Lost And Forgotten
When No One Is WatchingInstructors have a responsibility not only to prepare students for solo cross-country flight, but also to prepare them for the times when things don't work as planned. In this day of instant communication, students, when on the ground, should be able to contact instructors or a flight school dispatcher whenever they have doubts. In the following case, the student was left to fend for himself with tragic results.
The student and the instructor made a 2.2-hour VFR round-trip flight to Levelland Municipal Airport in Levelland, Texas, with a stop at Lea County/ Hobbs Airport in New Mexico the morning of the accident. The student was to make the same flight solo in the afternoon. The solo flight departed Levelland around 3 p.m. local time under good VFR conditions. According to Hobbs' tower, the pilot called for assistance to locate the airport. The tower asked Fort Worth Center to assist, and center controllers were able to identify the pilot and direct him toward the airfield. At 5:16 p.m., after 2.3 hours one way, the airplane landed without incident at Hobbs.
A ramp attendant at Hobbs reported that the pilot seemed "real nervous." When asked if he wanted to refuel, the pilot declined. The attendant observed that the pilot was "clearly disoriented," and attempted to calm him through casual conversation. He also noticed that the pilot spent a rather "long time" doing his preflight checks before departure. The ramp attendant again queried the pilot regarding refueling, but the pilot again refused. The ramp attendant called the tower after the pilot entered the cockpit to inform them that he "felt uneasy" about allowing the pilot to depart. The flight departed Hobbs at 5:50 p.m. en route to Levelland.
After being airborne for approximately 50 minutes, the pilot became disoriented again and contacted the Fort Worth Center for assistance at 6:35 p.m. He stated that he was "lost or something." The controller unsuccessfully tried to talk the pilot through setting the transponder. The controller asked if the aircraft VOR was functioning, to which the pilot replied, "it's out of order, [and it] says Off and I can't get a To or From." Subsequently, the controller suggested climbing to a higher altitude (6,500 feet) to assist the pilot in orientation and to gain more reference points. Several other aircraft in the vicinity also aided the controller in a futile attempt to establish the aircraft's position. After 28 minutes of radio contact, the pilot said that he thought he saw an airport and was going to land.
The Cessna crashed approximately 60 miles north of Levelland after striking a power line. The pilot was fatally injured. The aircraft was airborne for approximately 4.3 hours, not including ground operation. A Cessna 150 holds a total of 22.5 gallons' useable fuel with standard tanks, and, according to fuel performance charts, it should have consumed about 24 gallons during this time period. Two gallons of fuel were found in aircraft's fuel system at the accident site. Fuel was not present in the carburetor bowl.
The pilot was a foreign national who was in the United States for flight training. According to his flight logbook, he had a total of 27.6 hours of day VFR flight and zero hours of night flight at the time of the accident. Total solo time was 1.6 hours, all of which was spent in the local landing pattern. The morning dual cross-country was the student's cross-country solo endorsement flight.
According to his flight instructor, the route of flight was the same as the accident route of flight (Levelland to Hobbs to Levelland). The endorsement was recorded in the pilot's logbook and signed by the flight instructor. The instructor also reported that the student completed the dual flight successfully, "understood" lost procedures, and was a "good" student. The pilot's training records were requested from the flight school administrator, who reported that since the student was not in an FAR Part 141 program, no records were kept. The only records of what the pilot accomplished during his 27.6 hours of training were annotated in the "remarks" section of his flight log.
An air traffic control transcript record of the pilot's communications indicated that the pilot had some difficulty with the English language. There is no record of the pilot calling his home base (via telephone or radio) for assistance. Nor did flight instructor or flight school personnel contact FAA authorities or Hobbs tower to inquire about their overdue aircraft.
Clearly, this is an extreme case of poor supervision, but there are elements that many instructors may find helpful in preparing for the day when one of their students becomes disoriented. Keep good records beyond what is in the pilot's log, even if training under Part 61. Establish a flight-tracking system that allows your student to call you or the flight school after landing anywhere if there is a problem. If the student gets lost on the way, he or she should ask another CFI at an intermediate airport for some assistance. If another CFI cannot be located, you may need to send out another aircraft with a CFI for a "rescue."
Solo student night operations, if done at all, must be under highly controlled circumstances and only with extensive prior training. Student fuel reserves should never be less than half tanks. Does the student have money or credit cards to purchase fuel? Has he or she been taught leaning procedure? Part 61 requires that pilots read, speak, write, and understand English. Flying with a foreign national puts an additional burden on everyone to ensure compliance. The use of navigation equipment and transponder is basic to operating an aircraft cross-country and is part of the preparation. When dealing with people of other cultures, it is vitally important to verify that they do understand equipment operation and not just by a verbal assurance.
Anticipating what can go wrong and planning for it is the responsibility of the CFI. Like a doctor on call, when students are out of the pattern, you or a designate needs to be available for immediate consultation. With cell phones and beepers, this is easy to do.
Bruce Landsberg is executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.
By Bruce Landsberg