Safety Pilot: Curb their enthusiasm

Judgment errors, youthful exuberance give GA a bad mark

January 1, 2013

Bruce Landsberg

We’ve often spoken about sharing the joy of flight with nonpilots to introduce the wonders of general aviation. Many of us are enthusiastic—perhaps to the point of being evangelical—but there are times when enthusiasm must take a back seat to reality. It’s that judgment thing! Sadly, a few pilots don’t seem to quite grasp this and lives are lost, as in these cases.

In January 2010, a 23-year-old pilot with just more than 300 hours total flight time, a commercial certificate, and instrument rating rented a Cessna 172 for the day to give rides to friends in Michigan. According to the NTSB report, “Starting at 6 p.m., the night prior, the pilot received or made calls or sent text messages, every hour, through midnight, until 3:12 a.m. on the day of the accident. In his communications, the pilot told the passenger about some friends that were going out that evening. The passenger responded back, expressing concern that the pilot be in good flying shape for the next day.”

At the time of departure, around 9:45 a.m., the ASOS reported 200 overcast and half mile visibility with freezing fog. The pilot told the lineman that, if necessary, he would file an IFR flight plan when airborne and return to the airport. Witnesses saw the airplane disappear into the overcast and shortly thereafter, the Cessna was heard to make four passes over the airport. The sound became louder but the airplane remained in the clouds. On the fifth pass, the Cessna was seen approximately 50 feet above the ground and barely missed some trees.

According to the NTSB report, “The pilot contacted Muskegon Approach Control at 10:22 a.m. and told the controller that he was ‘caught in some fog’ and wanted ‘vectors to Runway 8 for Tulip City.’ When the controller asked the pilot if he was IFR, the pilot replied that he wanted to ‘file a quick IFR into Tulip City.’” Believing the pilot was on the ground, there followed a discussion on what frequencies to contact FSS. At 10:03 a.m., when the controller asked the pilot if he wanted to file a flight plan, the pilot replied, “Caught in some heavy fog and would just like vectors to Tulip City Airport.” Asked if he was VFR, the pilot replied that he “was VFR, and now have to go in for an emergency.”

The passenger’s father is suing the FAA for negligence because the controller provided “incorrect” frequencies. I don’t see the FAA’s culpability. The FAA determined that the pilot had not been IFR current for two years and he failed to communicate clearly that he had an emergency and needed vectors. Even with ATC guidance a successful completion was doubtful—the Cessna was not GPS-equipped but the pilot had a chart open on his lap and the weather was well below approach minimums. Probable cause: Spatial disorientation and possible fatigue.

In July 2011, a brand-new 18-year-old CFI with about 400 hours total time and roughly 20 hours dual took a new student up on an instructional first flight. He had less than four hours in type. The aircraft, an American Aviation AA–1A—also known as a Yankee, is a snappy little airplane that is known for somewhat aggressive stall tendencies and is not approved for spins.

According to the NTSB report, “Radar data revealed that the introductory instructional flight departed and proceeded toward mountainous terrain adjacent to the intended destination. As the airplane approached the foothills, it entered a series of turns. A witness, located in her residence near the accident site, observed the airplane flying unusually low along the ridgeline. The airplane then made an abrupt, swooping, and descending turn. As it began to roll out of the turn, the wings started to rock from side to side, and the airplane then immediately descended nose down into the ground.”

Radar data indicated that the airplane’s groundspeed was about 96 knots, reducing to 77 knots during the turn, with a radius of about 400 feet. The FAA concluded that the angle of bank would have been between 50 and 60 degrees. The Yankee’s stall speed at 60 degrees of bank was estimated at 79 knots.

These are two different types of judgment miscues: The first involves much more premeditation and a string of errors. The second is an impulsive act, based on a lack of total time and model experience. Different in detail, but the root cause is the same—the desire to impress.

Adult supervision, especially where young pilots are involved, is sometimes needed to curb the natural enthusiasm and occasional youthful lack of judgment. I’ve been there myself and benefited from appropriate guidance. Consider a respectful and well-chosen word when you see something that looks like it might end badly. The two pilots’ passengers paid the ultimate price for innocent trust them and the GA community winds up with an undeserved stain. Collectively, we can do better.

Bruce Landsberg is president of the AOPA Foundation.