Judgment Can Count More Than SkillOne of the skills that we attempt to develop in pilots is the use of good judgment. Having good judgment means that a pilot is unlikely to need high skill levels to extract himself from a predicament. Frequently such predicaments are of the pilot's making, and then it is even more important to recognize when the risk outweighs the reward.
The following mishap could not really be called an accident because the outcome could easily be foreseen. It also clearly shows how, when scared, a pilot can take an "administrative problem" and turn it into a serious situation by adding injury to insult. Thankfully, few student pilots are tempted to joyride. However, it happens often enough that there is an obvious message to be passed along to the more impulsive types who might be inclined to first create a problem and then compound the judgment error.
The end result of this incident was that a Cessna 150 was substantially damaged during takeoff and the student pilot and one passenger suffered minor injuries. But there's more to the story. Night visual meteorological conditions prevailed for the local flight, which departed at 10 p.m. local time. No flight plan was filed. (If someone is going to commit a misdemeanor, he probably isn't going to advertise it by filing a flight plan.)
Witnesses observed an aircraft "buzzing" the town at treetop level for more than 30 minutes. According to the local FBO, the student pilot was "not authorized to use the aircraft," and the local authorities were alerted. The aircraft returned to the airport for landing, and as it taxied into the parking area, it was approached by police officers.
The student pilot, seeing that his antics had not gone undetected, decided to make a run for it. At this point, one could reasonably surmise that it was not going to be a good day for anyone involved. "Borrowing" an aircraft without anyone noticing is hard to do. Attracting more attention by performing low-level maneuvers over a populated area for an extended period of time also might raise some eyebrows, even in the sleepiest of small towns.
The student made his third bad choice of the evening by electing to evade the law enforcement officers. He began a takeoff roll from near the departure end of Runway 35. The airplane was observed in a pronounced nose-high attitude, and it subsequently stalled while attempting to become airborne prior to reaching the airport perimeter fence on the north end of the airport. The airplane came to rest on its nose.
The student pilot and his female passenger were taken into custody and delivered to the local hospital for treatment of minor injuries. Post-accident examination of the aircraft revealed structural damage to the wings and fuselage. The NTSB wryly noted that repeated attempts to obtain a completed pilot report from the student were unsuccessful. The accident report did not list the student's flight time or background, but it's clear that the pilot had some level of skill to avoid crashing the aircraft during a night flight at low altitude and then complete a successful night landing.
But skill clearly wasn't enough. Being a pilot means far more than just having good hands. It means having the discipline to operate within the rules. We don't know where the student was in the training process, but he probably did not have far to go to complete his certificate. Once he earned his certificate, the night flight with a passenger would have been perfectly proper. The buzzing part is not necessary to impress passengers, is illegal, irritates people on the ground, and sometimes ends in disaster. We don't know the epilogue to the story, but either the student completed training after paying his debt to society and the FBO, or he decided that he was really not cut out to be a pilot. Perhaps that decision was made for him by someone else.
Bruce Landsberg is executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.
By Bruce Landsberg