Two Airplanes, Two Accidents

Memories stirred by tragic circumstances.

Two flight experiences, years apart, shot to the forefront of Dick Karl's memory as he learned about two accidents in similar conditions last December.Carlo Giambarresi/Morgan Gaynin

In July 1999, we departed Norfolk, Virginia (KORF) and headed northeast out over the Chesapeake Bay. It was a hazy day. The sky and the water were the same washed-out blue gray; there was no discernible horizon. I was flying our Cessna 340, my first twin. I’m guessing by that time I had about 2,500 hours of flying experience. The weather surprised me. I fought hard to trust the instruments. I had not been prepared for IFR flight. It was just hazy, that’s all. My thoughts immediately turned to the recent crash of John F. Kennedy Jr.’s airplane. He must have had the same feeling, but he had less experience and it was dark. And he was a Kennedy.

Fifteen years later, I was headed to Pittsburgh (KPIT) in the left seat of a CJ3. The weather was OK — 1,000 overcast, good visibility, light snow. The runway was reported as snow-covered, braking action good. Our onboard computer factored in the runway conditions and our Part 135 runway requirements. No sweat. The landing was smooth and the braking surprisingly effective. The taxi to the FBO was slow; we had to apply power to move the airplane across the contaminated ramp. An hour later, the big surprise came on takeoff. With both Type I and Type IV deicing fluid application, flaps-zero takeoff configuration and almost 2 inches of snow on Runway 28R, our required takeoff distance (factoring in an engine failure at a critical speed) approached 9,000 feet. The runway is 10,502 feet long, but breathtaking was the effect of the weather on our computed performance. With both FJ44-3As at takeoff thrust, we needed only a few thousand feet to get airborne, but I was forever impressed.

These two flight experiences, years apart, shot to the forefront of my memory as I learned about two accidents in similar conditions last December. In one, a takeoff in a Cessna 340, the visibility was almost nil. In the other, a landing accident in a Cessna CJ2 (close enough to a CJ3), snow and a short runway seem to have contributed to the mayhem.

The Cessna 340 accident was close to home, both emotionally and physically. A Cessna 340 attempted to take off from Bartow, Florida (KBOW) in fog. Close to home because Bartow is where I have had maintenance done on various airplanes for 35 years. I know the airport well. I know the 340 well, though I didn’t know the lawyer pilot or his family, or that airplane, which was maintained at a shop other than the one I used.

Early on a foggy morning, the 340 pilot loaded four passengers with a flight plan filed for Key West. Observers reported heavy fog. An employee at the airport told me the pilot had requested that all the seats in the airplane be moved as far forward as possible and that the airplane be topped off — he must have been concerned about the airplane’s center of gravity. A bystander tried to film the takeoff, but nothing could be seen. The airplane did not make it past the airport boundary. Five people died.

When I looked at the photos of the victims in the local newspaper, I saw a dad, two daughters (one a young mother), a son-in-law and a family friend. I estimated their weights from the pictures and entered them in the Cessna 340 weight-and-balance tool on fltplan.com.

No matter how I arranged the pax, the airplane was out of CG for takeoff. Did a sudden pitch up startle the pilot? Was somatogravic illusion involved? (Somatogravic illusion is a form of spatial disorientation that can occur during rapid acceleration. Without visual reference, this can feel like a sudden pitch up.) Like me taking off out of Norfolk, was the pilot incredulous at the instrument picture before him?

The newspapers and the police chief were quick to say “no pilot” should have been flying in those conditions. Conjecture about “go-itis,” lack of recent flight experience and hubris ricocheted around the internet, the airport and its restaurant. I was frustrated by the surety with which other pilots made these assessments. Was what I had been told accurate?

I hate these accidents. I hate them because they traduce the notion of safe flight, scare the general public, increase the cost of insurance and make us all look wanting for common sense.

With nothing but hearsay to go on, I found myself in the usual predicament. Would I have made that takeoff? Is there something missing here? Hopefully, the National Transportation Safety Board will make some sense of the crash. I will not be able to make sense of the loss of life.

The CJ2 accident did not result in loss of life, but it did result in loss of airplane. The flight originated in DuPage, Illinois (KDPA) and was bound for Michigan City, Indiana (KMGC), a short distance. According to FlightAware, the landing on Runway 20 occurred at 6:44 a.m. local time. Sunrise was at 7:14. The metar at the time of the accident was said to be AUTO 29005KT 4SM — SN SCT 012 BKN 019 OVC 031 M13/ M16 A3065.

Runway 20 is 4,100 feet long, of which 3,917 is available for landing. I don’t know what the numbers are for a CJ2 in those conditions, but I do know that any landing in the CJ3 at an airport with 4,000 feet of dry runway available on a clear day demanded my strict attention.

The airplane skidded off the end of the runway and across a four-lane highway. Neither the pilot nor the passenger was injured badly. Pictures of the airplane show a CJ pancaked in the snow with its left wing sheared off, its radome ajar.

It is conjectured that the pilot made a decision to go around when he saw that the airplane would not stop on the runway. Classic jet training is to accept the inevitable departure from the runway at slow speed rather than a crash at high speed during a go-around.

So, in both instances, I’ve peered above the glareshield in similar conditions and been lucky. With the CJ, I was kept safe by flying with another highly trained pilot and constrained by the rules of Part 135 flying. As for the Cessna 340, though I have practiced zero-zero takeoffs with a safety pilot, I never attempted one in dense fog.

What to say or learn from the two accidents? I try to be parsimonious in the use of the word hate. I think it is easy for one to slip into using this powerful word for minor irritants, as in I “hate” this restaurant or that politician. But, I hate these accidents. I hate them because they traduce the notion of safe flight, scare the general public, increase the cost of insurance and make us all look wanting for common sense. I hate them more because magnificent machines, functioning properly, are destroyed. I especially hate them most because one of them resulted in loss of life.