We pilots take pride (and some even revel) in our ability to overcome obstacles — but sometimes, the deck is stacked against us. No flight, from the “dawn patrol” cruise to an ocean-spanning instrument odyssey, is completely without hazard — to fly is to accept, and to manage, risk. This week, let’s look at the high risk situations.
Flying on the Edge
It’s an unfortunate given that the vast majority of aerial mishaps result not from mechanical breakdowns, but from the pilot’s decisions about when and how to fly. Some studies report that as much as 80% of all accidents can be traced to “human factors” — what we usually call “pilot error.”
COMPARISON: The human component in accident causation is not unique to flying airplanes. In fact, that “80 percent due to human error” factor is found consistently in literature about accidents in almost every endeavor where people operate machines. Think about how many car crashes are caused by mechanical breakdowns like tire blowouts, as compared to the total number of auto mishaps.
Staying Safe — STRATEGIES
Look at the human factors accident record and you’ll find recurring themes, or patterns. Some sources claim a few scenarios account for as much as 95% of all “pilot error” accidents. Put another way, properly managing known “high risk” situations might eliminate the vast majority of aircraft mishaps. So what are these “high risk” situations, and how can we avoid these types of accidents? (Examples below are all from National Transportation Safety Board accident reports).
- Taking off with a known problem. A Piper Cherokee sped low over the Tennessee hills, hugging the ground to stay in visual weather. Its pilot, a high-time instructor and ATP, was on his way home with his son. The Piper’s attitude indicator had failed Friday evening on his way to pick up his son; there was no way to get a replacement installed over the weekend, so the planned IFR return trip turned into a low-altitude scud-run. But the weather was getting worse, the clouds meeting the tops of the mountains. The Cherokee hit terrain; the injured pilot walked out in a daze. His son was dead. Have you ever taken off with something inoperative in your airplane? It didn’t fix itself in flight, did it?
Defense: The Federal Aviation Regulations give us a lot of leeway to take off with “inop” equipment. Make sure you adjust your plans to correctly account for the current capability of a less-than-perfect airplane.
- Midair collision. A Mooney reported 10 miles north of the controlled airport, inbound for landing. A few moments later a Beech Duchess was cleared for takeoff on Runway 24 with a right, crosswind departure. Air Traffic Controller advised both pilots of the other airplane’s location and direction of flight…but the two collided about one mile northwest of the airport. Three persons died. The “see and avoid” concept evolved in the earliest days of aviation. The number and speed of airplanes around some airports eventually outstripped pilot ability to sequence themselves efficiently, and the control tower was born.
Defense: Although most midair collisions occur in the traffic pattern of nontowered (“uncontrolled“) airports, don’t delegate your responsibility entirely to controllers who might not have radar (or time) to keep you separated in visual conditions. It’s still your responsibility to see and avoid.
- Controlled flight into terrain. The pilot of a Bellanca Super Viking planned to head almost directly from central Virginia to the Chicago area, but icing conditions over the Appalachians forced him to divert southwest to Chattanooga before angling northwest. After a stop for fuel and to check weather, he departed KCHA, cleared “GPS Direct” to his destination. He flew into the side of a mountain a few minutes after departure-directly on course. Controlled flight into terrain, or CFIT, comes in two varieties:
Scenario 1, like the unfortunate Bellanca pilot who hit the ground in instrument conditions or in poor visual conditions (fog, precipitation and/or night). Mis-set altimeters or altitude preselect devices sometimes play a part in CFIT, but most result when the pilot simply flies below a minimum safe altitude.
Defense: Better preflight study of sectional, en route, departure and arrival procedure charts, purposefully identifying routes and minimum safe altitudes for each leg of a trip, will help you avoid this trap. The proliferation of GPS units, which provide course guidance but only rarely terrain information, requires even greater pilot discipline to study your route before taking off.
Scenario 2 results when the pilot intentionally flies low and hits something, often a hard-to-see tower or suspended cable.
Defense: Follow the rules for terrain clearance and you’ll avoid this common cause of aerial tragedy.
- Unstabilized approach. A Beech Baron was landing but flew at nearly full speed to within a couple miles of the airport. Landing straight-in, he was fast in the flare and the Baron floated in ground effect as the pilot tried to “force” his plane onto the runway. The twin landed nose first, still well above normal touchdown speed; the nosewheel collapsed, the Baron departed the runway, and it flipped inverted in a shallow gully before bursting into flames. Certain aircraft components can withstand the stresses of landing only within a narrow range of speeds.
Defense: To arrive on speed at a predetermined location (the planned touchdown spot) requires the pilot to fly a predictable approach, “stabilized” at precise speeds and in proper airplane configuration. The further from the airport the pilot becomes and stays stabilized, the greater his/her chances of having a landing none of us will ever read about.
BOTTOM LINE: If you recognize one of these scenarios in the planning or progress of your flight, step back and honestly re-evaluate the situation. Properly managing the risk is not a big task — but it takes close attention to many small ones.
Next time — the four remaining “high risk” situations that lead to most airplane accidents.