On August 30, 2016, at 1801 Pacific daylight time, a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza was destroyed when it impacted the ground in a near vertical descent, likely as a result of a wake turbulence encounter on approach to landing at Reno-Tahoe International Airport in Reno, Nevada. The thing that caught my attention was that the pilot who was killed was an experienced CFI and flight school owner, and the accident happened at his home base.
Multiple eyewitnesses stated the Bonanza appeared to be approaching the Reno airport normally, without any unusual sounds, smoke or other outward signs of distress. As the airplane was on a base leg at approximately 200 feet above the ground, it rapidly rolled inverted and descended to the ground. The ground scar and debris area was consistent with a near-vertical descent. Examination of the remaining wreckage did not reveal any pre-impact failures or deficiencies. All evidence points to a wake turbulence encounter due to multiple Boeing 757s landing on a parallel and upwind runway. The real question is, how did this experienced local pilot fail to realize that and avoid the danger?
I recently had the opportunity to share a stage with Don Arendt, a Safety Advisor for the FAA. During the lecture Don elaborated on a concept that might contain the answer: “What I tell many groups is that, in very safe industries or in situations where accidents are actually rare, Murphy was wrong — what can go wrong usually doesn’t. This is especially true of commercial aviation but, compared to a number of other activities in life (e.g. driving to the airport), it can apply to GA as well.”
This is a brilliant concept, an inversion of something we hear so often that we barely even hear it anymore. Pilots can grow complacent. They can fall into a mindset that confirms to them they’ve done it before and it hasn’t killed them yet so it won’t happen now. Wake turbulence avoidance is one area of flying where this is particularly relevant. Flying out of San Carlos, California, I know this well.
Our right crosswind departure (known as the Belmont Slough departure) takes us right under the approach path for SFO. Boeing 757s, 777s, 787s, 747s and Airbus A380s are all common in the sky, and ATC often says “use caution for wake turbulence” as a tag at the end of their instructions. But what does that mean? “Use caution”? I know what the book says. It says I should take off and out-climb the plane in front of me, or offset upwind, and I should land beyond the aircraft in front of me – but not a whole lot more. But does this advice really help when ATC says you have heavy 757 traffic at 2 o’clock and 1 mile and advises use caution for wake turbulence? Not so much.
Most pilots don’t do much in the way of wake turbulence avoidance, and the truth is they get lucky. It’s the phenomenon Don is describing. They could have hit the wake in just the right place at the wrong time but they didn’t. Murphy was wrong and the pilot perhaps learned that wakes are “no big deal” or “so rare they cannot be hit.”
In the case of our experienced CFI at Reno, when the Bonanza was about 7 miles east-northeast of the airport, the pilot radioed that he was turning a "wide left base" for Runway 16L. ATC radioed that his traffic was a 757 on a 9-mile final for 16R, that the winds were 260 at 13 gusting to 18 knots, and that he was cleared to land. Although the controller did not specify it, the Bonanza's traffic was a FedEx Boeing 757, which was about 5 miles in trail behind a UPS Boeing 757, also on final for 16R. It appears as though the wake(s) of the aircraft landing on the parallel runway drifted, in the quartering tailwind, farther down the touchdown zone and onto the runway the Bonanza was landing on.
To appropriately protect ourselves against the potential of a wake turbulence encounter there are two things we need to do. First, we need to learn to visualize them the way we visualize wind currents in mountain flying. Second, we need to strictly adhere to avoidance procedures that we know will keep us clear of the danger zone.
We must learn to visualize them and gain a deeper understanding of how they drift and dissipate, and there is documentation out there. The pilot’s handbook of aeronautical knowledge is a great place to start. You’ll read that the wake typically descends at approximately 400 fpm, expanding and drifting with the wind while it does.
In researching this topic I found that there is deeper documentation out there as well. Advisory Circular 90-23G and the Pilot and Controllers Guide to Wake Turbulence are good sources for starters. I also recommend going to YouTube and searching FAA wake turbulence smoke tests; after all, the key to avoidance here is understanding and visualizing the wake’s size, movement and dissipation.
It makes me think of an old adage in aviation: “A good pilot uses superior judgement to avoid having to use superior skill.” The reason the visualization is so important is so that you can develop and rigidly adhere to avoidance practices. To Don’s point, we can falsely reinforce the idea that these encounters never happen. As my friend Howard Donner says, just because you don’t get shot on the first pull during Russian Roulette doesn’t make it a safe activity. These false reinforcements can lead to a drift away from procedures we know would solve the problem, what one professor calls “an atrophy of vigilance.”
I am sure the CFI, flight school owner Bonanza pilot who died that day in Reno had read what the books say about wake turbulence. You can’t fly in and out of Reno regularly without being aware of it. But if you never encounter it, even when you think you might, it is easy to drift away from vigilance and drift toward failure. Perhaps one day, after years of being wrong, Murphy just might be right. That’s why we need to combat atrophy and always stay awake.