By David Jack Kenny
It’s drilled in from the earliest primary training: Always leave yourself a way out. Sometimes it’s phrased “Always have a Plan B,” which is a useful reminder that no matter how meticulously the flight is planned, things may not work out as anticipated. At that point, it’s good to have other options. A pilot contemplating a maximum-duration flight, for example, needs to think carefully about how to be sure it’s safe to pass up an en route fuel stop. The prospects for making it into the destination airport might be a factor in this. Likewise, on an instrument flight into low IMC, having enough fuel to go someplace with better weather provides considerable peace of mind.
On the evening of Jan. 5, 2011, a Beech BE-58P crashed during an attempted ILS approach to Birmingham International Airport in Alabama, killing its solo pilot. The airplane had departed from Morristown Municipal Airport in New Jersey almost five and a half hours earlier on an IFR flight plan to the Mountain Empire Airport in Marion, Va. This was apparently the first leg of a trip to the Shelby County Airport in Alabaster, Ala.; when he filed just after noon, the 1,500-hour private pilot also obtained a standard briefing for an IFR flight from Morristown Municipal to Shelby County. About two hours and 40 minutes after takeoff, he asked Roanoke Approach Control to amend his destination, and Roanoke cleared him direct to Alabaster.
The terminal forecasts available during his briefing for both Shelby County and Birmingham (his alternate) predicted 1,000-foot overcasts with six miles visibility in mist. Updated terminal forecasts were issued before he took off about 1:20 p.m., but there’s no evidence that he saw them, and radio transcripts indicate that he didn’t seek an updated briefing en route. He requested the GPS approach to Runway 34 at Shelby County and was cleared to the initial fix before he had gotten local conditions from its AWOS. The ceiling was down to 300 overcast, below minimums for the approach, so he prudently diverted to Birmingham.
Birmingham Approach Control provided vectors to the localizer for the ILS to Runway 24. Radar data showed that the pilot initially intercepted the localizer but not the glideslope, and then veered off to the left during the handoff from approach to the tower. The tower controller made radio contact and the pilot confirmed that he was off the localizer. He acknowledged instructions to climb to 3,100 and turn right to a 360 heading, but was unable to comply. The airplane dropped off radar about half a mile south of the airport at an altitude of 1,700 feet. The wreckage was found in a residential area; the lack of any debris trail or damage to nearby trees suggest that it hit in a steep nose-down descent.
There was also a post-crash fire, so most likely some fuel was still on board. The right engine’s fuel selector was found in the crossfeed position, but the cables that connected the valves to the selector handles had been pulled loose by the impact. Still, fuel status may well have been on the pilot’s mind. Five-and-a-half hours is a long time to keep feeding two turbocharged 325-horsepower engines, and the NTSB’s probable-cause report speculated that “given the lack of a fuel stop, the pilot may have felt personal pressure to land the airplane as soon as possible.” Five-and-a-half hours is also a long time for a solo pilot to fly without a break. The accident occurred almost two hours after sunset, raising the possibility that fatigue also played a role.
His immediate problem, though, was to fly an ILS after being vectored onto the localizer. Investigators weren’t able to determine his experience in actual instrument conditions—his logbooks have not been recovered—but they did find evidence of considerable recent training. Their file includes the summary of an interview with a CFI who flew 20 hours with the accident pilot over two days about three weeks earlier. According to the instructor, the pilot had owned the airplane for about six months and wanted to become more familiar with its equipment, particularly the Garmin 530 GPS. In the course of completing an instrument proficiency check, the instructor said they spent a good deal of time on attitude instrument flying, which he thought was not the pilot’s greatest strength.
None of the challenges of this flight were insurmountable, but all told there were a lot of them. A long flight into lower-than-predicted weather after dark, diverting to an alternate to attempt an approach close to minimums with unfamiliar equipment and uncertain fuel reserves, requires a pilot to do just about everything right. That’s a burden most of us should be cautious about taking on.