March 25, 2014
By Dan Namowitz
Minutes after takeoff into instrument meteorological conditions, a twin-engine Piper Seneca declared an emergency but crashed while attempting to return to the airport in Branson, Mo. The pilot had been unable to establish communications with air traffic control; an aircraft on the ground had tried to relay the Seneca’s weak transmissions. Witnesses saw the twin flying under control, but very low. The pilot never specified the nature of the emergency before the Seneca struck a transmission wire and a building, with four fatalities resulting.
Any pilot departing into IMC is braced for a high workload. With the transition to instrument flying imminent and departure procedures and navigation demanding attention, multi-tasking is at peak. Now a shuddering engine, flickering warning light, or radio failure requires quick and sure action—presumably based on a readied plan of action.
Published reports reveal many reasons why pilots elect to return to the airport, in IMC and VMC: Landing gear fails to retract, or a gear door won’t close. Pressurization systems fail; de-icing system glitches are common. Radios and gyros quit. Circuit breakers pop. Engine gauges head for the red.
If the decision to take off was made knowing that no return to the departure airport was possible, what’s the backup plan?
That scenario was raised as part of the March 18 IFR Fix: "Messing with power," prompting one pilot to observe in a comment that, "Departing an airport that you cannot reasonably and safely return to due to weather or surface conditions, especially in a single engine aircraft, is always a calculated risk. I think I've done it perhaps 3 or 4 times in my 30+ years of flying."
Another pilot shared an emergency strategy based on the idea that even if a return to the home airport (Fitchburg Municipal in Massachusetts) were possible, it would be "quicker and easier" to head to Boire Field in Nashua, N.H., or Hanscom Field in Bedford, Mass., for an ILS approach.
"I always have the appropriate KBED ILS plate handy and briefed," the pilot wrote.
Good piloting practice is to make en route charts and approach plates readily available, in the order needed, for your flight. But the departure airport’s instrument procedures don’t always find their way into that neat little pile.
An unexpected practice return to the airport on your next proficiency fight would likely change that.
What’s your plan? Have you given it a run-through lately?
Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor.
Pilot Training and Certification,
Safety and Education
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