“WHERE ARE YOU?”
If you are a pilot and you get this text message, chances are pretty good something has happened to an airplane in your vicinity, and someone you know thinks it could be you. It probably isn’t, and their concern may seem silly. To the person on the other end of the text, however, it is a serious thing, especially if they are a novice to aviation.
While FAA accident statistics indicate that inclement weather often plays a role in aviation accidents and incidents, in my experience the majority of the “WHERE ARE YOU?” texts happen on those sunny everyone-is-out-flying days.
I suppose it is the law of averages—the more airplanes in the sky, the more likely someone will have a challenge.
Lack of Information Breeds Concern
Concern escalates when you only get part of the story, such as someone catching only part of a headline on the radio, social media or television about a small plane down near “the airport.” The next thing you know, the flight school’s director of operations is out on the ramp checking the status of the fleet and all the CFIs are getting text messages asking them to call in.
I have been that CFI, such as the day there was a report of a low-wing aircraft landing on a city street. It was not one of our aircraft—it was a privately owned aircraft—and there were no injuries or damage. But I will admit that when we heard “airplane landed on the street,” it definitely got our attention.
It also got the attention of the neighbors, who were already unhappy about the non-towered small airpark in their subdivision, never mind the fact that the airport predated the subdivision by more than 40 years.
There were calls to close the airport, which was called a danger to the community.
When there is an aviation accident in your part of the world, the NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard) and CAVE (Citizens Against Virtually Everything) people will try to use the event as an argument to close the airport. More often than not, they claim it is too dangerous and incompatible with the growing community. They will bring up stories about fatal crashes from the past. Expect them to be exaggerated: “I remember when that Cessna 172 crashed and there were like 10 people on it! All of them were killed!” Please. Unless that C-172 was doing the aviation version of the clowns-in-the-car circus act, it is highly unlikely—make that impossible—that the event happened as remembered.
It is best to counter these arguments with facts. The National Transportation Safety Board has detailed reports on accidents going back to 1962. Sometimes what is remembered as a fatal crash turns out to be an airplane that ran out of fuel and landed off-airport, like in the parking lot of a grocery store with minor injuries to the pilot, but no fatalities.
That is not to say bad accidents don’t happen. Before you start arguing with someone—and remember that as a pilot, you will be part of the problem—it doesn’t matter if you have 1,000 hours or 10. Arm yourself with facts before you engage in a battle of wits.
Don’t Make Anyone Worry
Warning: I am going to sound like a parent here. Please let someone know where you are going. Especially if they are inclined to worry about you when you fly. This is more for them than for you.
Please keep in mind that when you are just beginning your general aviation pilot career, people who care about you may become very sensitive to aircraft accidents and incidents. They will worry when they know you are flying. Part of the concern may come from the fact they know very little about aviation.
Be compassionate to the aviation challenged. Let them know where you are going and when you will return. Not knowing your fate is more stressful than finding out a pilot has been killed. The family of the missing—and the other pilots—want answers.
I speak from experience. In 2007 I had the misfortune to be part of a search for a 1,600-hour pilot who was missing for the better part of a week before his family noticed, and it was another week or so before they knew what happened to him.
It was December. According to an NTSB investigation, the pilot had completed his Instrument Proficiency Check in his Piper PA-28-236 with a CFII at a nontowered airport.
As night began to fall, the accident pilot took off intending to fly back to his home field, which was also nontowered, and located 16 nm to the southwest. It was a moonless night, and the weather was reported as a ceiling of 1,800 feet agl with an overcast layer at 3,900 feet. He did not file a flight plan or use flight following for the short trip.
About a week later, the CFI at the departure airport learned the client had not made it home. The pilot’s family thought he was spending time with a girlfriend—it was the holidays, after all. But the girlfriend had been out of town and didn’t know he was missing either. When she returned, she called the family looking for him—and everyone realized there was an issue.
His car was still at the airport and the airplane was gone. The CFIs at the flight school were briefed on the situation, and asked to participate in the search. Several of us flew the route back to his home airport. In addition, we flew a grid search over a nearby lake but came up empty handed.
It took the examination of the radar tapes from the nearby U.S. Air Force base to locate the airplane in the foothills, approximately 8.8 nm from the destination airport. It had been 10 days since his IPC.
Based on the wreckage and impact signatures, the NTSB determined the aircraft entered a right bank resulting in a high-speed impact with trees and terrain. The airplane was mostly consumed by a post-impact fire. The examination of the engine and airframe revealed no evidence of any preexisting mechanical anomalies, ergo the cause of the crash was never conclusively determined.
Wrong Way, Is That You?
Sometimes, a missing aircraft has a much better outcome. One of my CFI mentors had a story of a directionally challenged learner who became known at the flight school as Captain Wrong Way.
One Saturday, the learner did a dual cross-country flight from Tacoma Narrows Airport (KTIW) to Hoquiam-Bowerman Field (KHQM), an airport along the coast of Washington. It was the learner’s third dual cross-country flight and his CFI determined he was ready for a solo. The next day, the learner planned the cross-country flight to KHQM—essentially, it was the same flight he had done with his CFI.
This was years before ADS-B and FlightAware, and cellphones were not in popular use yet.
The learner launched in the morning. It should have taken all of 45 minutes to get to the destination, and another 40 minutes to return. When two hours came and went and the learner had not returned, the CFI became nervous. A call was placed to the airport manager at the KHQM. The aircraft was not on the ramp. The CFI made more phone calls. He was unhappy to hear the learner had not obtained flight following or filed a flight plan, despite being instructed to do so.
Approximately four hours later, the learner called to report that he was in Idaho, and that the flight school should come get their airplane. He was done. He had flown east instead of west.
I was a private pilot the first time I heard this story, and I was perplexed. How could someone make a mistake like that? Flying over the mountains and high desert for several hours instead of the short hop to the coast? What would make someone do that on purpose?
The chief CFI sort of grinned at me, then said, “Whoever she is, she’s got to be gorgeous.”