Headwinds — Watch Em’ or Pay

If you’ve read my work here, you know that I respect Mother Nature. She is the force that creates beautiful sunsets, and gives us the delightful spring rains that bring forth the green fields that feed our world. I also believe that Mother Nature is a witch of the worst order, who will use the weather to beat sense into any pilot who should happen to disregard her power.

Wind is one of the most powerful forces on earth. When combined with rain or dust, wind can erode mountains, can shift entire beaches, and can stir the sea into a fury through a hurricane to humble the most impressive structures constructed by mankind. It can burst forth from thunderstorms in the form of microbursts, shoving huge masses of air toward the earth, flattening crops and structures that lie beneath.

Winds aloft are also a powerful force … one that many pilots fail to reckon with. Take our pilot who was flying northeast for a meeting in a King Air. The big twin was making headway against some blistering winds, with the pilot flying at lower than expected altitude to find sweeter winds. Unfortunately, the lower the altitude, the thicker the air, and the less efficient turboprop engines tend to be.

Our pilot started with a full load of fuel, which would put him at his destination right at the legal minimums. That flight planning had not foreseen a change in Mother Nature’s flight plan, which included winds that had hobbled the performance of the aircraft for the first hour of high-altitude flight, and continued to wear away performance (for other reasons) at lower altitudes. As the plane approached Joliet, the pilot recognized that his fuel situation was critical, so he elected to land.

Both engines shut down as the fuel supply was exhausted. The 3000 foot length of the runway at Joliet would have been more than sufficient with the props’ Beta-range available (where the propeller reverses pitch to quickly slow down turbine aircraft). Unfortunately, now the engines were just along for the ride.

The pilot got on the brakes as quickly as he could, but his skills, the requirements of the aircraft, and the runway’s length were a poor match. The plane skidded off the runway, off the airport property and to the stream at the bottom of a ravine. The aircraft received a significant amount of damage; the pilot escaped injury.

The FAA and the local media had a good time going over the accident. The plane was laid up for several days as repairs were made, after which it was flown out of the airport for more extensive repairs. Needless to say, the pilot didn’t make his appointment.

Know your plane, know your fuel burn, and know your waypoints. If this pilot had:

  • Kept track of his progress in time, distance and fuel burn, he would have recognized that he was approaching minimum safe fuel levels with no chance of making his destination under power.
  • Received a full weather briefing, or an inflight update while enroute, he may have recognized that the winds were greater than forecast, recognized the situation early (possibly before leaving the grand) and change his plans.

…then we wouldn’t be able to learn from his mistakes in this intriguing story.

MOTHER NATURE ISN’T GUNNING FOR YOU; the problem is that she just doesn’t care. Keep track of your fuel. Know where you are supposed to be. If things look bad in terms of endurance or fuel levels, make a conservative decision and land to refuel. Flying will often get you there much faster, but if you absolutely must be there on time, sometimes driving is the better option.