Aftermath: The Audacity of Hope

Why it's critical to plan for the worst.

Aftermath

Aftermath

(September 2011) It was the Friday before Christmas, and the pilot-owner of a Piper Saratoga was eager to get home for a party. At 2:30 in the afternoon he called Flight Service to brief a flight from College Park, Maryland, to Akron-Canton Airport (CAK) in Ohio, 240 nm distant. He said he hoped to take off as early as 3, and so the briefer asked whether he wanted a full standard briefing or just the highlights.

“I don’t want to waste your time,” said the pilot, transferring to the briefer a concern that was more likely his own. “Let’s figure out if this sounds like a suicide mission or not, and then we’ll go from there.”

The briefing ended up lasting 20 minutes. The difficulty was a trough lying over the destination and, between him and it, an occluded front. A large area of IFR and marginal VFR weather blanketed northern Ohio and much of Pennsylvania, with patches of snow, freezing rain and drizzle. The temperature profile was complicated, with a couple of inversions, a freezing level at 4,000 feet and a high likelihood of snow and moderate rime icing in clouds up to 7,500 feet. Cloud tops were mostly around 6,500, and winds were out of the west, 45 knots at 4,500 feet and more than 50 knots at 7,000. Low-level wind shear was probable.

Although the forecast for CAK was not bad — 800 overcast and five miles — it was likely to worsen somewhat as the evening wore on. On the other hand, the weather system was moving rapidly eastward. The National Weather Service area forecast discussion issued at Cleveland, 40 miles northwest of CAK, during the afternoon and available online called for precipitation to end later in the evening, with visibilities becoming unrestricted overnight. Furthermore, there was better weather a little way to the south, and so the pilot would have an escape route if he needed one.

He weighed the pros and cons, and he decided to go. He was off the ground at 3:31.

The en route portion of the flight, at 6,000 feet, was uneventful. The pilot reported some “moderate chop” in response to a flight conditions request from Cleveland Center. He did not report any icing.

At 5:36 he was nearing his destination, handled by the CAK approach controller (AC).

Here is the transcript:

TIME 5:36:19
AC — N9299N, fly heading 340, radar vectors ILS Runway 23 final approach course.
99N — 340 for 99N.
AC — N9299N, descend and maintain 3,200.
99N — 99N out of 6,000 for 3,200. Any pireps of icing below six?
AC — Negative, sir, no reports of icing in the area. Advise me if you encounter any.
99N — 99N, thank you.

TIME 5:49:42
AC — N9299N, you're two miles east of eggii, turn left heading 250, maintain 3,200 'til established on the localizer, cleared ILS Runway 23 approach.
99N — 250, cleared ILS 23 approach, 99N.
AC — Roger ... N9299N, contact tower 118.3.
99N — 99N, going to tower ... Akron-Canton tower, Saratoga 9299N with you on the ILS 23.

TIME 5:51:21
TWR — N9299N, Akron-Canton tower, cleared to land Runway 23. You appear to be to the left of the localizer.
99N — 99N correcting.
TWR — Roger.

TIME 5:52:31
TWR — N99N, you're still well to the left of the localizer, sir, would you like to go back around for the approach?
99N — 99N please repeat.
TWR — You're still well to the left of the localizer, would you like to go back around for the approach?
99N — 99N, we'd like to correct.
TWR — Roger, two and a half miles from the field, cleared to land Runway 23 for N99N.
99N — All right, 99N.

TIME: 5:53:02
99N — 99N, can we do a 360 and re-establish ourselves?
TWR — 99N unable, climb and maintain 3,000, and what's your present heading?
99N — 99N, we're heading due north and climbing.
TWR — 99N, no delay in the climb, climb and maintain 3,000 ... [15 seconds elapse] ... N9299N, did you copy?
99N — 99N declaring an emergency — oh God!

The Saratoga crashed in a steep dive two miles east of the airport, killing the pilot.

NTSB investigators interviewed several pilots who had flown the ILS approach at CAK shortly before or after 99N. It transpired that although, as the approach controller said, no one had reported icing, there had in fact been plenty of it. Those airplanes — a Citation, a Duke and a 421 — had flown the ILS at a higher speed than 99N did, and nevertheless had picked up an inch or more of ice on the ILS.

Plots of 99N’s ground track and altitude show two peculiarities. One is that, after the pilot complied with the approach controller’s instruction to turn left to a heading of 250 degrees, which was intended to make the Saratoga intercept the localizer at or before the outer marker, the airplane in fact flew in a straight line parallel to the localizer and about two-thirds of a mile to the left of it. The other is that, rather than begin its descent at the marker, the Saratoga remained at 3,200 feet until it was nearly halfway from the marker to the runway.

It was around the halfway point that the local controller suggested that the pilot might want to go around and try again. Instead, he began a steeper-than-normal descent, but also began, unintentionally, to drift to the left. Now the reins were slipping from his grasp. When the controller asked the pilot for his present heading and he replied “due north,” he was in fact flying generally westward. Shortly afterward, while attempting to correct toward the localizer, the airplane stalled, probably because of ice accumulation and a too-abrupt turn.

From the precision with which the airplane held both heading and altitude early in the approach, it seems likely that it had an autopilot and that the pilot was using at least heading hold, and possibly both heading and altitude holds. Instructed by the controller to turn to a heading of 250, the pilot did just that. Unfortunately, a 30-degree right crosswind, possibly of 30 to 40 knots, was blowing across the localizer, pushing the Saratoga to the left. That it ended up flying almost exactly parallel to the localizer was accidental, but it had the effect that the unfortunate pilot, who apparently was waiting for the localizer needle to center to start his descent, instead saw it drift inexorably away to the right.

He was about 3.2 miles from the runway and 1,800 feet above it when he apparently turned off the autopilot and began to descend. The required descent angle was six degrees — not impossible, but not what you would call a “stabilized approach” either. Now his heading began to wander. When the controller instructed him to climb, he leveled out but did not gain altitude. Sound spectrum analysis of his radio transmissions suggested an increase in engine rpm to maximum, hinting, perhaps, at an airplane straining to overcome a load of ice.

The pilot had flown into known icing conditions — note the word conditions, which implies that it is the possibility or likelihood of icing, not the verified presence of icing, that is meant — in an airplane not approved for them. Perhaps that is why he did not report icing to the controller. At the point that he asked for a 360, his situation was dire but not unrecoverable. He could have declared the emergency, kept his speed up, made the 360-degree turn, taken a steep cut to the localizer, and worried later about justifying himself to the FAA.

But such a maneuver would have required that he be mentally oriented with respect to the ILS, and his flight track shows that he wasn’t. The extent of his IFR experience was unknown — his logbook burned up in the crash — but his conduct of the ILS approach suggests that he had not flown a lot of them solo in serious IMC weather. When you have 700 hours total time and you are iced up and disoriented and a controller is telling you urgently to climb in an airplane that won’t do it, clear tactical thinking and smooth, deliberate flying go out the window. That’s why it’s not a bad idea to bring a little cowardice to the planning of a flight. Count on it: When things are at their worst, you won’t be at your best.

This article is based on NTSB reports of the 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.