Some of the requirements posed by the federal aviation regulations can seem needlessly rigid, if not downright silly. You might not want a new private pilot carrying passengers without having made three takeoffs and landings in the preceding 90 days, but a 12,000-hour commercial pilot won’t forget how to land an airplane after three months. The night currency requirements are even more likely to inspire this kind of complaint, since the window for night takeoffs and landings gets pretty narrow in the northern states over the summer. The answer, perhaps, is that the regulatory requirements merely establish a floor, a baseline level of proficiency no one should operate beneath. While this may never be an issue for our 12,000-hour charter pilot, it’s simpler to impose uniform standards than attempt to calibrate them to every possible situation.
Of course, some requirements are more clearly and compellingly relevant than others.
Beginning about 2:20 p.m. on Nov. 10, 2013, the pilot of a 1999-model Beech B36TC Bonanza made three IFR flights around northern Texas, going from the Tradewinds Airport outside Amarillo to Lubbock Preston Smith International, from Lubbock to the Collin County Regional Airport outside Dallas, and then back to Lubbock, arriving shortly after 11:15 p.m. All told, he was airborne for 3.2 hours during nine hours’ elapsed time.
At about 11:45 p.m. he took off again, this time on the relatively short hop back to Tradewinds. Weather generally hadn’t been bad during the afternoon; the METAR recorded just before his first landing in Lubbock showed 10 miles visibility and a few clouds at 1,500 feet agl. By the time he returned that night, skies were clear but visibility had edged down to 9 miles, with five-knot southerly winds and less than one degree Celsius separating the temperature and dew point. By midnight, visibility was down to five miles in mist. Back at Amarillo, heavy fog had moved in by 9 p.m. METARs recorded throughout the evening consistently showed surface visibility of a quarter mile or less and vertical visibilities of just 100 feet.
At about 12:25 a.m.—some 10 hours after taking off on the first leg—the Bonanza began two turns in the holding pattern at the ZERAR waypoint depicted on the GPS approach to Runway 35 at Tradewinds while another aircraft tried to get into Rick Husband Amarillo International, just six miles from Tradewinds. At 12:32, after learning that aircraft had landed safely, Albuquerque Center cleared the Bonanza for the approach. At 12:39, the pilot reported that he was executing the published missed approach due to fog, returning to ZERAR. At 12:47, he requested the ILS to Runway 4 at Amarillo International. Given its proximity to Tradewinds, the weather there couldn’t be expected to be a great deal better (and wasn’t—the METARs cited earlier came from Amarillo International), so the pilot also designated the Hale County Airport in Plainview as his alternate in case of another missed approach.
Albuquerque Center wasn’t equipped to provide radar vectors to final, so the Bonanza’s clearance included a restriction to cross the 14-mile DME arc on the 218 radial of the Panhandle VOR at or above 6,100 feet. The pilot’s readback was the last transmission received from him. Radar track data showed that the Bonanza tracked the final approach course a little south of the localizer and began the missed approach procedure before disappearing. The wreckage was found in a flat pasture at the end of a very short debris field, suggesting a nose-down impact. Control continuity was confirmed aside from overload separations of the cables, and the engine and propeller fragments suggested the engine was producing full power at impact. The NTSB concluded that the private pilot had lost control initiating the missed approach. All three on board were killed.
On a medical application filed 17 days before the accident flight, he’d reported 410 hours of flight experience. Not too surprisingly, he didn’t have a lot of make-and-model time; he’d bought the Bonanza in Greensboro, N.C. on Oct. 30, and then done some fairly intensive transition training. Despite having been signed off for a formal check-out, including complex and high-performance endorsements, he chose to hire an experienced Bonanza pilot to accompany him on the flight home. That pilot recalled that the new owner had done all the flying, but they hadn’t flown any instrument procedures.
What is surprising is that he didn’t hold an instrument rating. He told the broker who sold him the airplane that he’d planned to get it before making the purchase, and a CFI who’d worked with him the preceding summer told investigators that he was “very close … I believe he would have passed the check ride.” But on Oct. 24, the day he’d also scheduled his final check flight for the signoff, he’d failed the instrument knowledge test, coming in one question short of the required 70 percent. It would appear that he’d decided to go ahead with the purchase—and the subsequent flights—without it.
The 1999 B36TC came from the factory with a full three-axis autopilot, in this case coupled to a Garmin 430. The radar track of the accident flight shows a precision that would be truly impressive for a pilot with only 40 hours of instrument time. Given that the weather was fine throughout the afternoon and the airplane could almost fly itself, it’s not hard to imagine how the instrument checkride—not to mention the written, with all those arcane meteorology questions—might have seemed like a formality that could be wrapped up at some more convenient time.