A Pilot Goes One Airport Too Far

Heading to West Houston Airport (KIWS), he follows the 'insidious demon' of scud running to his demise.

A pilot friend—now in his late 70s and, for health reasons, no longer flying—recalled donating an unusual homebuilt of his to a museum. It was the airplane in which he had done a lot of his early flying, including episodes of scud running in the Pacific Northwest that he would occasionally describe with that combination of relish and shame that pilots reserve for situations of their own making from which they were lucky to escape with their lives.

“When I taxied up and shut down the engine,” he said, “a warm feeling filled my whole body. And I realized that it was the feeling that this was the last time I would fly that airplane, and it hadn’t killed me.”

Scud running, flying VFR under low clouds and with limited visibility, is one of the most dangerous and ill-advised things a pilot can do. Despite being counseled against it, however, many—perhaps even most—new pilots find themselves scud running at some point. The lucky ones get a scare and start working on an instrument rating. The unlucky ones—well, results may vary.

The Journey Begins

A pilot, 69, and his wife set out from California in a Mooney M20K, bound for the pilot’s home field of West Houston Airport (KIWS) in Texas. When they descended to refuel at Bullhead City, Arizona, they got a low-battery warning; but after fueling, the engine restarted easily, the voltage indication was normal, and they decided to continue.

It was dark when they reached El Paso, Texas, and on final approach, the instrument-panel lights went out, along with the Garmin GPS. With the help of flashlights, they landed uneventfully. Over dinner, they discussed the problem. They thought it most likely alternator trouble and decided that the wife should continue to Houston on a commercial flight; she had to be at work, and the pilot “did not want her to go down [with him] if something went wrong.” Most of the time, there is nothing premonitory about those macabre pilot jokes.

The pilot left El Paso at 12:50 p.m. the next day. He had obtained a Leidos weather briefing an hour earlier: VFR was not recommended in Central Texas, and in East Texas, there were thunderstorms and moderate to heavy rain. In Houston, however, there was no rain. The briefer advised the pilot to check the Houston weather for updates while en route, but there is no record he did so.

Despite being counseled against it, however, many—perhaps even most—new pilots find themselves scud running at some point.

He cruised at 9,500 feet, enjoying a 20-knot tailwind. Whatever impediments to visibility there may have been in Central Texas, he flew either over or around them. As he approached Houston, however, a layer of cumuliform clouds was moving across the area. The bigger buildups lay to the south and east, over the Gulf, but the northern edge of the clouds just overlapped the final miles of the pilot’s flight. Houston Executive, 9 miles west of KIWS, was reporting 1,000 overcast, 4 miles in light rain; 20 minutes later, the ceiling was down to 900 feet and visibility at 2.5 miles.

There was no shortage of airports with better weather west and north of Houston. Unlike pilots who have flown for a long time into gradually worsening weather, the Mooney pilot knew there were better conditions nearby. Furthermore, he was familiar with the area; he must have known plenty of places where he could land and leave the airplane until the weather at KIWS improved.

Nevertheless, he continued toward West Houston Airport.

What Happened

He passed midfield over Houston Executive at 2,775 feet msl. He was still above the clouds, but he must have been either able to recognize landmarks through gaps or tracking his progress on the GPS, because immediately after crossing Executive, he turned right 90 degrees, flew south a couple of miles, and then turned eastward about a mile south of Interstate 10. He continued generally eastward, with deviations left and right, for around 8 miles, then turned northward and began to descend.

He was not in radio contact with any ground facility. His route was that of a VFR pilot who might habitually approach West Houston by keeping the interstate on his left until he passes the four-lane Highway 99 and Fry Road, which runs north to south a mile east. These were unmistakable landmarks—or so it seemed.

At some point, the Mooney got under the clouds. Witnesses reported seeing a low-flying airplane going northwestward. As it began a descending right turn, a wing clipped power lines, the airplane pitched up, then nosed over and crashed in a field about 4 miles northwest of its destination.

The pilot’s wife told accident investigators that her husband, who had 250 hours total time, was careful to avoid bad weather, and that they had remained in California several days longer than planned while waiting for the outlook for their return flight to improve. This fact, which seems so incompatible with the way events unfolded, actually highlights the psychological power of a destination tantalizingly close at hand.

We have all experienced that irrational impulse called “get-home-itis.” It is the insidious demon that persuades pilots that a fuel gauge saying empty doesn’t really mean it, that worsening visibility will soon improve, and that the rough-running engine will be OK for another 20 miles. It is perhaps especially difficult to accept, at the end of a textbook VFR flight with a good tailwind, that a few inconvenient wisps of water vapor are going to ruin the day. Hangar, dinner, bed—how sweet they seem.

Scud running into unfamiliar terrain is scary, but close to home, you may feel that you will always be able to find your way. But perhaps that very familiarity of the area was the thing that ensnared the Mooney pilot. He knew perfectly well how to get to West Houston. But when you’re just a few hundred feet above the ground, the usual landmarks look different. He may have mistaken Fry Road for Highway 6, a mile or so farther along, which passes just east of KIWS. To compound his perplexities, all this was taking place inside the 30 nm veil of Houston Class Bravo, right under the baleful and all-seeing eye of ATC radar. If he got lost and ended up having to ask for help, he would be in legal trouble. But he was heading north, and it looked brighter there. Besides, he had to be near the airport. It must be just ahead.

It wasn’t.

Exactly why the flight ended as it did, we can’t tell. Why did the pilot get low enough to hit power lines? Could he have been distracted by an electrical problem like those that had plagued the previous flights? Did the GPS go out again, at the worst possible moment? Impossible to know. But one thing is pretty certain: If he had stayed in VMC, his casual joke about going down would have remained a joke and soon been forgotten.

Inconsequential Decisions

This accident illustrates a phenomenon for which psychologists, economists and social scientists probably have a name. I will call it the “momentum of inconsequential decisions.” The decision to fly to a certain location at a certain time may be arbitrary; you could go at a different time or to a different place—or not go at all. Plans can be changed with a text or phone call. By and large, people accept the judgment of the pilot.

But once you are airborne and en route, the initial decision gains mass and momentum from the mere fact of its having been set in motion.

In June 2019, the non-instrument-rated owner of an A36 Bonanza offered to take a friend on a trip of several hundred miles, in order to consider a job offer. She was hesitant, but he encouraged her. They encountered weather along the way. What began as a reluctantly accepted friendly favor became that nebulous juggernaut: a commitment to be kept. The pilot did not turn back. Instead, he flew a more and more sinuous path at lower and lower altitude. You know the rest.

Editor’s Note: This article is based on the NTSB reports of these accidents and is intended to bring the issues raised to our readers’ attention.

This article originally appeared in the November 2021 issue of FLYING.

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