The appeal of back-country flying is hard to deny, at least in the abstract. The promise of easy access to remote and beautiful places can help entice a prospective pilot to begin learning to fly. Of course, like everything else in aviation, operations at back-country strips or off-airport sites come in varying degrees of difficulty. It’s prudent to approach them with caution until you’ve gained enough experience to know whether your skills will be up to the challenge.
On June 28, 2009, witnesses saw a blue-and-white Cessna 172 approach the grass runway at Tieton State Airport in southwestern Washington state. The airport is located on the shore of Rimrock Lake in the Cascade Mountains at an elevation of just under 3,000 feet. Mountains rise above 4,400 feet immediately off the departure end of Runway 2, which also slopes sharply uphill, so standard practice is to approach over the lake and land on Runway 2 regardless of winds.
Winds that afternoon were described as gusty, primarily from the west; first responders later estimated them at 10 knots gusting as high as 30 knots. Two people who had flown in earlier that day saw the Cessna come in over the lake and thought its approach looked high and fast. The airplane passed the midpoint of the runway without touching down, but it wasn’t until it had flown about three-quarters of the runway’s 2,504-foot length—perhaps two hundred yards from the departure end—that they heard the engine rev to full power for a go-around.
It was just a little too late. The Cessna clipped the top of a 75-foot-tall tree and went down in the forest. The 37-year-old pilot and his 13-year-old son were both killed; his five-year-old daughter survived with head injuries and multiple fractures. The pilot’s wife, who had been waiting to meet them, was spared the sight of the crash. After watching the airplane fly down the runway without landing, she had concluded that he had found the winds too tricky and decided to fly back to Yakima, 24 nm away. She drove home to meet him.
The pilot had received his private pilot certificate a year and a half earlier. At the time of the accident, his logbook showed a total of 79.1 hours of flight experience, almost all in Cessna 172s, including 44.1 hours as pilot in command. Almost two months had passed since his last flight. His logbook indicated that he had flown over the Tieton State airport twice before, once solo and once with two passengers, but hadn’t landed either time. The investigation found no evidence that he’d ever landed on a grass field.
The Private Pilot Practical Test Standards require a demonstration of soft-field techniques, but for many students, the training for this task never gets beyond simulation on paved runways. Making one’s first attempt to apply them on a real grass strip without benefit of experienced supervision suggests an impressive—and maybe excessive—degree of self-confidence. In this case, of course, the landing surface was irrelevant to the accident. The pilot seems to have forgotten one of the central lessons flight instructors drum into every student before the first solo: When in doubt, go around. Make the decision early and commit to it completely rather than take unnecessary risks trying to salvage a bad approach.