Sunday, July 24, 2011

Good Judgment Is Something That Some Have And Others Don't

Good judgment is something that some have and others don’t. I’m thinking about good judgment, the kind that, when absent, causes accidents. I still have trouble understanding how a pilot who crashed and killed three passengers, his wife and two children, eight years ago managed to do it again. Yes, he piloted a plane carrying his new wife and his only remaining child and once again crashed in bad weather. But, this time he died along with his second wife. Just horrible.

The particulars of this well publicized crash are worth reviewing. There are some teaching points here that best not be forgotten. They involve the decision making process that a competent pilot must go through before committing to a specific plan of action. In this case, where to land when the weather is bad to awful.

Now, before we get into some specifics, lets back up to the preflight. When a pilot files a flight plan, whether IFR or VFR, he or she must consider the weather. Weather is the thing that will get you. Particularly at the destination airport, but also can bite you enroute. Just fly into a thunderstorm once, and if you survive you’ll not do it again given a choice. Ok. So you check the weather and find out that conditions at the destination have a good chance of being or are IFR. You don’t just take off and assume you’ll be able to land at your destination without considering alternatives. The what ifs.

This poor chap’s destination was Charlevoix, MI (KCVX). An airport with only RNAV(GPS) approaches. That means you can land in weather with a ceiling of about 600 feet and 1 mile visibility. Now KCVX is surrounded by water so watch out, the weather could be much worse, which it turned out to be in this accidents scenario ( as it was apparently, in his first fatal crash).

OK. What happened is, this pilot got all the way to KCVX, found the weather to be bad. The field has an AWOS (automated weather reporting by radio or telephone). That means one can find out the weather by radio well before reaching the airport, allowing for a change to another field if the weather is bad. So assuming that the pilot tuned in to the AWOS, he elected to try to land, even though the weather was below minimums for the available approaches. Apparently doing a combination of an instrument approach and a very chancy visual one, the plane crashed. He ended up stalling out of a turn at a presumed low airspeed and crashed into a nearby garage. The only survivor, his son, who survived the first crash also.

The really sad thing is that only 26 miles to the northeast of Charlevoix was a larger airport, Pellston Regional. This airport was not only larger but had better instrument landing approaches, that probably would have allowed the pilot, if he had done it properly, to land in the bad weather. That alternative would have been a combination of good planning and good judgment. (I wrote an article about a trip from Burlington,Vt to Wheeling,WVa, that necessitated a diversion to a landing in Pittsburgh because of the risk of running out of fuel. Some of the above considerations are discussed there.)

When I was a young buck 2nd Lt in the army, a wise sergeant told us about the six P’s.
Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance. Fly wisely and be safe.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Air Traffic Controllers Usually Do An Outstanding Job

Just recently the quick thinking of an air traffic controller in the Midwest saved the life of an older couple in a high flying Cirrus. You probably have heard or read about it. As the controller was communicating with the pilot, he noticed that the pilots speech became slurred. To the controller that meant one thing, probable hypoxia. The plane was at 17000 feet, and was unpressurized. So, if the pilot and passenger were on oxygen, maybe something wasn’t working right.

The controller immediately shifted his focus to this pilot, in spite of working numerous other aircraft. He was able to talk with the pilot's wife, in the right seat, a non pilot. She had to take over the controls, which in this case meant learning to work the autopilot. She accomplished that with with the help of a nearby commuter turboprop pilot who followed along, assisting in this dramatic rescue. The goal of the controller was to have the plane descend to a lower altitude so the increased oxygen in the air would revive the pilot. This plan worked and finally the pilot was able to resume control of the plane and safely land as the hypoxia cleared.

In my opinion, this is juxtaposed to the mishandling of an A36 pilot in the mountains of the southeast by ATC. In that case a somewhat rusty, questionably skilled instrument pilot was placed on a vector into high terrain, below a safe altitude, and wasn’t alerted before he augured in. The official NTSB report doesn’t clearly define who was responsible, only that the pilot did not request specific flight following to warn of low terrain. Yes, there were some extenuating circumstances, but I believe them to be poor excuses. The bottom line is that a pilot crashed and burned on ATC’s watch.

OK, now compare this to the first example. Rather than consider who was responsible for the condition of the pilot ie. pilot or controller, the controller intervened immediately. Thus began a successful scenario that ultimately saved all aboard. ( By the way this dramatic event is available on the FAA website under Accident and Incident Data: Air Traffic Control Tapes-Cirrus, May 11, 2011)

My personal experiences with ATC have almost always been positive. I had some rather scary scenarios early in my career. For example, a flight between Syracuse and Boston in a Cherokee 140 almost ended in disaster. It was a long flight with deteriorating weather along the route. ATC helped out by suggesting a course of action that got us on the ground before the fuel ran out. Other times, a helpful vector or a shortened approach in bad weather, or a heads up warning of low terrain were greatly appreciated by me. That is why I felt so bad when I read about the crash of the plane in the mountains, an area I have flown in many times.

ATC does an outstanding job everyday, handling thousands of flights safely. Their fine work mostly goes unnoticed. So, when there is a goof, why not step up to the plate, accept some blame and then FIX the problem?