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Accident AnalysisAccident Analysis

Powerless In Williamsport

Still Learning From A 20-Year-Old Incident
The pilot had misgivings about the flight from the outset, but they were minor compared to the benefits of going. The weather was an issue. It was forecast to be marginal, with improvement expected as the flight from Maine to Pennsylvania progressed. But this concern was offset in the pilot's mind by his newly attained instrument rating - isn't this kind of trip exactly what he had trained for? There was a sigmet out for moderate-to-severe turbulence, and the forecast suggested possible mixed precipitation. But after all, it was "that time of year" in the Northeast, and one had to wonder how much of this dire prediction was merely flight service boilerplate to be heard every weather day until late spring.

The pilot had been a very active aviator lately, notching up 18 hours of dual instruction and 30 hours of pilot-in-command time in the past 90 days. That time included a 1.3-hour "checkout" and some casual flying. In total he had spent six hours flying the borrowed 250-horsepower Piper Comanche in which he and his girlfriend would be making a classy arrival in Williams-port, Pennsylvania, on this Wednesday before Thanksgiving in 1981.

A light predawn snow was falling, and the fixed-base operation in Old Town, Maine, was unattended as the pilot, weary from little sleep, taxied the airplane out of the hangar and shut down briefly on the ramp to call for his release time. The sigmet was still in effect.

Soon the flight was airborne, and the Comanche broke out above the stormy mess at 1,200 feet. The pilot was slightly unnerved to see that he had accumulated some clear ice during the climb through the clouds. This challenged his novice's understanding of aviation weather. But four hours and 24 minutes of uneventful cruise followed. The pilot navigated and managed his fuel system according to a predetermined plan: left main fuel tank, right auxiliary tank, left auxiliary, right main. Once in a while, the right main fuel gauge behaved erratically, showing a decreasing fuel quantity even when the engine was running on another tank. The passenger expressed concern and kept her eye on the gauge as the flight progressed.

In range and letting down for the ILS approach into Williamsport, the flight was cleared to the Williamsport VOR. At about this time the flight experienced moderate turbulence, and the airplane was passing in and out of clouds, creating an effect that the passenger told the pilot she found bothersome. Perhaps it was the suggestion, or maybe just the bumps, but now the pilot too began experiencing a touch of vertigo. He focused intently on his flight instruments and began to run the prelanding checklist. He switched to the fullest fuel tank as he had been trained to do, and prepared to intercept the final approach course.

Suddenly the ADF pointer "went nuts," and in the distracted moment it took to observe this new twist, the pilot flew through the localizer. But as he was correcting for this new conundrum, his passenger spotted the runway. Relieved, the pilot canceled his IFR clearance and began a long final ap-proach. They were descending through 1,800 feet when the engine quit.

Stunned, the pilot tried everything he could think of to get a restart. He checked the fuel pump and the primer. "I did not switch tanks because I had convinced myself that I was on the correct tank," he said.

Convinced that a restart was impossible, now the problem became: Where to land? It was obvious that the airplane was not going to be able to glide to the runway, and nearby roads were "packed with cars." A swamp lay between him and the threshold. Slightly to the side of the course was a vacant lot behind an industrial building. It was the best hope. Gliding in low over the building, the pilot was able to touch down in the field, where the aircraft bounced, struck a wingtip, and skidded about 75 feet to a stop. Neither the pilot nor his passenger - whose father had died in an airline accident years before - was seriously injured.

Replaying the crash in his mind in the hours that followed, the pilot went over every detail and fleeting recollection that he and his passenger could come up with. But soon he knew he would be kidding himself to find the true cause anywhere other than in the mirror. In his mind he reviewed the crash sequence and remembered shutting off all the switches before touching down - even instructing the passenger to open the door and wedge a shoe into it so it would not jam closed on impact. But when it came to what he had done with the fuel selector (which is situated between the front seats in an awkward location), awareness dawned with a jolt. "I remembered the wrong number of clicks. I got weak-kneed and nauseous because all of a sudden I realized I had made the mistake."

I had been waiting to hear the details of this pilot's story for a long time. The pilot is someone with whom I have flown many times over the years, and I have come to regard him as careful, thorough, and dutiful in his piloting. When we first became acquainted for purposes of instrument instruction in his complex single (not the Comanche of the tale, which was a total loss in the accident), he offered a brief recounting of the accident, more by way of providing a complete aviation autobiography than to dwell on the long-ago event.

Two issues compelled me to revisit the issue as our hours together began to pile up over the years. First, of course, was to hear his analysis of the flight. Second was to hear him comment on how he had managed to shake off the event and become the confident, competent pilot I had come to know.

Fortunately for me he had addressed the first question in writing at the time of the accident, and he was willing to share both his words and his subsequent thoughts with me for this article. "In retrospect," he wrote on December 7, 1981, "it seems to be, like many accidents, a culmination of small errors leading up to the final irrevocable mistake." He listed the small errors, and they included:

  • "A touch of get-there-itis. We were going to see relatives and I wanted to make the trip."
  • The IFR reservation system operating at the time, a result of the 1981 air traffic controllers' strike. "I felt pressured to leave at my reserved time even though forecast weather was marginal in terms of my experience. I was afraid of not being able to get another reservation for later in the day."
  • The icing, and the quirk with the fuel gauge, adding to a sense of alarm and distraction to the flight.
  • The demands of fighting vertigo while trying to navigate, communicate, and run the required checklist during a critical phase of flight. This is when he must have made the fuel-selection error, by failing to verify that the tank he thought he was on was the one he had actually selected.

As for my second question, his return to the air: It took place, in the company of an instructor, eight days after the crash (and four days after the long drive home to Maine in a rented auto). The airplane used was a Piper Arrow, and the drill was "routine maneuvers and emergency procedures." Seven days later he soloed again.

Of course even two decades later, he has not put the 1981 crash totally out of his mind. Subsequent seasoning as a pilot has allowed him to add some new items to his list of lessons learned.

One concerns the relationship between training for instrument flight and experiencing it. He had been able to pass his instrument rating exams some six months before the accident, but he was still woefully na�ve concerning the weather. He had assumed � wrongly - that the presence of snow meant there would be no ice in the clouds. He had also concluded that his six hours in the Comanche, and the 1.3-hour "checkout," had prepared him for what lay ahead - but more training for the specific kind of flight he would undertake, and for the airplane to be used, might have helped him to avoid the fuel-selector trap into which he had fallen. "When the prop stopped, I had to rely on memory, not a checklist," he said. "I had been trained to always switch to the fullest tank. It didn't occur to me to switch tanks again."

He found his flying habits changing in his post-crash flying. Wariness begins long before launch time-and that may include seeing to it that he gets enough sleep to be sharp for flying in the morning.

"Knowing it was my fault...the less current I am, the more reticent I am to push my personal minimums," he observes today. He speaks the words "my fault" clearly and unashamedly. And despite all the experience of the ensuing years, those personal minimums are now 200 to 400 feet higher than they were when a new instrument pilot took off for a holiday weekend in Williamsport.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz

Associate Editor Web
Associate Editor Web Dan Namowitz has been writing for AOPA in a variety of capacities since 1991. He has been a flight instructor since 1990 and is a 30-year AOPA member.

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