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How much is too much?How much is too much?

By David Jack Kenny

Sometimes deciding not to fly is simple. If the forecast includes a hurricane, tornadoes, or a major ice storm, staying home is not a tough call. The choice becomes more difficult when conditions are generally unfriendly, but no single aspect is completely prohibitive. How many different challenges does one flight have to pose before it’s better to wait for the situation to become more forgiving?

At 6:14 a.m. on Jan. 6, the pilot of a 2001 Mooney M20R obtained an online weather briefing and filed an IFR flight plan from Boyne City to Troy, Michigan, via the Grayling VOR. Estimated flight time for the 180-nautical mile trip was 51 minutes at an altitude of 5,000 feet msl. According to friends, it was a route he flew frequently, making the round trip as often as twice a week in the summer and two or three times a month over the winter. His planned departure time was 7:15 a.m., just over an hour before dawn.

At the time of his briefing, current conditions weren’t bad. Reported ceilings were 5,500 or higher with 10 miles visibility at both ends of the route. Winds were from the west to northwest at less than 15 knots. However, the area forecast called for an overcast layer between 3,000 and 12,000 feet agl, snow showers, and northwest winds gusting up to 25 to 30 knots.  Further south, ceilings were expected to drop to 2,000 feet overcast, and an Airmet Sierra warned of ceilings below 1,000 feet and diminished visibility in mist and blowing snow. Terminal forecasts along the route likewise called for falling ceilings, snow showers, and strong gusty winds. Even without the overcast, it would have been dark; the moon had set before 11 p.m. the previous night. Adding to the complications was the fact that IFR pilots departing Boyne City generally pick up their clearances airborne due to the near-impossibility of contacting air traffic control by radio while on the ground.

In addition to familiarity with the route, some other things were working in the pilot’s favor. He was instrument-rated, experienced, and apparently active; an insurance application filed the previous August listed more than 1,500 hours of total flight time that included almost 1,300 in the same make and model, with 100 hours flown in the preceding year. The details of his recent instrument experience, however, are not known.

By the time the pilot and his passenger arrived at the Boyne City airport, the weather had begun to deteriorate. The nearest weather stations, all more than 15 miles away, reported a mixture of conditions, with ceilings anywhere from 3,400 feet down to 1,200 feet and visibilities dropping below two miles in snow. At Charlevoix, 16 miles to the northwest, winds were from 340 degrees at 18 knots gusting to 27 knots, but at Gaylord and Harbor Springs reported winds hadn’t yet exceeded 16 knots. Archived weather radar images show bands of heavy snow moving through the area at about this time.

At Boyne City itself, the manager of the County Public Transit Department was in her office across the street from the airport when she heard an engine start. She described the sound as “deep, heavy,” and smooth. Conditions were very dark and it was snowing, with wind gusts producing “occasional white-out conditions.” Based on the engine noise, she concluded that the airplane had taken off to the east. About 20 minutes later, just after 7 a.m., she heard the sound of a crash. Several other witnesses also reported hearing the airplane, but due to the snow only its positional lights were visible. Two individuals reported seeing it bank hard, pitch up and then down, and descend into the ground. The pilot never made contact with air traffic control, and his airplane never climbed high enough to show up on radar—but the wreckage was found oriented along a northwesterly heading, consistent with the witnesses’ impression that he was trying to return to the airport. He and his passenger died on the scene.

The passenger’s sister told investigators that neither man absolutely had to be at work that day. They’d already postponed their return flight one day for weather. It’s not clear why they felt obliged to attempt it in circumstances that, if not outright dangerous, were bound to at least be uncomfortable. Perhaps, having been out of town over the New Year’s holiday, they felt uneasy about missing another day. We’re left to wonder whether the pilot also felt some well-placed unease at the prospect of making the flight. If so, he should have given it greater weight.