Should New Haven Pilot Have Landed Straight In?
CEO of Airborne Sensor shares his thoughts on the Twin Commander crash in New Haven.
By David Tenenbaum / Published: Aug 15, 2013
Like many pilots, I follow coverage of accidents knowing that I might someday find myself in a similar position. It lets me consider, and hopefully remember when the time comes, the “best choice” plan I should follow. Because I fly a Twin Commander, I am paying particularly close attention to last Friday’s accident in New Haven, Connecticut.
I want to say upfront that I have no knowledge of what occurred, except what I’ve read about the accident. But two related thoughts come to mind.
First, the pilot is the person who is most aware of his airplane’s capabilities. I fly a model of Twin Commander that likely has a bit more wing and a bit more power than the airplane involved in the New Haven crash, but these are enormously capable aircraft, with among other things reverse thrust (on the ground only, of course) of about 1,000 horsepower. With the weather right at circling minimums, the pilot of the Twin Commander requested a straight-in approach. He was denied the request by the New Haven Tower controller due to a 17-knot tailwind. While this might not seem like a prudent request for most aircraft, I went to my POH to see if it would have been a wise option in this case.
The Twin Commander POH shows landing numbers up to a 10-knot tailwind, but it is a straight line correction on the graph, so taking it up to a 20-knot tailwind, it shows that at sea level, at max gross weight, starting at 50 feet over the runway, my airplane will come to a stop with reverse thrust and brakes in about 3,000 feet (although this does not take into account the wet runway). With no brakes, the POH says the stop distance from 50 feet in the air is about 5,500 feet. Runway 2 at New Haven is 5,600 feet long. So requesting a straight-in approach with a 17-knot tailwind in this particular aircraft may have been a rational choice.
No controller can be expected to know performance figures for any individual aircraft, so the controllers at New Haven would have no idea of the Twin Commander’s capabilities. I do wonder, independent of this event, when a pilot is told not to complete a straight-in approach, whether he should say “unable” to a circling approach in marginal weather conditions and go ahead and complete the straight-in.
Here’s my second thought about this accident. I’ve been flying for 30 years, and I've observed that my friends who are military-trained pilots are much more likely to shoulder the command decision and follow a prudent course of action, whereas civilian trained pilots will usually defer to the controller, even when they have misgivings about a certain course of action. There seems to be something about the military pilot training culture that recognizes the ultimate responsibility for safe completion of the flight is in the pilots’ hands, and controllers are one of many sources of information and guidance they use.
You can argue whether this is a good or bad thing, and it always comes down to the skills of the individual. There is no doubt military pilots have very high training standards. That said, might there be times when a pilot decides the safety of the flight requires them to do something contrary to what they are told by a controller? By the same token, are there some situations where an FAA procedure, if faithfully followed, increases risk?
I ran into something like this not long ago, while shooting an approach into an airport with convective activity a few miles off the far end of the runway. If I had to go missed, the missed approach procedure would take me right into the storm, where other quadrants were clear. I later asked a mentor of mine, a highly accomplished military pilot, if I was forced to go missed, should I fly the published approach, or instead fly some other heading I believed to be safe (taking into account MSAs, terrain, and so on). He said he was taught to work out an alternative missed approach with the controller beforehand. That option would never have occurred to me, and I do not recall, in lots of high level training, such an action being even suggested.
I come from a civilian-trained background, and this was another example for me of when a military-trained pilot would have a broader range of options than I was aware of, even if it seems contrary to published FAA procedure. I wonder if some more crossover of military training culture to the civil ranks would be beneficial?
Of course, overriding all this would be the option, if available, of diverting to an airport with an ILS aligned into the wind and renting a car. One thing that has been drilled into me is to recognize, hopefully early on, when things are stacking up against me and opt for a simpler and safer solution. At this point there is no way of knowing the factors involved in this particular accident, but in time the NTSB will do its usual amazing job, sharing important information and giving us another chance to learn lessons.
David Tenenbaum is CEO of Massachusetts-based Airborne Sensor LLC. He holds an Airline Transport Pilot certificate for multiengine airplanes.
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