How Not to Hit Big Rocks

The only good news about controlled flight into terrain accidents is that there's usually no suffering. When an airplane travelling in excess of 100 knots hits an immovable object, the lights, to paraphrase Tony Soprano, simply go out. The fact that for practitioners of personal flying CFIT is still a major cause of accidents should give pause (if not a sudden stop).

The real good news is that we have more tools than ever to prevent CFIT accidents.

Going into a desert airport (Apple Valley, KAPV) late on a dark night back in the mid-2000s with my family in a Mooney Ovation, I got to experience first hand just what TAWS can do for you. Usually ATC will ask if you want to fly the approach into KAPV that starts at the north. It's a long, high and circuitous affair, designed specifically to keep airplanes and rocks separate on just such a night. Instead, I had TAWS turned on and could see exactly where the airport was, where the high terrain was, and how to proceed to the pattern while steering well clear of red terrain.

Without TAWS, there's no doubt about it, I would have flown the approach. Without electronic guidance, that's the best approach of all: Stick to published routes. Stay at the MEA or MOCA and hug the airway, fly the approach with careful attention to altitudes (as if there's any other way to do it) and stick to your limits. Dark of night or cloudy skies notwithstanding, you'll avoid the rocks.

And if you're not instrument rated, don't fly in conditions that will likely require you to perform as though you are. Scud running kills. That said, if you inadvertently find yourself in the soup or unclear of where you are in the dark, use every tool at your disposal, including altitude, published routes and TAWS, which, I might add, is available in advisory form to anyone who can afford an iPad and a good flying app.

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