By David Jack Kenny
One of the most urgent goals for the entire general aviation industry is reversing the decline in the pilot population, and one of the most efficient ways to accomplish that is to encourage healthy pilots who have stopped flying to consider starting again. Bringing established pilots back to currency usually requires far less time and expense than training new pilots from scratch, and those whose family or financial responsibilities forced them to suspend their aviation activities years earlier may finally find themselves with the time and means to take to the air once again. If the industry’s long-term health depends on an influx of fresh talent, increased participation by established pilots can do a great deal to shore it up in the meantime.
Those who have been out of the game a long time, however, need to be particularly careful to base their planning on the skills they have now rather than those they had when they quit or expect to regain soon. For purposes of this morning’s flight, you’re only as good as you actually are today.
On Sept. 21, 2011, a 79-year-old commercial pilot was issued a third-class medical certificate with no limitations beyond the requirement to use corrective lenses. His application reported no flight time in the preceding six months, and according to friends, he hadn’t flown regularly in something like 20 years.
On April 20, 2013, the now-81-year-old completed a flight review at the Harnett Regional Jetport in Erwin, N.C. The instructor who administered the review reported that the pilot “was rusty at first, but his proficiency improved fairly quickly.” By the time they were finished, the instructor characterized his skills as “fairly good and safe, but not great.” The airplane used for the flight portion was a 1965-model Alon A-2, one of the last versions of the venerable Ercoupe, which the pilot had just bought.
The following day he began the ferry flight back to his home base in central Arkansas. The exact route and number of legs he flew haven’t been reported, but apparently he honored the CFI’s warnings about fatigue and broke the trip into two days, calling after the second leg to report that he was stopping for the night. He also called the friend back in Arkansas who had offered him the use of hangar space to say that he’d be back a day later than planned, as he was spending the night near Birmingham, Ala.
His route the next morning likewise wasn’t reported, but at 10:55 a.m. he took off from the Dennis F. Cantrell Airport in Conway, Ark., for the short hop to the A-2’s new home base. The Arkavalley Airport is a private residential airpark about 25 miles north of Little Rock; the pilot, a recent widower, planned to have a house and hangar built there. By all indications it’s a pleasant spot, but like a lot of private fields it does present some challenges. The runway is oriented 18/36; at 3,133 feet long by 40 wide, it’s plenty long enough for an Ercoupe but a bit on the narrow side for a pilot who’s somewhat out of practice. It slopes downwards from both ends toward the middle, and a 131-foot-high hill just off the approach end of Runway 18 requires a steeper-than-usual approach. The winds that day were out of the southeast: Little Rock Air Force Base, the nearest reporting station, recorded them at 7 knots from 150 degrees.
The flight from Conway took less than 15 minutes. Two witnesses—the airport manager and the friend who’d offered his hangar—saw the A-2’s first approach to Runway 18, which was “very high and very fast.” After touching down left of centerline, the pilot immediately went around. The second attempt was also hot and high. This time touchdown was right of centerline and followed by another go-around. The third approach was “much lower and much slower and also lined up in the middle of the runway,” but the airplane began to porpoise, then drifted left as the pilot tried to go around again. It hit a tall tree left of the runway, crashed to the ground, and burst into flames. The medical examiner attributed the pilot’s death to smoke and soot inhalation.
On his medical application, he had reported about 1,900 hours of total flight experience. In combination with his commercial certificate and instrument rating, this suggests that he’d been a capable airman before that long layoff. He’d made at least three or four successful landings on the ferry flight home. The CFI who’d administered his flight review said that they’d done all the pattern work at Harnett, whose runway measures 5,000 by 75 feet, and never discussed the specifics of the pilot’s home field. He could have gone back to Conway after the approach into Arkavalley proved trickier than expected. If he had, a little more polishing probably would have been all that stood between him and the airpark life.