Thomas B. Haines has been the editor in chief of the world's largest general aviation magazine for nearly 12 years.
In my nearly 18 years as an editor for this magazine, no article has elicited the response that we have received from " Flight of Mistakes" in the January issue. Hundreds of you have written e-mails to me sharing your thoughts and observations on the events of May 11, 2005, when two Pennsylvania men flew deep into the restricted airspace surrounding Washington, D.C., causing the evacuation of federal buildings and general chaos in the capital. Student pilot Troy Martin and private pilot Hayden "Jim" Sheaffer were intercepted and forced to land at Frederick Municipal Airport in Maryland, home to AOPA. Ten days later, the FAA issued an emergency revocation of Sheaffer's certificate. Martin, a student flying from the left seat, did not receive any enforcement actions.
While many of you shared thoughtful comments about this incident, a few had some ideas on "appropriate justice" — many were on the radical side and had the ring of the Old West saying "Hangin's too good for 'em." One Pennsylvania pilot suggested the two should have been shot down to set an example of what can happen to pilots who don't carefully follow the rules. A Kentucky member said he was glad the FAA pulled the pilot's certificate, but later acknowledged: "I digress; they should have been shot down."
A Michigan writer had a similar thought: "We as pilots would be better off if these two boneheads had been shot down." But he later modified his thinking: "OK, I don't really feel that they should have been shot down, but it angers me that such a degree of incompetence exists within our ranks."
As you may have noticed, pilots seldom lack for an opinion on things aeronautical. The opinions expressed about this incident were as diverse as our 407,000 members. The one universal theme, however, is that these two pilots made serious mistakes in judgment and decision making. Many who commented felt that any criticism of the government's response was out of line. After all, they reasoned, if the pilots hadn't been where they weren't supposed to be, the government would not have needed to react. Other members, however, had a certain level of sympathy for the pilots and were willing to consider that if the interceptors had been able to communicate with the Cessna 150, things might have turned out to be less dramatic. Some members praised the pilots for their willingness to talk about the incident so that others might learn from it.
Several of you referred to the chain of errors that leads to an accident or incident. If just one of the links can be broken, the incident can be avoided. Obviously, there were plenty of places where one small change might have broken the chain and prevented this incident.
Certainly, if the pilot (or the student) had been more aware of what was happening around him in aviation, then he would have known about the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). Many writers — including some from the West Coast and even Europe — wondered how anyone, especially a pilot based barely 100 miles from the capital, could not know about the ADIZ. Several questioned what sort of flight review the pilot had had most recently and whether it covered any discussion of the airspace.
The links in the chain started forming well before the Cessna took off. Martin and Sheaffer met the night before the flight to review Sheaffer's radio navigation plan and the sectionals. On the Washington Sectional, they apparently overlooked the series of red dots outlining the ADIZ and an admonishment that pilots should understand this special breed of airspace before flying in the area. Another missed opportunity to break the chain.
The next morning, both pilots independently checked weather using an Internet site, but it was not one officially approved for providing preflight briefings. Sheaffer said he planned to call flight service from the airport, but that when he got there the floor was being replaced and he couldn't get to the telephone. However, at least Martin, and possibly Sheaffer as well, had a cell phone, which could have been used to call flight service. During the briefing, the specialist almost certainly would have asked whether the pilot was familiar with the ADIZ — it's a standard question for any FSS in the mid-Atlantic area. That clinking noise you hear is another link in the error chain snapping into place.
Many writers expressed dismay that both Martin and Sheaffer said they will not fly again without a working GPS on board. As many of you pointed out, any electronic device can fail, and if you rely on it alone for position information you will find yourself lost when it quits. Most members, though, wondered why a pilot would not be able to navigate by multiple means, as we are all taught during primary training. Dead (or d'ed, if you prefer) reckoning, pilotage, and VOR were all viable means of navigating available to this pair. Sheaffer had planned a route from VOR to VOR that, had it been followed, would have caused them to violate the ADIZ, but they would not have penetrated into the 15-mile flight-restricted zone (FRZ) around the heart of the capital. However, they never intercepted the radial that would have allowed them to fly the plan. Whether a crutch for sub-par navigation skills or not, a GPS might have saved the day — assuming that it carried a reasonably up-to-date database that included a depiction of the ADIZ.
Following the failed-navigation link comes one dealing with crew resource management. CRM has been all the buzz in aviation for a couple of decades now. It's important that everyone involved in the flight knows who is in charge and who is supposed to do what. The crew is then expected to back each other up, with every member of the crew willing to listen to input from the others. But at the end of the day, someone has to be pilot in command.
In this situation, because Martin was legally only a student pilot, Sheaffer was the PIC, but he never really took the reins. Instead, he put Martin, who had flown only 30 hours over two years, into the left seat. Martin was uncomfortable with the idea at first, but ultimately agreed to it — clink — another failure. There's nothing wrong with a competent pilot allowing a student to fly the airplane, although in this case, since Sheaffer is not a flight instructor, Martin couldn't log the time anyhow. So you might wonder if he wouldn't have learned at least as much by simply observing a good pilot plan and execute a long cross-country flight from the right seat. Martin felt as if he was there just to follow directions from Sheaffer. In the end, no one was in charge. The two were unsure of their position almost as soon as they took off. If Sheaffer had turned around or turned to the north away from the airspace at any time in the first 30 minutes of the flight, they would have stayed out of trouble or at worst been slapped with a minor violation of the ADIZ. Instead, he didn't take charge and they bumbled on. Clink. Clink. Clink.
Up until the point where the two were intercepted by a Black Hawk helicopter, there is no doubt about where the blame for this incident lies. Once the intercept begins, the debate begins. The apparent failure of a radio on the helicopter and an emergency locator transmitter allegedly going off at the same time caused confusion among all parties. After the fact, the Cessna pilots wondered if the interceptors could hold up a sign that said, "121.5," why couldn't they also hold up one that said, "Follow me."
It's hard to argue that if the intercept had been more effective, the two would have been turned back well before reaching the FRZ, which is what led to the evacuation of federal buildings, which led to the massive media coverage, which caused the black eye for us all.
So, as is true in almost every such situation, no singular failure led to this near tragedy. We can hope the government has refined its intercept procedures. For us, there is plenty to learn on how not to conduct a flight. On every flight we should be looking for links in the error chain and for ways to break the chain immediately.
E-mail the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To read member comments on the January article and to learn about flying in or near the ADIZ, go to AOPA Online.