By David Kenny
Accurate awareness of your own capabilities is essential to safe operation as pilot-in-command. Some of those who get in over their heads manage to escape—AOPA Pilot’s “Never Again” feature is full of examples—but not all. Assuming you can fly in situations or equipment for which you’ve never trained risks a great deal on a leap of faith. The consequences can be grim if you’re wrong.
At about 10:45 p.m. on Feb. 15, 2009, a Piper PA24-260 Comanche broke up in flight over a sparsely populated section of southern Idaho. The airplane’s new owner, a student pilot flying solo, was killed. The night was clear but moonless, and there were few sources of light on the ground, conditions greatly increasing the risk of spatial disorientation for a pilot without significant instrument or night-flying experience. Radar data indicated that after a series of turns at about 6,100 feet agl, the airplane entered an uncontrolled descent that eventually reached 12,000 fpm. At about 2,000 feet agl, the rate of descent briefly slowed to 3,000 fpm before increasing again, and the NTSB concluded that the student pilot’s attempt to recover control had stressed the airframe beyond its structural limits. Most of both wings, the outboard sections of the stabilator, and finally the empennage were torn away. The debris field stretched almost a mile.
This wasn’t the first abrupt descent of the flight. Not quite an hour earlier, while making a 180-degree left turn, the Comanche had dropped 2,000 feet in 23 seconds before recovering. That was its second left 180-degree turn in 15 minutes. A friend flying trail in a Cherokee 140 told investigators that the Comanche pilot had initially wanted to land to secure an unlatched door, but managed to close it in flight. After that, he’d decided to resume his original route.
Earlier that afternoon, the student pilot and his friend had flown the Cherokee 266 nautical miles from their home base of Bountiful, Utah, to pick up the Comanche in Caldwell, Idaho. The plan was for the buyer to fly the Cherokee, which he had already soloed, 7 nm to Nampa and leave it there for propeller maintenance; the two would then fly the Comanche home together. But after delivering the check and getting the keys, the Comanche’s new owner decided to fly it back to Bountiful himself. Recognizing that it was now his friend’s airplane, and anxious to be off before dark, the Cherokee pilot acquiesced. They agreed on an air-to-air frequency and took off about 7 p.m., 15 minutes after the end of civil twilight. The buyer got a ground briefing from the seller but didn’t request a check-out in the air.
The Comanche student pilot got lost at least twice. He had a Garmin 496 GPS receiver, but according to his friend hadn’t yet learned to use much more than the “direct-to” feature. At one point, he telephoned the previous owner from the air with a question about the fuel gauges and selector valve. After the first course reversal, he had contacted the tower at Twin Falls though he was actually in the vicinity of Mountain Home, 77 nm further west.
He gave the seller the impression that he was a certificated pilot, and claimed to have flown Comanches “about five years ago.” His logbook told a different story. His first lesson had been logged in July 2007, barely a year and a half earlier. He’d recorded exactly two flights in complex airplanes: a dual cross-country in a 250-horsepower Comanche in October 2007 and one lesson in a Piper Arrow in August 2008 logged as “introduction to complex.” That was his last known flight before the accident. His most recent solo endorsement had expired about two weeks earlier. He had 68 hours of total flight experience, 4.3 hours of night flight, no night cross-country time, no solo time at night, and no complex endorsement. After the accident, his friend told investigators that “… if anything, [he] was an optimistic thinker.”
Optimism may be useful at times, but too much of it can prove lethal in the air. Added to the excitement of first-time airplane ownership, it can be dangerously intoxicating.
Awareness of your own capabilities begins with recognizing your own mental state, including situations that limit your ability for self-evaluation. Stress and fatigue are two factors that should automatically raise questions about your true fitness to fly. The NTSB cited the pilot’s failure to report a recent history of treatment for anxiety and depression on his FAA medical application as a contributing factor in the accident. According to the report, the pilot also had trouble sleeping for a few nights before he purchased the aircraft.
Beyond that come the questions of whether your training and experience are equal to the challenges ahead. Low-time pilots in particular should remember that positive attitudes don’t negate either the laws of physics or the need for capable instruction before trying.