Aftermath: Sometimes You Can't Help It

When the airplane entered the clouds, there was no turning back.

Aftermath Artwork
Accident analysis that goes behind and beyond the NTSB report.Flying

The size and thoroughness of NTSB accident reports tend to be roughly proportional to the number of fatalities, the cost of the airplane or the incomes of the victims. But there are many exceptions to the general pattern, and the crash of a Piper Arrow near Woodbine, New Jersey, in November 2009 was one. It took only two lives, those of the pilot, 58, and his 12-year-old son. But the investigator in charge documented the accident thoroughly, interviewed a number of witnesses and friends of the pilot, and spoke at length with the pilot's wife. Finally, he included in his report excerpts from the FAA's Airplane Flying Handbook, which discusses emergency procedures for inadvertent VFR penetration into IMC, and the kinds of pilot behaviors and attitudes that lead to such incidents.

According to newspaper accounts, the father and son had been planning a hunting trip in Indiana for six months. When the time came, however, a slow-moving weather system blanketed the Eastern Seaboard. They intended to leave on Thursday. Thursday came and went, and so did Friday, without a break in the weather. On Saturday morning, they were at the airport again. This was the last day on which they could depart. By now the clouds consisted of only a stratus deck, with clear skies above and better weather to the west. At the airport, however, the ceiling was still 300 feet.

They fueled the airplane. The pilot told his wife by phone that he could see thin spots in the overcast and sunlight peeking through. At last, they were going to go. If they did not get on top quickly, he said, they would come back.

Several strange minutes followed during which the sound of the Arrow’s engine could be heard — first closer, then farther — south-southwest of the airport.

Witnesses who knew that the pilot did not have an instrument rating were surprised to see the Arrow take off and disappear into the overcast beyond the end of the runway. Several strange minutes followed during which the sound of the Arrow’s engine could be heard — first closer, then farther — south-southwest of the airport.

One witness, who lived south of the airport, heard the Arrow as well and noticed the engine sound seemed to go “up and down,” as if the airplane were doing aerobatics. Then he saw the Arrow emerge from the clouds and fly over his neighbor’s house, lower than he had ever seen an airplane before. He sent his daughter inside for her safety. The airplane disappeared into the clouds and then re-emerged briefly two or three times.

Then he heard the crash.

The outer part of the right wing had separated, from overstress, before the Arrow plunged into the trees.

NTSB investigators retrieved the Arrow’s flight path from a portable GPS receiver. Never more than a couple of miles from the airport, it had made a series of tightening 360-degree left turns, followed by right and left 180-degree turns, and then an increasingly chaotic series of heading changes, some abrupt. Its altitude, according to a fragmentary record retrieved from ATC radar, varied from 200 to 1,600 feet.

The outer part of the right wing had separated, from overstress, before the Arrow plunged into the trees.

As is usual after an accident, friends and acquaintances of the pilot described him as “meticulous” and “safety-conscious.” He would not intentionally fly into clouds or put himself in danger. He would take no risks with his son on board. A flight instructor who knew him said it was completely out of character for him to do what he did. He was said to be attentive to maintenance. When told one of his cylinders needed overhaul, the pilot had replaced all four, one acquaintance recalled. A newspaper report speculated there must have been some sort of mechanical problem that even a pilot of his 10 years of experience could not deal with.

The truth was slightly different. He had been flying for five years and had less than 400 hours. He had replaced two cylinders, not four. His medical was long out of date, as was his transponder check. And flying into clouds was not out of character. His wife told the FAA investigator her husband occasionally flew through clouds 1,000 to 2,000 feet thick — never in them more than two minutes — at the start or end of a flight. “Sometimes, ” she said, “you can’t help it.” The boy thought flying into clouds was “cool.” She didn’t like it so much.

For obvious reasons, no statistics exist on how often noninstrument-rated pilots deliberately fly into clouds. At any rate, he was hardly the only pilot ever to have done so. It must typically happen when there is a thin stratus deck at the start or end of a flight. Either the pilot glimpses the ground and drops down through the clouds because the airport is reporting 2,000 overcast, so he knows he’ll have plenty of room underneath, or he glimpses sun or sky from the ground and concludes the clouds must be thin enough to get through quickly. Obviously, there is some risk of collision — but that’s easily rationalized away on grounds of extreme improbability.

Let’s assume, although others who were on the scene reported the overcast to have been solid, that the pilot, his sensitivity sharpened by intense impatience to depart, did discern a hint of sunlight through the clouds. Although several pilot reports put the tops at around 2,800 feet, indicating the cloud layer was around 2,350 feet thick, there could have been thin spots in it. The pilot may have jumped to the unwarranted conclusion that the clouds were thin everywhere. But what did he mean when he told his wife, “If I’m not in blue sky right away, I’m coming back”? Was he trying to reassure her — or himself? Once in the clouds, he would have no way to come back.

The FAA's Airplane Flying Handbook's recommendations on inadvertent VFR flight into IMC — the word "inadvertent" is included pro forma — read a little like AA's prescriptions for recovering alcoholics: "recognition and acceptance of the seriousness of the situation," "maintaining control," "obtaining the appropriate assistance."

“Attempts to control the airplane by reference to flight instruments while searching outside the cockpit for visual confirmation,” the handbook says, “may be followed by spatial disorientation and complete control loss.” It wisely recommends using trim alone for pitch control, minimizing other control inputs unless they are absolutely necessary, and making use “of any available aid ... such as autopilot or wing leveler.”

The FAA’s Airplane Flying Handbook’s recommendations on inadvertent VFR flight into IMC read a little like AA’s prescriptions for recovering alcoholics: “recognition and acceptance of the seriousness of the situation,” “maintaining control,” “obtaining the appropriate assistance.”

The Arrow had an autopilot, but the pilot’s wife said he did not use it in clouds, preferring to hand-fly. He had expressed an interest in getting an instrument rating; perhaps he felt hand-flying in a cloud provided useful practice.

The accident report quotes a University of Illinois report on VFR flight into IMC, an activity that accounted for 11 percent of fatalities in a seven-year period. The study found the problems began early, with the pilots’ inaccurate assessments of risk and excessive confidence in their own flying skills. “Vulnerability to weather hazards and pilot error” were given less weight in decision-making than “tangible gains and losses for [the pilots]” and their own self-esteem. In other words, pilots motivated by impatience, commitments or pride could not be relied on to make realistic assessments of hazards or their own abilities.

At times, however, a faulty decision-making process begins even earlier. The father and son had been anticipating their hunting trip for six months. It was to take place in November. Weather in New Jersey in November is not reliable. As exciting as flying to Indiana might have been for the 12-year-old, his father could have explained to him that if the weather was not good, they would instead go by airline and fly in the Arrow another time. Otherwise, there might not be another time.