Every VFR pilot who has flown long enough to have gotten himself into and out of a few tight situations knows how insidious the onset of trouble is. He knows, too, that your state of mind when you are in the airplane, especially as you near your destination and the weather starts to go bad on you, is different from the one you are in when you read about such events in this magazine or discuss them with your pilot friends. The inflight decision-making process contains an element of what you might call goal addiction — the emotional momentum that makes people at an auction bid beyond the value of a thing — that displaces caution and calm deliberation. Our zeal to attain the goal grows in proportion to its proximity.
Airplane accidents that illustrate this phenomenon are not hard to find. Here are two that happened to occur on the same day — Nov. 26, 2011 — in two patches of sticky, but not really very bad, weather in different parts of the country. Both involved single-engine airplanes flown by noninstrument-rated 200-hour pilots, and both ended with the airplane careening into a tightening spiral until it met the ground and was instantly smashed to fragments. These two accidents took six lives, but it’s safe to say that the purposes of the flights were not matters of life and death.
A pilot and a passenger were flying from Snyder, Texas, to Ruidoso, New Mexico, in a 182. At 8:21 a.m., the pilot called Roswell approach control. “I was just wondering if you’d watch me through your area,” he said. The controller requested his altitude (it was 8,500 feet), gave him the local altimeter setting and assigned him a transponder code. He then advised him of an area of precipitation, about 10 miles in diameter, 15 miles ahead of him.
“Uh, looks like snow?” the pilot said.
Radar just shows water; it does not distinguish between rain and snow, as the controller gently explained.
A minute later, the pilot said, “I’m gonna drop down about 1,000 feet and see if I can stay out of the clouds.”
“Are you familiar with the high terrain around the Sierra Blanca airport?” the controller asked. The pilot, perhaps distracted, did not reply.
Roswell lies in an open plain with an elevation of 4,000 to 4,500 feet. To the west the terrain rises steadily toward Ruidoso, 50 nm distant. Ruidoso’s Sierra Blanca Regional Airport is at 6,800 feet in a rugged funnel-shaped basin between ridges rising more than 10,000 feet above sea level. It’s likely that the pilot, whose father was waiting to meet him there, was familiar with the area. If so, he would have known that it would be very difficult to get into Sierra Blanca in conditions of low ceilings and reduced visibility. Still, it could not hurt to take a look.
Shortly the pilot, now about 10 miles west of Roswell, advised the controller that he was turning back, because “our visibility’s got real poor.” He made a left 180, flew a few miles back toward Roswell and then turned right about 50 degrees, evidently in order to keep clear of Roswell traffic while he decided what to do next.
Continuing for several minutes in a southeasterly direction, he discussed the weather with the Roswell controller, who offered the opinion that “it should be clearing up pretty soon.” The pilot then tried to make a phone call to Sierra Blanca. This failed, but he did reach unicom by radio and said that he had been unable to continue because of the weather. The unicom operator interpreted the message to mean that the pilot had decided to land elsewhere; but in fact he made a left turn back to a westbound heading. “I’m gonna run back at this one more time and see what it looks like,” he told the Roswell controller, and then signed off.
He was not heard from again.