Unusual Attitudes: Am I My Brother's Keeper?

Don't be afraid to speak up when you're concerned about a fellow pilot.

Unusual Attitudes Dual Gauge

Unusual Attitudes Dual Gauge

** Rolling the dice with fuel management works
just fine — until it doesn't.**

My friend Justin is a superb flight instructor with considerable experience in real-world flying and is charmingly full of himself. He amuses me by constantly working deals that involve flying really nice airplanes to major league games, rock concerts, ski resorts, airshows, Mardi Gras festivals, NASCAR races and weekends at somebody’s oceanfront condo. Last week, I stuck my head in his office at the flight school as he was about to leave in a Cirrus, flying with somebody to a bowl game in the Carolinas; he couldn’t remember if it was North or South.

When I checked aviation weather that evening (a nightly habit), conditions looked pretty grim between southern Ohio and the Carolinas. It’s at the end of December when low clouds, precipitation, cold temperatures and mountains can spell trouble for small airplanes. So I texted Justin to see if they were back or had stayed over and was relieved when he called to report they got out early enough to escape the bad stuff and made the flight home under a high overcast.

Which got me thinking about my “brother’s keeper” syndrome …

On a beautiful Sunday morning in May, an experienced pilot and flight instructor made an uneventful flight back to southern Ohio in a Cessna 210 with three friends on board after a weekend in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Another airplane, a Piper PA-28 Archer, was along on this annual trip with the two co-owner pilots up front and two passengers in the back. Home base for both airplanes was a small country airport, and the guy flying the Archer was a former student of the guy flying the faster, more powerful Cessna. But the PA-28 didn’t leave Myrtle Beach with the Cessna that morning. Opting to stay at the beach as long as possible, they departed in the late afternoon, crossed some rough mountainous terrain after nightfall and arrived back in Ohio late in the evening. The Piper owner/pilot had been licensed for several years, but it was common knowledge that he rarely flew; in fact, he’d logged little, if any, time since making the same trip to South Carolina the year before.

Everybody in the Cessna had gone their separate ways after getting home that afternoon. The weather en route had been good, and nobody was concerned about the Archer. Some people in the sparsely populated area around their destination later reported hearing a loud noise that night. But it wasn’t until early the next morning that a farmer spotted the wreckage: an airplane lying upside down in a field about a half-mile from the airport. Emergency responders found the pilot and two occupants dead, but one back-seat passenger was still alive — barely. Unconscious, he had hung upside down from his lap belt through the night. Without flight following or a flight plan and an ELT that either malfunctioned or was damaged, nobody realized they were missing.

The National Transportation Safety Board's report: Two private-rated pilots and two passengers departed Myrtle Beach at approximately 1800. Their destination was approximately 415 nm, and the magnetic heading was approximately 324 degrees. The winds aloft at the cruise altitude of 8,500 feet were 290 degrees at 25 knots. The calculated groundspeed was 83 knots. The airplane departed with 50 gallons of fuel. The accident occurred at approximately 2220, about .5 miles from the destination airport. Post crash examination of the wreckage revealed 10 ounces of fuel in each wing tank.

The NTSB's probable cause: The failure of the pilot to assure an adequate fuel supply and his failure to refuel en route.

But there’s a little more to the story than an isolated case of poor judgment. As mentioned before, the pilot’s lack of experience and currency were no secret around this small country airport. True, the year before he made the same flight in the same airplane and successfully got back nonstop. Maybe the winds aloft were more favorable or maybe he leaned a little more aggressively because while he got the Archer on the ground, he had to be towed off the runway to the gas pump — the tanks were bone-dry.

A 40-year-old flight instructor was friends with a young man serving as chief pilot for an air freight outfit flying a Beech 18, a Piper Aztec and a Beech BE58 Baron. This CFI was anxious to get beyond instructing and move up into the more glamorous world of flying night freight in the Baron. His chief pilot friend agreed to let him come along on night runs, flying the Part 91 legs and logging it as training. After a month and maybe four or five flights, the chief pilot signed the CFI off as having completed the required training and passed him on Part 135 proficiency, competency and route checks.

On his second single-pilot night run in the BE58, the new “freight dog” was carrying a load of canceled checks from Cincinnati to Cleveland and had a deadheading passenger who was chief pilot for a large Part 135/121 carrier. (Carrying another certificated air-carrier pilot is legitimate and not uncommon). This passenger later remarked how “uncomfortable [and] quite nervous” he felt during the flight because, even though the weather was fine, the pilot was “thoroughly saturated with the Baron.” The pilot explained that this was only his second flight for the company — his first had been the night before — and that he had “about 30 to 25 hours total multiengine time.” When his passenger, who was intimately familiar with Part 135 requirements, expressed surprise, the pilot said he was lucky and had the job because “he got to know” the chief pilot.

A few nights later, that same passenger saw the pilot at the FBO in Cleveland after he had landed in the Baron. The weather that January night was IFR and very cold, but he said the pilot was “soaked in sweat.”

The new guy left Cincinnati’s Lunken Airport for Cleveland again the following night on his fourth or fifth single-pilot Part 135 flight. The Baron had 155 pounds of canceled checks in 23 bags, there were no “squawks” or deferred maintenance items, and the airplane had been refueled in Cleveland the previous night. Lunken weather was 1,700 overcast with 8 miles visibility and the wind from 030 at 11 knots.

At 10 p.m. EST after taking off to the northeast, he contacted Cincinnati Departure Control at 2,300 feet and, after a short vector, was cleared to “resume own navigation, climb to and maintain 9,000.” Acknowledging the transmission, he climbed 300 feet, made a slight turn in the wrong direction and in the next 14 seconds descended 1,400 feet at a rate of nearly 4,000 fpm and deviated 52 degrees to the right. Cincinnati lost radar contact and voice communications about one minute after the pilot’s initial call. Three minutes later the FAA got the first report that an airplane had crashed near Newtown, Ohio. There had been no distress calls from the pilot.

The Baron hit trees and impacted a soft, muddy field about 3 miles north of Lunken and along the centerline of the departure runway. The angle of the cuts in the trees on initial impact showed the right wing was down almost 45 degrees, and the final impact in the field indicated a nose-down attitude of about 30 degrees. You can imagine the devastation I saw that night at the accident scene.

The NTSB's probable cause(s): Failure of the pilot to maintain control of the aircraft after becoming spatially disorientated in night instrument meteorological conditions (IMC). Factors related to the accident were: the pilot's lack of experience in the type of operation, his lack of recent instrument experience and inadequate surveillance of the operation by the chief pilot/company management.

FAA and NTSB investigations revealed significant unexplained discrepancies between the pilot’s company resume, his personal logs and company records. As of three months before the accident, the pilot’s logbooks showed a total of 32 hours multiengine time and 66 hours of instrument time. The chief pilot, his good friend, had “documented flight experience,” which was not consistent with the pilot’s personal logbook or the verbal comments the pilot made six days before the accident.

Pilots value the freedom and independence that go along with flying airplanes. So it’s risky to pipe up when you think somebody’s making a bad decision about making a risky flight, and maybe that risk is more about his capabilities, attitude and currency than about weather. But we’re traditionally a band of brothers and each of us — certainly instructors, chief pilots and check airmen — has some responsibility as his brother’s keeper. Both of these accidents could have been prevented by advice from wiser heads; I will always wonder if they sleep soundly at night.

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