning equipment. Such was not the case.

The blog: A VFR pilot (according to the flying club manager) is returning his daughter in a Cirrus SR20 to college along with another daughter and a friend. Four fatalities. VFR into IMC? No IFR flight plan has been located at this writing.

Probable cause: “The noninstrument-rated pilot’s decision to continue flight in instrument meteorological conditions, which resulted in the pilot’s spatial disorientation and loss of control of the airplane.”

The blog: Both the AOPA Foundation and the industry have been in an ongoing discussion with the FAA and NTSB on how to address GA mishaps like these. Were these systemic failures or individual failures? Is it possible that any of the pilots did not know the risks involved? Have we in the industry not done a good enough job of explaining the risks? Fuel is needed for engines and the rules require a reserve. VFR at night runs the risk of not seeing mountains; there is no rule for avoiding mountains per se, but you won’t be happy with the results.

Flying in the clouds is extremely hazardous unless you’ve been trained to do it—there are minimums for VFR flight. Is it possible that despite all the warnings, people become complacent—or ignore them, certain that they can somehow succeed?

Some think more regulation is the answer. In two cases a violation of Part 91 seems highly likely. In the Phoenix accident, should we make it against the rules to challenge a mountain? Friends within the FAA and NTSB have privately acknowledged that “We can’t fix stupid,” but by the nature of their positions they must continue to try. Learning from past mistakes really is the best way not to become a statistic. Teaching decision-making to all pilots seems like an easy nonanswer because the absorption capacity and risk tolerance varies so greatly.

Is technology the answer? Fuel flow transducers are capable of predicting to the cup when the engines will go silent. Synthetic vision and TAWS predict impact in time to avoid it, and autopilots are capable of keeping aircraft under control when the pilot can’t.

Can we change human nature? Can we make the aircraft foolproof? Does everyone need the same level of oversight—and at what cost to personal freedom? While political correctness may dictate one answer, does reality provide another? The poll on my blog at the time noted 14 percent thought teaching judgment to all pilots will solve this, 70 percent thought we should continue to push ongoing education and accept that there will be losses, and 10 percent thought we should stage interventions when someone is about to go over the edge. What do you think?