By David Jack Kenny
Getting checked out in an unfamiliar aircraft can be a lot of fun. It’s one way to reawaken the excitement of initial training, when every lesson was an adventure that stretched the mind. A pilot who’s gotten a little stale from always flying the same engine, wing, and panel suddenly has to start thinking about airspeed, attitude, power, and configuration again, not to mention really reading the checklists. It exercises parts of the mind that a lack of recent training might have left a little flabby.
But pilots should be careful when stepping up to a different aircraft. In a more complicated aircraft, it’s possible to get wrapped up in details—tank selection, optimal leaning technique, emergency gear extension, and the inescapable knobology—to the point of forgetting that this machine might not handle quite like anything you’ve flown before. “Memory items” may still be making their way from checklist to gray matter, so on those early flights, it’s best to have plenty of time and elbow room and avoid situations that risk leaving you short of either.
On Feb. 12, 2009, a Beech 95-A55 crashed into trees just west of the North Houston Business Airport near Porter, Texas. The 2,365-hour commercial pilot and his passenger were both killed. Skies were clear, with winds reported from 150 degrees at 10 knots. According to witnesses, the twin attempted to land on Runway 17 but floated down its entire length without ever touching down. The airport manager thought it looked high on final, and another witness thought it looked fast. Several people described the pilot as seeming reluctant to commit to either landing or going around. All agreed that its engines didn’t rev up until the airplane neared the runway’s departure end, at which point it pitched up, banked hard to the right, and went down. Two witnesses thought they saw “fluid” or “smoke” coming from the right engine, but no sign of fire or leakage was found afterward, and the right engine ran normally on a test stand; the left engine showed only impact damage.
The airport sits in the woods, with stands of 75-foot trees off either end and along both sides of the 3,594-foot runway. The airport manager recalled that earlier that day, someone had called to ask about the trees, saying that he wanted to fly in later that afternoon in a twin. She’d described recent progress clearing them, especially to the south, and advised that Runway 35 was normally preferred. Several witnesses described the accident airplane circling overhead before entering a straight-in final for Runway 17.
The accident pilot’s logbook showed 376 hours of multiengine time but only 4.2 in the Baron. He’d been checked out in the airplane a little more than a month earlier after two sessions of dual instruction that presumably included some go-arounds. But a go-around initiated early by a CFI ordering “Okay, go around” is a very different thing from a go-around attempted single-pilot and late, after the runway has vanished behind the wheels and the trees are looming higher. Needing to climb hard to clear an obstacle without much time to reconfigure isn’t a comfortable situation no matter how well you know the airplane.
It’s not clear why the pilot didn’t decide to go around earlier, while the climb angle was manageable and he had more time to retract the flaps and gear. Picking a reasonable go-around point and sticking to it are drummed in during private pilot training. It may be natural to let increasing expertise tempt one into shaving margins, but that doesn’t make it wise.
It’s also unclear why he stuck with this particular airport, especially if he was concerned about the trees. Three other airports within 15 nautical miles had unobstructed runways of 6,000 feet or more. Flying an unfamiliar airplane for the third or fourth time, particularly a relatively complicated one, is a good reason to give yourself some offsetting advantages.