Lessons Lost


In any field, learning from one’s mistakes is essential to improvement. In some, it’s crucial to survival. In motorcycling, dubious decisions can exact their cost in blood within seconds. In aviation, things rarely go bad quite that fast, but errors in judgment can be even more catastrophic. Near escapes offer vital lessons in how to avoid trouble, and long-term success—which is to say, living to fly another day—depends on making the most of each opportunity to absorb them. The more frightening the experience, the deeper the impression you’d expect it to make.

Sadly, it doesn’t work that way for everyone. A case in point arose in northern Mississippi on Oct. 26, 2010. About 10 a.m., barely half an hour after taking off from the Olive Branch Airport, a turbocharged Beech Bonanza broke up 14,500 feet above the ground. It took searchers three days to locate the wreckage, which was scattered over an area some 15 miles long. Inevitably, the 800-hour private pilot and the only passenger—his wife—were both killed. Radar data confirmed that they had flown into an area of intense to extreme precipitation, and the National Transportation Safety Board materials lab found that all fracture signatures were consistent with overload.

The pilot had filed his instrument flight plan just 20 minutes before takeoff. Twice during the call, the flight service briefer asked him whether he was aware of the forecast for adverse weather conditions. Both times the pilot replied that he was, adding at one point, “That’s why we’re getting out of here.”

There’s no record of what weather information the pilot had actually obtained or where he’d gotten it, but there’s some room to doubt that he actually knew what he was up against. In the course of the investigation, the NTSB’s senior meteorologist prepared a 42-page factual report. It documents not only two convective sigmets for a line of embedded thunderstorms, but also National Weather Service severe weather forecast alerts for conditions including severe thunderstorms with hail up to 1.5 inches in diameter, wind gusts to 70 knots, extreme turbulence, and maximum cumulonimbus cloud tops from 45,000 feet to 50,000 feet moving east-southeast at 50 knots. The associated tornado warning covered an area 200 nautical miles across, all of it along his planned route to the Dekalb-Peachtree airport outside Atlanta. While the main squall line was still behind them to the west, the forecast anticipated that more severe weather would propagate eastward across their route—which it did.

This would be another straightforward if tragic case of a pilot launching into bad weather without sufficient information were it not for two details. The pilot had an active subscription to download weather information, including NEXRAD images, from satellite radio, and the panel was equipped to display it on either of two Garmin 430 GPS receivers. Given the condition of the wreckage, it’s not surprising that investigators could not determine whether any of it was actually being displayed at the time. Even if it was, however, the pilot’s history leaves doubt that he would have put that information to good use.

The most astonishing fact that arose from the investigation was that he had previously presented his friendly local maintenance facility with aircraft that had suffered major structural damage in weather encounters—not just once, but twice. Two years before the accident, he had brought in another Bonanza that was bent so badly that the shop declared it unrepairable. He’d attributed the damage to flying through “heavy weather.” Less than 30 days later, he showed up with the accident airplane and said, “I did it again.” The second Bonanza was eventually returned to service, but only after replacement of both horizontal stabilizer assemblies, both wing skins, and assorted belly skins. It took eight months to put it back together again, and the final invoice included 418 hours of labor.

It’s hard to imagine flying through weather rough enough to damage both main wing spars (listed on the parts estimate for the first Bonanza) without getting the scare of your life. It’s harder still to imagine that learning the extent of the damage wouldn’t prompt deep and serious soul-searching. If you find it tough to visualize twisting the horizontal stabilizer of one airplane less than a month after almost wrenching the wings off another, you’re not alone—and if you can’t even imagine taking that risk a third time after being lucky enough to survive it twice, congratulations on your sturdy common sense. Fearlessness may be an admirable quality in combat pilots, but for the rest of us an appropriate level of fear is a vital survival mechanism. Even more vital is the willingness to learn a lesson while you still have the chance.