Aftermath: The New Normal

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Aftermath Artwork

Aftermath Artwork

The pilot, 73, had more than 18,000 hours and an ATP certificate. He and his wife, an instrument-rated private pilot with over 800 hours, kept several airplanes, all vintage or Experimental, on their private strip in northeastern Pennsylvania. One of these was a taxicab-yellow 1944 Cessna T-50 "Bamboo Bomber," a five-seat steel-tube-and-fabric taildragger with two 275 hp Jacobs radials. (A video of the pilot and his lovingly maintained airplane can be seen on YouTube here.)

On Labor Day weekend, 2013, the pilot and his wife were returning home from a fly-in at Antique Airfield in Blakesburg, Iowa. Over Sandusky, Ohio, the pilot contacted Flight Service to ask whether there was a TFR at Cleveland's Burke Lakefront Airport. There was no TFR, but the briefer provided an ominous weather report.

"Convective sigmet 23 eastern, extending from the Youngstown, Ohio, area right through all of Pennsylvania. You also have a severe thunderstorm watch number 510 extending from the ­Tidioute area right through, almost to the Milton, Pennsylvania, area, so there is significant weather across your route. You have an Airmet Sierra for IFR conditions, occasional ceiling below a thousand, visibility below three, precipitation and mist associated with these thunderstorms, rain showers that are developing with that. VFR flight not recommended into those ­areas, particularly, like I say, from Youngstown in through all of Pennsylvania."

For a highly experienced pilot thoroughly familiar with the area and its weather, the "severe" perhaps sounded less significant than the "watch" and the "occasional." "VFR not recommended" would have almost no weight at all. "We'll look at the weather radar," the pilot told the briefer as he signed off.

The couple stopped at Lock Haven and took 90 gallons of fuel, enough for three hours' cruising. The sun was just setting. The pilot told the fueler that he would be home — 87 nm away — in 38 minutes.

It was dark about an hour later when a man who lived a few miles from the couple's home airstrip observed a low-flying airplane that he described as "sounding like a World War II airplane." It was certainly the round-engined T-50. It flew from west to east, disappeared from view, and then returned in the other direction, flying "right on top of the trees" before heading toward "an enormous black cloud with lightning flashing out of it." He was sufficiently struck to call a relative to tell him that he had seen an airplane flying low over his house in the storm.

Several other people heard the airplane maneuvering "low" and "really loud." One went outside and heard the sound suddenly stop. There was a flash, but she thought it could have been lightning.

It was not until almost a week later that searchers located the shattered and burned wreckage of the airplane in a wooded area about 2 miles southeast of its destination. One of its propellers had clipped a treetop 45 feet above the ground; there was a second strike, 185 feet farther along, 35 feet above the ground. The wreckage path, 360 feet long, was oriented westward.

A subsequent reconstruction of the weather for the National Transportation Safety Board showed a line of thunderstorms just north of the accident site. A sigmet issued at 7:55, which the pilot probably never saw, had warned of severe storms immediately west of the area, moving eastward at 30 knots with 2-inch hail and 55-knot gusts.

No matter how great a pilot you have been, the NTSB doesn't cut you any slack when it writes your "probable cause." This one blamed the pilot's "intentional visual flight into night instrument meteorological conditions and thunderstorms" and his "improper decision to take off without getting updated weather information after a briefer cautioned him" of likely IFR conditions ahead.

It is not clear from the NTSB report how investigators knew that the pilot had not checked the weather. There are so many ways of getting weather today that assertions that pilots didn't do so have to be viewed with skepticism. It's difficult to imagine that, after hearing of severe storms right around their destination, neither the pilot nor his wife had the curiosity to check the radar plots; and it's possible that, at the time they would have checked, the weather around their destination looked good.

Nor is it clear how investigators knew that the conditions when the crash occurred were in fact IMC. No doubt the darkness was total, except for frequent flashes of lightning from the nearby storm; but total darkness does not constitute IMC, though perhaps it should.

A friend of the pilot told investigators the pilot had developed a homemade GPS approach for his unlighted airstrip "in case the weather got bad," but the friend doubted he had ever used it.

This was not a case of a novice launching into weather he did not know how to cope with. The pilot knew what he was doing and that it might involve certain risks. He had an easy alternative: stop for dinner at Lock Haven, kill some time, and continue after the fast-moving squall line had moved farther east. Or check into a motel for the night and make the short hop home in the morning. He and his wife must have weighed the possibilities. What did she say? At any rate, they decided it was safe enough to continue.

The crux of the matter, finally, is that however well- or ill-advised the flight may have been, and however skillfully the pilot may have managed it, in the end he simply got too low. Their airstrip was at 1,600 feet msl, yet he was at 1,450 feet when he struck a tree. Possibly he encountered downdrafts; possibly he became distracted; possibly he was driven down by low-hanging clouds. We don't know what happened in the final moments to put them where they were, but we know they shouldn't have been there.

When you consider an impending VFR flight into marginal weather, you likely do not anticipate the changes that will occur in your own emotional climate once you are in the air. Setting out you may have good visibility, a ceiling a couple of thousand feet above the ground, and thunderstorms cooperatively remaining in the middle distance. Then scattered clouds form below you, and after thinking it over you drop down under them, making a mental resolution to climb back up into the clear if the deck looks as if it might become solid.

It's dark, however, and it's hard to tell what the deck just above you is doing. You still have good ground clearance, though, and the visibility still seems pretty good, so acceptance of the lower altitude imperceptibly supplants your earlier resolution.

And so it goes. Unconsciously you press the reset button and each deteriorating stage of the flight becomes the new normal. By gradual steps you find yourself in conditions under which you would not have taken off if they had existed at the departure airport. At the same time, your inner state undergoes a change. Sensing danger, you raise your level of denial. It's natural; it's a way to protect yourself from anxiety, and we do it every day without ever thinking about it.

It's apparent to us, reading about this accident, that it was time for the couple — two experienced pilots, both instrument rated — to beat a retreat. It may have been apparent to them as well, and was perhaps the reason they were flying westward when they crashed. If only they had made that decision a little earlier — and a little higher up.

This article is based on the NTSB's report 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.

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