High Risk, Part 2

Last week, we reviewed four of the eight “high risk situations” that lead to almost all lightplane accidents — taking off with a known problem, midair collision, controlled flight into terrain, and flying an unstabilized approach. Recognize yourself in one of these situations, and realize you need to work actively to manage, and reduce, the dangers. This week, let’s look at the remaining high risk situations.

5. Deviation from Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). The Piper Seneca pilot’s SOP was to extend the landing gear at glideslope interception on an Instrument Landing System (ILS) approach, but was concerned when controllers told him to “keep his speed up” because an airliner was trailing only a few miles behind, also inbound on the approach. At intercept, the pilot of the Piper twin pushed the nose down while keeping the gear up, to facilitate the fast approach. On short final, still worried about the jet behind him, the Seneca pilot landed gear up. The irony is that the airliner had to go around and experienced a significant delay while the runway was cleared.

Defense: Once you’ve established good habit patterns in the airplane you fly (such as a precise point for gear extension, every time), work out procedures to back them up — such as always double-checking gear position on short final, which would have saved the day in this case. Then, before you’re faced with unusual situations “for real,” try to anticipate possibilities, and work out revised SOPs to take care of those eventualities. For instance, it’s possible to fly a high-speed ILS while still extending the landing gear in plenty of time to avoid a gear-up landing. Brainstorm the “what ifs,” then practice special SOPs for those situations before you’re asked to perform in the skies.

6. Landing on the wrong runway. A North American AT-6 “Texan” was landing on runway 36 at Oshkosh, Wisconsin, during the height of the EAA AirVenture fly-in. Late-morning winds were becoming blustery, shifting from the northwest to the southwest, and gusting above 15 knots. On final approach the Texan’s pilot was fighting a gusty, quartering tailwind, tending to push the tail around to the right … which only added to the propeller-induced left-turning tendency to make the big trainer want to “ground loop” to the left. On landing the big tail swerved, and the pilot reacted — but with too much rudder. The Texan ran off the right side of the runway before the pilot changed control inputs, which only served to direct the T-6 across the entire runway and off the left side into the grass … and headed toward hundreds of parked airplanes and thousands of aero-enthusiasts. Once again the pilot overreacted and the plane shot across the pavement again, toward a ditch on the right side of the runway.

Finally, rolling through the grass on the right side of the runway, the pilot added power and hauled the Texan up into ground effect; he deftly continued until reaching climb speed, climbed to altitude, and landed smoothly on Runway 27, which was more correctly aligned with the wind. The pilot of this classic warbird was only following the flow of traffic and directions from the tower during the massive influx of airplanes for the world’s largest aviation gathering.

Defense: Air Traffic Control would have certainly been cited as a factor if this airplane had crashed, but even under ATC it’s still the pilot’s responsibility to accept or decline instructions based on conditions and the requirements of the pilot and airplane. In some situations we’re used to doing what we’re told. Don’t let yourself get talked into something that might get you — or someone else — seriously hurt.

7. Weather. A Beech Bonanza owner loaded up his family and a business acquaintance, taking off for a trip to the Colorado mountains. A vigorous cold front was pressing a line of storms about 20 miles northwest of his departure airport, but the pilot felt he could take off to the south, fly around the storm cell, and then arc on course to the west. Surface winds gusted to over 50 knots from the northwest just as the Beechcraft lifted off Runway 18; the wind shear had the same effect as dropping the A36’s forward speed by 50 knots, and the plane stalled and spun in just beyond the airport grounds. Adverse weather, especially strong surface winds, is a factor in nearly 40% of all airplane mishaps.

Defense: If this Bonanza pilot had waited only 15 minutes for the squall line to pass, his flight would likely have been uneventful. Remember, there’s no such thing as an “all weather” airplane. Approach every flight with the thought you may have to divert, delay, or cancel altogether if adverse weather conditions are pressing in close.

8. Complacency. The pilot of a Cessna T210 called the FBO and asked for his airplane to be pulled out and fueled. He was under pressure to fly to a business meeting; behind schedule when he arrived at the airport, he waved as he rushed past the line desk and out to his waiting craft. To save time he didn’t get the little ladder out of the baggage bin to check the fuel level on the high-wing airplane, “knowing” it had been “topped off” by the conscientious FBO staff. Ignoring the Cessna’s two fuel tank gauges, he reset his fuel totalizer for “full” tanks and took off. An hour later the engine stung him with silence — the FBO’s fuel truck wouldn’t start that morning, and the Cessna ran out of avgas half an hour into the flight.

Defense: We’re all safer when we’re intimately familiar with the airplane we fly. Trouble is, it’s easy to get too familiar with an airplane — or a route … or a procedure — and brush past basic steps that are meant to keep us from getting killed. It’s even easier to be complacent when schedules or other workloads command our attention. Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and checklists exist for a reason — to help us remember everything, even when under time-stress or a high workload. Make checklists and SOPs so ingrained you wouldn’t even think about flying any other way … so when you are stressed, you’ll have the reminders you need to make it safely to destination.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Good news, folks. Learn to recognize the signs of high risk flying and the battle is nearly won. With recognition, you can change your technique to avoid repeating accident history…and enjoying long years of happy, safe flying!