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What's the risk

Recent accidents don’t answer the age-old question

Life is full of risk. And pithy quotes about risk. A personal favorite: “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go,” said T.S. Eliot, which sounds like a recipe for fuel exhaustion to me.

As pilots, we face risk with every flight. Flying a general aviation airplane is more dangerous than walking, or even driving a car. But it’s not as risky as a lot of other things—and the benefits are tremendous, both in time savings and in personal satisfaction.

The key to balancing risk is understanding the capabilities of your airplane and of yourself. But even that leaves out the incalculable risk of events that you can’t control, such as when a perfectly good engine decides to send a piston through the cowling without warning—or at least without a warning you could detect in advance.

On Christmas Eve, a Florida pilot found out in a fatal kind of way that taking off in near-zero-visibility conditions is especially risky. According to some reports, it was so foggy he had the Cessna 340 towed from the hangar to the terminal because he didn’t want to risk taxiing near parked airplanes in the fog. He crashed right after rotation, killing all five on board.

We don’t know yet what happened. It could have been the disorientation of the fog at rotation. A failed engine. A distraction in the cockpit. But whatever it was, the takeoff was riskier than it would have been on a clear day. And the weather cleared at the airport an hour or so later. In general aviation, no regulation stops us from taking off in zero-zero conditions. That freedom to fly comes with a responsibility to manage our own limits.

An Oklahoma physician crashed into the Gulf of Mexico in January after taking off in his Cirrus from Oklahoma’s Wiley Post Airport, headed to pick up a rescue dog in Georgetown, Texas. The 292-nautical-mile flight would take him about 1.5 hours at FL190 with a 30-plus-knot tailwind. Who could blame him for taking his turbocharged airplane into the flight levels?

But as he neared Georgetown, he stopped responding to ATC queries. Fighters were scrambled to follow him as he crossed into the Gulf of Mexico. Despite firing flares and other techniques, they could not raise him in the cockpit, and authorities lost sight of the aircraft. The U.S. Coast Guard ended its search for the missing aircraft after 79 hours of searching. It will be a while before we find out what happened. Hypoxia comes to mind, or some other debilitating medical condition.

Flying that high carries risk—but with the reward of better winds sometimes, and higher true airspeeds. The oxygen system is a single point of failure, so it needs to be carefully monitored. That said, late-model Cirruses have some amazing technology to help alert you to problems and to provide an increased level of safety.

I wrestle with my own risk questions. I frequently fly from Maryland to northwestern Pennsylvania, a straight-line trip of 184 nm across the Appalachian Mountains. On a recent windy winter day, the flight would have taken one hour and 37 minutes in my Beechcraft Bonanza. Altering the route to fly directly over six intermediate airports increases the trip length by five nautical miles, and on this day by one minute. I think I will do that from now on. Makes for a more interesting flight anyhow.

When flying from Frederick, Maryland, to Appleton, Wisconsin, a trip I make each year for EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, I cross over the tip of Lake Erie and the center of Lake Michigan, a distance of 577 nm and about 4.5 hours. Sixty-three of those miles, or about 24 minutes, are over Lake Michigan. From 8,500 feet or so, my distance out of glide range of land is measured in minutes. I have inflatable life jackets for everyone aboard and make sure before takeoff that everyone knows we are going over the lake. They make the decision of whether to come along.

The alternative is a trip around the south side of Chicago and then northwest to avoid Chicago and Milwaukee airspace, a distance of 695 nm and adding about 30 minutes of flight time—and thus requiring a fuel stop. The overwater route is riskier. I’ve come to accept that risk and trust the airplane I’m flying. I don’t judge those who choose not to come along.

Your risk tolerance is your business. The regulations in the United States give us a lot flexibility, one of the great benefits of GA flying. As pilots we have a big responsibility to understand the risk of each flight and be prepared to manage it. And know that if something goes wrong, others will judge you. It’s a risk we take.AOPA

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Thomas B. Haines
Thomas B Haines
Contributor (former Editor in Chief)
Contributor and former AOPA Editor in Chief Tom Haines joined AOPA in 1988. He owns and flies a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza. Since soloing at 16 and earning a private pilot certificate at 17, he has flown more than 100 models of general aviation airplanes.

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