Tragedy in the statistics

By David Jack Kenny

Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin is famously credited with saying that “A single death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.” Those of us who know the general aviation accident record chiefly through statistics may have trouble remembering the individual tragedies that underlie those numbers. For example, two to three pilots every month get caught in the mistake of trying to run underneath descending ceilings, or punch through what they expect to be a thin layer of clouds. Seven-eighths of those accidents are fatal. In recent years, the pilots killed have ranged from a 21-year-old student perhaps a little too full of enthusiasm to an inventor who single-handedly kept his rural airport alive and a career professional taking a shortcut on a maintenance ferry flight.

Losing them would be bad enough, but too often there are passengers on board as well—passengers who trusted their lives to the good judgment and professionalism of a friend or family member. That’s something to remember if the fear of disappointing your own passengers ever tempts you to take risks you wouldn’t chance alone.

Three men died in the fatal crash of a Cessna 310 near Vero Beach, Fla., on Feb. 14, 2013: the pilot, who was not instrument-rated; the co-pilot, who was instrument-rated but not current and didn’t hold a multiengine rating; and the pilot’s brother, who wasn’t reported to have a pilot certificate. They’d returned from an uneventful flight to the Bahamas at about noon, but instead of clearing customs at Fort Pierce as planned had been forced by weather to divert to Palm Beach International. They stayed at Palm Beach for around two hours, taking on 20 gallons of fuel.

The weather that day wasn’t all that favorable for instrument flying, never mind VFR. A cold front was taking its time pushing south down the Florida peninsula. By the time of the accident it had stalled out and become stationary, with plenty of moisture, north winds, and a temperature-dew point spread of 2 degrees Celsius creating widespread areas of low instrument meteorological conditions on the back side. When the co-pilot called for his second weather briefing at about 1:30 p.m., the briefer advised him that thunderstorms moving in from the Gulf were merging with another line heading south from Fort Myers, and while their home base of Bartow Municipal currently reported VFR conditions—4,400 overcast with 5 miles visibility in light rain—Okechobee County, roughly halfway in between, was under a 400-foot overcast. The area forecast included moderate precipitation and widely scattered thunderstorms, with severe thunderstorms possible. The co-pilot told the briefer that he’d watch the radar a while longer looking for some way to “scud-run” up to Bartow.

The time of their departure from Palm Beach wasn’t reported, but at 2:55 p.m. the co-pilot radioed the tower at Vero Beach to report that he was “scud-running up the coast” to Sebastian at 500 feet. The Vero Beach controller cleared him to transit Class D, and the twin Cessna reached Sebastian around 3:15 p.m.

Sebastian’s airport manager told investigators that the Cessna 310 stayed on the ramp for about 45 minutes, during which the occupants stayed in the airplane without contacting the FBO. During that time the pilot called his wife, who told him that the weather was ugly at home, dark and rainy. She ended the conversation believing that they planned to stay in Sebastian overnight. It wasn’t until she called the airport the next day that she learned that the Cessna had taken off again about 4 p.m., a decision that surprised her since they “had an agreement that he would never fly in bad weather.”

At 4:20 p.m. the co-pilot contacted Orlando approach requesting assistance after having inadvertently entered IMC. The controller assigned a squawk and the co-pilot asked about the height of the cloud tops, hoping to climb out. The squawk code was set but no further communications were received from the Cessna 310.

The first radar target with the assigned code was recorded at 4:22 p.m. at an altitude of 8,900 feet. Over the next two minutes it descended to 1,800 feet while making three left circuits, and then did a right 360 while dropping another 900 feet before stabilizing on a southwesterly heading but continuing to descend. The last three minutes of radar data showed it at altitudes of 100 to 200 feet, terminating in a left turn at 200 feet about 200 yards from the accident site. The wreckage was found in a swamp so dense that to this day, it’s never been brought out; the bodies were recovered by a Coast Guard helicopter.

Press reports describe all three men as having been accomplished, generous, and well-liked. The pilot was an entrepreneur and outdoorsman, former chairman of his home town’s chamber of commerce; the passenger was his younger brother, a retired track and swimming coach remembered for his devotion to his athletes. He was also a high-school classmate of the co-pilot, who owned a major contracting firm and had been decorated for valor as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam. It’s not clear who was in such a hurry to get home, but now the world seems a poorer place without them.