Among the ongoing responsibilities of the AOPA Air Safety Institute is that of monitoring new reports as they’re issued by the National Transportation Safety Board. Often this is not a task for the faint of heart. The mayhem that can result from a single ill-considered decision—a private pilot’s attempt to roll a Beech Baron while carrying four passengers, or a Georgia homebuilder’s willingness to take off at 3:30 a.m. with five people on board his four-seat RV-10—can lead a reader to question the very notion of human rationality.
Others offer more in the way of innocent entertainment. A case in point is the just-released factual report on a Piper Cherokee Six accident in Nevada that caused embarrassment but no injury, and which we reprint in its entirety:
The pilot reported that during the landing roll a “dust devil hit the rear” of the airplane, “throwing it into the right lane and sliding the airplane sideways down the runway.” The pilot reported that the airplane veered off the left side of the runway, over a dirt berm, and impacted a fence with the left wing.
The pilot reported there were no pre-impact mechanical failures or malfunctions with the airframe or engine that would have precluded normal operation. The airplane sustained substantial damage to the left wing.
A witness that was at the airport reported the wind was calm all day.
That last detail is less of contradiction than it might initially seem. Dust devils are likeliest in strong sun, light winds, and cool temperatures. Archived METARs recorded clear skies, but temperatures close to 80 degrees Fahrenheit and winds of eight to nine knots about 30 degrees off the runway—perhaps not the conditions most conducive to the formation of miniature whirlwinds.
However, the Cherokee pilot is not alone. A quick search of the NTSB database turned up 150 other reports alluding to dust devils, sometimes conflated with gusts or wind shear. It’s largely a regional phenomenon; only seven of the 151 accidents occurred east of the Mississippi. Texas, California, and the states of the Mountain West are heavily represented, but there were also two in Illinois, two in Arkansas, and a single case in Hawaii.
Attributing misfortune to “dust devils” has not always impressed the NTSB. It bought the stories of a California student who lost control trying to land a Cessna 172 and a Globe Swift owner who got sideways over a runway in New Mexico, but the board blamed the Wyoming crash of a Cessna Cardinal on “the pilot’s inadequate flare” and a Cirrus SR22 accident in Colorado on “The student pilot’s decision to fly solo into an unfamiliar, mountain airport” compounded by an overly rich fuel mixture. Winds at that field were 16 knots with gusts to 24, making the formation of dust devils prohibitively unlikely. Oh, and the flight wasn’t authorized by the student’s instructor, presumably because he or she would have known better.
People who rent aircraft to strangers probably won’t be too surprised to learn that plenty of them are willing to blame whatever goes wrong on something other than their own judgment and technique. Still, dust devils seem like an odd choice of scapegoat if only because they’re usually visible (otherwise how would you know they’re there?). Yes, one pilot did report that he saw them “moving away from the runway” and decided it was safe to go ahead and land, only to be caught by a straggler. Far more often, though, the pilot saw the column of swirling debris but made no effort to avoid it. Others never saw anything of the sort but surmised its existence after the fact. More than a few of the latter seem to be reaching a bit. Case in point: the 172 pilot who blamed “an extremely strong wind gust” for his inability to get off a 3,150-foot gravel strip at an 8,000-foot density altitude with all four seats filled.
Readers old enough to remember the comedian Flip Wilson surely also remember his alter ego Geraldine, who liked to explain all the mischief she got up to by saying, “The Devil made me do it!” Maybe that’s our answer, too.
David Jack Kenny is manager of safety analysis for the AOPA Air Safety Institute.