Mother knows best

By David Jack Kenny

Over the past decade, the volume and diversity of weather data available in the cockpit have expanded in ways earlier generations would have found difficult to imagine.  In 2003, radio-based lightning detectors were still the state of the art for aircraft too small to mount on-board radar, and very expensive to boot.  Updates on precipitation echoes, surface conditions, and revised TAFs were available from exactly one source, the radio.  Ten years later, airplanes equipped to receive ADS-B get METARs, TAFs, and radar and satellite images for free. Pilots whose aircraft aren’t yet ADS-B compliant can choose to pay subscription fees for similar commercial services or access public information through any of dozens of lightweight portable gadgets.  They also have an option that was almost unimaginable in the 1970s, ‘80s, or even ‘90s: They can make a phone call in flight to ask someone up ahead how things really look.

Of course, good information isn’t guaranteed to produce good decisions.  At best, it improves the prospects.

About 2 p.m. on March 29, 2013, the Clay County, Minn., sheriff’s office issued an alert notice for a missing Cessna 152. The pilot’s mother had contacted them nearly two hours earlier to report that the airplane was overdue. It took searchers about an hour and a half to locate the wreckage in an open field 15 miles east of its intended destination, the Moorhead Municipal Airport. Physical evidence suggested that the Cessna hit the ground at high speed in a right-wing-low attitude; its tanks still contained fuel, and there was no suggestion of any mechanical failure before impact. The 64-hour private pilot died in the crash.

He’d rented the airplane that morning in Superior, Wis.,—the same airport where he’d learned to fly the previous year—for a weekend trip to visit family, departing about 9 a.m. There’s no record that he obtained an official weather briefing, but the same designated pilot examiner who’d administered his checkride the previous November reported that he saw the pilot checking the weather on a computer at the FBO. The DPE even remarked that if the weather at his destination looked as good as conditions at Superior, he could expect a nice flight. The private pilot “said that the weather did not look good at JKJ.”

Indeed it did not. The area forecast called for ceilings of 2,000 to 2,500 feet along the Minnesota-North Dakota border with just 3 miles visibility in mist. Conditions were expected to begin improving after noon. However, the terminal forecast for Fargo, just across the border from Moorhead, predicted very low weather: surface visibility of a quarter mile in fog and vertical visibility of 100 feet, occasionally improving to one mile visibility under a 400-foot overcast.  Ceilings were predicted to remain below 500 feet through at least noon.

The pilot’s mother told police that he’d sent her a text message shortly before 10 a.m. reporting that he was passing over Park Rapids, Minn., about 80 nautical miles east of Moorhead. About 10:15 a.m., “she had further conversation with [him] discussing the fog in Moorhead … asked [him] to return to the Duluth area or land at the Park Rapids Airport due to fog issues.”  However, he “continued his trip as planned to the Moorhead Airport.”  The accident occurred about 10:30 a.m.; witnesses in the vicinity at that time described “heavy fog.”  A METAR recorded at Moorhead at 10:15 a.m. —just about the time the pilot spoke to his mother—reported visibility of less than a quarter mile in freezing fog, an overcast ceiling at 200 feet, and temperature equal to the dew point. At 10:34 a.m., roughly the time of the accident, nothing had changed except that the temperature and dew point had both increased one degree.

Not surprisingly, the NTSB concluded that the probable cause of the accident was “the non-instrument-rated pilot’s improper decision to conduct a flight into known instrument meteorological conditions, which resulted in a loss of control.” Less obvious is why a low-time VFR pilot chose to ignore absolutely definitive evidence of IFR conditions ahead provided by the most authoritative possible source: a real-time report from an observer on the scene, and one the pilot could presumably trust.