Aftermath: Little Things
During the long time the flight was without communication, it appeared to controllers that the 182 must have suffered a complete communications failure and could neither hear nor transmit. Though the transponder continued to operate, and therefore this was clearly not a case of a total electrical failure, it never squawked 7600, as would have been expected for lost comm. Nor did the pilot land at Columbus, though the customary lost-comm procedure, even under VFR, is either to land at the first opportunity or else to continue to where you said you were going. Often, however, pilots with minor problems like to get back to their home base rather than be stuck away during repairs.
National Transportation Safety Board investigators studying the wreckage found a likely explanation for the long radio silence. The transmit selector on the airplane’s King audio panel was set to PA — the passenger address system which, as the Cessna manual explains, is “unused” in the 182 — rather than to one of the two valid COM options. (The KMA 26’s COM3 option was presumably also unused.) The NTSB concluded that in the process of switching to Atlanta Center frequency the pilot somehow disabled his transmitters by inadvertently selecting PA. Arriving at his home field, he found himself unable to activate the runway lights, which required that the radio transmit multiple short blips on the common traffic advisory frequency. At this point, the instrument-rated pilot, who had been in the air for more than four hours, probably tried to position himself for landing using his panel-mounted GPS and the runway’s approach path indicator lights but lost control when he became disoriented during his steep turn over completely dark terrain.
It is not easy to understand how the mistake occurred in the first place. The pilot switched transmitters early in the flight at the request of the controller. If he was in the habit of using one transmitter rather than the other and had switched to the one less often used, then he might, from force of habit, have made the frequency change to Atlanta in the first radio, then accidentally switched to PA rather than back to the radio in use. He may have been predisposed to believe he had radio trouble by the controller’s complaint about the radio he started with. In any case, the NTSB’s theory that the position of the transmit selector led to the events of the flight seems generally plausible, especially in the absence of any other explanation.
The finding of probable cause — simply that the pilot became disoriented over dark terrain — is minimalist. The NTSB could also have mentioned the possible role of fatigue, and there was also a question of currency, or lack of it. In the year preceding the aircraft accident, the pilot had logged only 12 hours. No flights whatever had been recorded in the previous eight months. His last biennial had taken place five years earlier.
The pilot’s en route decision-making also deserved a comment. His choosing to continue past Columbus and return home was understandable. He may have failed to anticipate that he would be unable to turn on the runway lights at Harnett; after all, he could have had carrier but no modulation. But the decision to attempt a night landing on an unlighted runway was bold, to put it mildly. Turning inbound from a tight circle less than a mile from the runway wouldn’t make the trick any easier, and beginning the turn at 1,700 feet agl made it nearly acrobatic. Even without the disorientation, to align with a dark runway and then touch down under control, using only one’s landing lights, would be an achievement, especially for a pilot who flew very seldom, and almost never at night. A localizer was available — why did he not at least use it?
A single misstep, relatively innocuous in itself, led, through a series of minor decisions and errors, to a final, fateful choice. The moral of the story is that it is better to retreat from difficulty, if we can, rather than to plunge deeper into it. The trouble with improvisation in flying is that it may uncover our weaknesses.
This article is based on the NTSB’s report of the aircraft accident and is intended to bring the issues raised to our readers’ attention. It is not intended to judge or to reach any definitive conclusions about the ability or capacity of any person, living or dead, or any aircraft or accessory.