Aftermath: Indecision

Decisions deferred, opportunities lost.

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Crash Icon

Every VFR pilot who has flown long enough to have gotten himself into and out of a few tight situations knows how insidious the onset of trouble is. He knows, too, that your state of mind when you are in the airplane, especially as you near your destination and the weather starts to go bad on you, is different from the one you are in when you read about such events in this magazine or discuss them with your pilot friends. The inflight decision-making process contains an element of what you might call goal addiction — the emotional momentum that makes people at an auction bid beyond the value of a thing — that displaces caution and calm deliberation. Our zeal to attain the goal grows in proportion to its proximity.

Airplane accidents that illustrate this phenomenon are not hard to find. Here are two that happened to occur on the same day — Nov. 26, 2011 — in two patches of sticky, but not really very bad, weather in different parts of the country. Both involved single-engine airplanes flown by noninstrument-rated 200-hour pilots, and both ended with the airplane careening into a tightening spiral until it met the ground and was instantly smashed to fragments. These two accidents took six lives, but it’s safe to say that the purposes of the flights were not matters of life and death.

A pilot and a passenger were flying from Snyder, Texas, to Ruidoso, New Mexico, in a 182. At 8:21 a.m., the pilot called Roswell approach control. “I was just wondering if you’d watch me through your area,” he said. The controller requested his altitude (it was 8,500 feet), gave him the local altimeter setting and assigned him a transponder code. He then advised him of an area of precipitation, about 10 miles in diameter, 15 miles ahead of him.

“Uh, looks like snow?” the pilot said.

Radar just shows water; it does not distinguish between rain and snow, as the controller gently explained.

A minute later, the pilot said, “I’m gonna drop down about 1,000 feet and see if I can stay out of the clouds.”

“Are you familiar with the high terrain around the Sierra Blanca airport?” the controller asked. The pilot, perhaps distracted, did not reply.

Roswell lies in an open plain with an elevation of 4,000 to 4,500 feet. To the west the terrain rises steadily toward Ruidoso, 50 nm distant. Ruidoso’s Sierra Blanca Regional Airport is at 6,800 feet in a rugged funnel-shaped basin between ridges rising more than 10,000 feet above sea level. It’s likely that the pilot, whose father was waiting to meet him there, was familiar with the area. If so, he would have known that it would be very difficult to get into Sierra Blanca in conditions of low ceilings and reduced visibility. Still, it could not hurt to take a look.

Shortly the pilot, now about 10 miles west of Roswell, advised the controller that he was turning back, because “our visibility’s got real poor.” He made a left 180, flew a few miles back toward Roswell and then turned right about 50 degrees, evidently in order to keep clear of Roswell traffic while he decided what to do next.

Continuing for several minutes in a southeasterly direction, he discussed the weather with the Roswell controller, who offered the opinion that “it should be clearing up pretty soon.” The pilot then tried to make a phone call to Sierra Blanca. This failed, but he did reach unicom by radio and said that he had been unable to continue because of the weather. The unicom operator interpreted the message to mean that the pilot had decided to land elsewhere; but in fact he made a left turn back to a westbound heading. “I’m gonna run back at this one more time and see what it looks like,” he told the Roswell controller, and then signed off.

He was not heard from again.

His ground track, recorded by radar and his onboard GPS, continued straight until he was less than 20 miles from Sierra Blanca. It then began to meander, making increasingly random turns with increasingly unsteady airspeed and altitude, until, six minutes after the pilot said goodbye to the Roswell controller, the 182 crashed while descending in a graveyard spiral at 14,000 fpm and 200 knots.

At almost the same moment, a Cirrus SR20 with four aboard, coming from Marion, Indiana, to DuPage on the western edge of Chicago O’Hare Class B, encountered lowering ceilings and shrinking visibilities in light rain and mist. The pilot, who did not have an instrument rating, had just flown at pattern altitude over the approach end of DuPage’s Runway 10 when he called the tower to apologize — “I didn’t realize I was going that fast,” he said (the remark seems incompatible with navigation within the perimeter of Class B airspace) — and to inquire whether the field was VFR.

It was not. But with a 900-foot ceiling, it was just barely IFR, and the tower controller, perhaps sensing that the pilot would be better off on the ground than in the clouds, offered him a chance to land if he had the field in sight. “Just make a right 180 and land 20R.”

But the Cirrus continued flying northward, away from the airport. After two minutes, the local controller asked whether he still had the field in sight. “Negative that. When we turned around, we lost it.” The Cirrus had, in fact, turned only partly around and then swung back toward the northwest.

The pilot then said, “Is there an airport close that has better visibility? ’Cause I don’t want to get in there and get stuck all day.”

The pilot was audibly rattled. His words tumbled over one another. “I was just, ah, do you have a, ah, later airport, er, I mean a report today ... ”

Eventually, the pilot let it be known that he was “in and out of clouds.”

“Are you IFR qualified?” asked the controller.

“I’m in IFR training and I’ve let this get around me.”

The DuPage local controller now tried to coordinate with departure control to get the Cirrus into either DuPage or Chicago Executive (Palwaukee), where the weather was still VFR. Eventually, he handed the pilot off to a Chicago approach controller, who tried to vector him to Executive; but the pilot declared that he had decided to leave the area and was proceeding westbound. This was not strictly correct. The general movement of the airplane was northward, but its recorded ground track displayed the familiar tragic signature of impending doom: turns in random directions as the pilot’s attention strayed from the attitude indicator, and intermittent straight segments of no consistent direction when he managed to keep the wings level for a while. He was in cloud, and kept gradually climbing, even though there was clear air, and a wealth of airports large and small, below him.

It ended as these tracks always do, in the tight curlicue of a rapidly descending spiral. The Cirrus crashed at high speed into a pasture just a couple of minutes after the controller acknowledged the pilot’s intention to leave his airspace. Its parachute had been ejected, but had not had time to deploy.

These two accidents had many similarities, besides taking place almost simultaneously. They involved low-time pilots with some instrument training, as well as that combination of marginal weather conditions and proximity to the destination that often seems to encourage indecision. The pilots had come from good VFR conditions and flown into marginal IMC. They had plenty of time to evaluate their situations, and they had escape routes which they failed to use. It is pointless to speculate on the reasonings that led them to disaster, because those will be different in each case. What is common to both is the seeming inability to recognize that a worsening situation will, in all likelihood, grow worse still unless one makes a firm decision to do something about it.

This article is based on the NTSB’s reports of the accidents 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.