Familiarity and contempt

Creeping complacency kills the captain (ERA13FA055)

David Jack Kenny

In piloting as in most skilled pursuits, experience is generally considered a good thing.  The insurance companies, who have the information to know and compelling reasons to care, often require minimum thresholds of both total and make-and-model time before they’re willing to cover a would-be pilot in command.  Out at the hangar, career totals in the five-figure range tend to bolster a pilot’s credibility even among those inclined to dispute that a thick logbook automatically implies expertise.  But great experience can’t be accumulated without exposure to hazards, some more obvious than others. Among the less conspicuous is the risk of creeping complacency.

The pilot of the Piper Cherokee Six (PA-32-300) who took off from Hawkins Field in Jackson, Miss., in the late afternoon of Nov. 13, 2012, had logged nearly 18,000 hours over the course of his career, including more than 140 in that individual airplane. In addition to an airline transport pilot certificate for single- and multiengine airplanes and helicopters, he held five type ratings, plus a commercial certificate for single-engine seaplanes, gliders, and balloons. He was also certificated as a flight instructor, ground instructor, and mechanic.  The weather was benign—clear skies, 10 miles visibility, and 3-knot winds—so his two pilot-rated passengers had no reason to worry about a VFR flight of less than 10 nautical miles to the John Bell Williams Airport in Raymond.

The pilot requested a taxi clearance at 5:08 p.m., did a quick run-up, and received clearance to take off from Runway 16 at 5:12 p.m. Less than a minute later, he contacted Jackson Departure Control, but did not respond when instructed to ident. Fifteen seconds after that the airplane reached its peak altitude of 1,000 feet msl and began to descend, and 10 seconds later the pilot advised that “We’ve got an engine problem, we’re turning back to Hawkins,” adding, “We’ll try to make it.” Radar track data ended at 500 feet msl in a right descending turn.

The Cherokee crashed inverted into a house eight-tenths of a mile from the runway threshold, killing all three on board and igniting a fire that consumed most of the aircraft. Fortunately, the only person in the house at the time was able to escape. Damage to the surrounding trees suggested that the angle of descent was about 60 degrees, consistent with an attempt to stretch the glide that ended in a stall.

While the extent of fire damage limited its conclusiveness, the investigation found no evidence of failure in the airframe or flight controls. The condition of the propeller blades showed that the engine was not producing power at the moment of impact. Further inspection made the reason clear: The “spider” that divided incoming fuel between the cylinders was contaminated with a significant amount of water.

That might have been surprising, given that the airplane was kept in a hangar. However, its owner (who was not on board) confirmed that it had stayed there unflown with tanks half full for more than two months—through varying temperatures in a climate noted for high humidity. The owner had originally intended to be on the accident flight, but when he wasn’t able to go had encouraged the pilot to proceed without him since “the airplane needed to be exercised.”

Both the FBO manager and the lineman who pulled the Cherokee out of the hangar and topped the main tanks noticed that the pilot hadn’t done his usual meticulous pre-flight inspection. The walk-around and run-up seemed abbreviated, though the engine sounded “normal—real strong” during the takeoff run. A puddle about one foot in diameter beneath the fuel strainer showed that the pilot had used the lever under his seat to drain that, but neither witnesses nor physical evidence suggested that he’d sumped any of the four tanks. The NTSB concluded that condensation during the two months the tanks sat half empty accounted for the loss of power during climb-out.

There’s a reason to do the pre-flight inspection, and it’s not just to avoid censure on the ramp. (The linemen at one southeastern airport labelled a resident pilot “the Stumpjumper” because he not only never did a pre-flight, but powered over the chocks rather than taking the time to pull them.) This is your last best chance to spot anomalies that could kill you before they actually get the chance to do so.

Hurry rarely fosters safety. The more anxious you are to get on your way, the more likely you are to miss something. That’s when the tens of thousands of pre-flights you’ve already done without finding any serious problem stop being your friend. And short of escaping an invading army, it scarcely matters why you need to get there. The victims of the Jackson crash were hustling to get to an FAA safety seminar—one that had already started before they even took off.