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Low ceilings, low fuel, no optionsLow ceilings, low fuel, no options

NYC06FA048 NYC06FA048 

Air Safety InstituteEvery flight consists of a series of decisions. Those decisions begin with the basic question of pilot capability, continue during preflight planning, and culminate in flight, where sound judgment is critical. A breakdown at any point in the process can place the flight in jeopardy. A series of poor choices, on the other hand, is an invitation to disaster.

On Jan. 1, 2006, a Beechcraft 55D Baron crashed while circling in IFR conditions at Dawson Municipal Airport in Dawson, Ga. The 1,500-hour pilot had already attempted instrument approaches at two other airports and was nearly out of fuel. While attempting to locate the runway below a 100-foot overcast, the pilot stalled the airplane. He and a passenger were killed. Three other passengers were seriously injured.

The flight took off from Indianapolis Metropolitan Airport in Indianapolis, Ind., at 10:30 a.m. One hour prior to departure, the pilot contacted the local flight service station, obtained a weather report, and filed two IFR flight plans—one from Indianapolis to Moultrie, Ga.; the other from Moultrie to his final destination of Ft. Myers, Fla. The terminal area forecast nearest to Moultrie Airport called for a broken ceiling at 800 feet with five miles visibility in mist.

The flight proceeded without incident for the first three hours. At 1:35 p.m., the pilot contacted Jacksonville Center and requested the VOR approach to Runway 22 at Moultrie Airport. Approximately 35 minutes later, he performed a missed approach due to a low ceiling and asked ATC for an alternate airport.

The controller suggested Southwest Georgia Regional Airport in Albany, Ga., about 34 nautical miles to the northwest. The pilot agreed and was given vectors for the ILS approach to Runway 4. At 2:30 p.m., he reported a missed approach and told the controller that he needed to find another airport nearby because he was “running out of fuel.” In response to ATC queries, the pilot reported that he was in IMC and had about 15 minutes of fuel remaining.

The controller issued vectors to Dawson Municipal Airport, approximately 17 nm to the northwest. At 2:41 p.m., radar contact with the airplane was lost. The controller continued to call the pilot, and a minute later the pilot reported that he was “trying to get this thing down.” No further communications were received.

Witnesses at Dawson Airport reported that the Baron crossed over Runway 31 and “made three passes, circling the runway.” During its final pass, the airplane “swung around,” and the nose suddenly dropped straight down, colliding with the ground. Weather conditions at the time of the accident were overcast at 100 feet, one mile visibility in mist. A review FSS data revealed no record of the pilot requesting any in-flight weather information. In addition, according to the pilot’s logbook, he had not performed an instrument approach during the previous six months, and nearly three years had passed since his last flight review.

The NTSB attributed the accident to the pilot’s failure to maintain sufficient airspeed, which resulted in an inadvertent stall and loss of control while circling to land. Contributing factors included the pilot’s inadequate planning and weather evaluation, low clouds, and the low-fuel condition.

Proper aeronautical decision-making should begin long before a flight leaves the ground. An honest self-assessment is part of that process. Are you current and proficient? The accident pilot did not meet the criteria for either.

Preflight planning is another area where decision-making is key. The accident pilot planned a trip of approximately 830 nm. Rather than stop for fuel at the halfway point, he chose an airport that was 540 nm away. When he missed the approach there, he had about 35 minutes of fuel left. When he went missed at his alternate, he only had 15 minutes in the tanks. The FARs require a 45-minute reserve at that point. The AOPA Air Safety Foundation recommends a “golden hour.”

Perhaps the most critical decisions are those made in flight. Has the weather at your destination deteriorated? Will you need to divert? If so, is your alternate still viable? The accident pilot apparently made no attempt to update his weather information en route. By the time he realized how low the ceiling was at his destination, he was no longer within range of a suitable alternate. After a series of questionable decisions, the pilot had essentially run out of options.