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Air Safety Institute Safety Spotlight

Out of options

Every flight consists of a series of decisions. Those decisions begin with the basic question of pilot capability, continue during preflight planning, and culminate in flight, where sound judgment is critical. A breakdown at any point in the process can place the flight in jeopardy. A series of poor choices, on the other hand, is an invitation to disaster.

On January 1, 2006, a Beechcraft 55D Baron crashed while circling in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) at Dawson Municipal Airport in Dawson, Georgia. The 1,500-hour pilot had already attempted instrument approaches at two other airports and was nearly out of fuel. He and a passenger were killed. Three other passengers were seriously injured.

The flight took off from Indianapolis, Indiana, at 10:30 a.m. One hour prior to departure, the pilot obtained a weather briefing and filed two IFR flight plans-one from Indianapolis to Moultrie, Georgia; the other from Moultrie to Fort Myers, Florida. The terminal area forecast nearest to Moultrie Airport called for a broken ceiling at 800 feet with five miles visibility in mist.

Around 2:10 p.m., the pilot performed a missed approach at Moultrie Airport and asked air traffic control (ATC) for an alternate airport. At 2:30 p.m., he reported going missed at Southwest Georgia Regional Airport and told the controller that he was in IMC with about 15 minutes of fuel remaining.

The controller issued vectors to Dawson Municipal Airport. At 2:41 p.m., radar contact with the airplane was lost. Witnesses at Dawson Airport reported that the Baron "made three passes, circling the runway." During its final pass, the airplane stalled and struck the ground. Weather conditions at the time were overcast at 100 feet, one mile visibility in mist.

The NTSB attributed the accident to the pilot's failure to maintain sufficient airspeed, which resulted in an inadvertent stall and loss of control while circling to land. Contributing factors included the pilot's inadequate planning and weather evaluation, low clouds, and the low-fuel condition.

Proper aeronautical decision-making should begin long before a flight leaves the ground. An honest self-assessment is part of that process. Are you current and proficient? According to the accident pilot's logbook, he had not performed an instrument approach during the previous six months, and nearly three years had passed since his last flight review.

Preflight planning is another area where decision making is key. Rather than planning a fuel stop halfway into his 830-nm trip, the pilot chose an airport 540 nm away. When he missed the approach there, 35 minutes of fuel remained. When he went missed at his alternate, he had 15 minutes in the tanks. Federal regulations require a 45-minute reserve at that point. The AOPA Air Safety Foundation recommends a "golden hour."

Perhaps the most critical decisions are those made in flight. Records indicated the pilot did not request any in-flight weather information. By the time he realized how low the ceiling was at his destination, he was no longer within range of a suitable alternate. After a series of questionable decisions, the pilot had essentially run out of options.

For more information, take ASF's Do the Right Thing: Decision-Making for Pilots online course.

An aviation technical writer for the AOPA Air Safety Foundation, Carl Peterson creates interactive courses and other safety education materials for the aviation community. He has been flying since 1989.

By Carl Peterson

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