For the past couple of years, the industry (including AOPA) has paid a good deal of attention to the problems of how to get more prospective pilots first into flight training, then through it successfully. Progress has been slow, but there’s reason to hope that sustained efforts will eventually help reverse what’s now a 30-year decline in the number of active pilots.
Most of that attention has gone to a few well-defined segments of the larger problem. Younger prospects who know they want to fly may well be daunted by the cost; established adults who have the disposable income also find more potential diversions competing for their cash. The value proposition of light GA—what you gain in capability for what you spend in effort, time, and money—is a close call for most potential pilots. If flying an airplane isn’t more fun than driving a station wagon, it’s hard to argue that it’s worth the bother.
Recent events, though, serve as a reminder that we don’t always connect even with some of those who have the most to gain: smart, successful, hard-driving entrepreneurs who understand how much private aviation can do to help build a business and can afford to operate the equipment needed to realize those advantages.
Just after midnight on Dec. 18, a King Air 100 crashed into trees along the final approach course while trying to land at Libby, Mont. The airplane was registered to a steel fabrication company in Coolidge, Ariz., and flown by the company’s founder and CEO. He and one of his employees had come up to attend meetings at their Libby plant, which he’d opened in 2010. In just over two years, it had grown into one of the largest employers in the area.
According to the NTSB’s preliminary report, they flew up from Coolidge on an instrument flight plan. Seven minutes before midnight, the pilot was cleared for Libby’s only charted approach, the GPS-A. Six minutes later, he reported the airport in sight and canceled IFR. It wasn’t until 11 a.m. the next day, when the two men didn’t show up as scheduled, that the flight was reported missing. The wreckage was found that evening.
The accident investigation is still in its earliest stages, and it will probably be at least a year before we have a clear idea of what went wrong. According to a police officer who saw the airplane during the approach, visibility at the airport was good but the pilot-controlled lighting was never activated. But the initial investigation turned up one very surprising item: FAA records indicated that the CEO held only a student pilot certificate, issued on June 9, 2010.
This surprised the chairman of Libby’s airport authority, who told reporters that the King Air had “had hundreds of operations into Libby,” including “a lot of GPS approaches.” He added that, “From what I understood, he’s been flying all his life.”
A little caution is in order here. It’s possible that he passed a multiengine private and instrument checkride (getting his complex, high-performance, and high-altitude endorsements along the way) so recently that the FAA is still processing his paperwork. Some sort of problem with the airman database is also conceivable. But suppose, just for purpose of argument, that the pilot—whose company acquired the King Air in 2007, three years before that student pilot application—learned to fly it well enough to routinely make long cross-country flights under IFR at night without ever bothering to jump through the hoops of getting the certificate and ratings required to do it legally. Why, you might ask, would anyone take that risk?
It’s easy to imagine how it could have happened. Needing to visit job sites around the country, then scout locations for the new facility, you buy a capable airplane and hire a pilot to fly it. Being a hands-on guy, you take to sitting up front, then ask your pilot to show you how to handle the controls. Finer instruction in systems management, instrument procedures, and radio jargon follow. Pretty soon you’re doing most of the flying under paid supervision, and at some point start thinking, “Hell, I can do this myself.” Then your pilot’s not available when you need to go, or you just get tired of the extra payroll expense. After all, it is your airplane.
We don’t know that any of this actually occurred, but it wouldn’t be without precedent. Other horrific accidents have taken the lives of pilots who either fabricated their credentials, or didn’t bother doing that. It might help to know what aspect of the training process would tempt a man with the means, need, and aptitude to shepherd 10,000 pounds of complex machinery through the clouds at night to decide that also meeting the legal requirements just wasn’t worth the trouble.