John’s blog: holiday accidents have a lesson

Three general aviation airplanes crashed in the week before Christmas 2011. Unfortunately, that by itself isn’t newsworthy. But since each accident involved people traveling by light airplane to visit family for the Christmas weekend, the stories ended up on TV.

These accidents are certainly tragic for the families involved, but I think they’re also tragic for pilots in general. There is nothing as rewarding as using an airplane for personal transportation, and when it goes horribly wrong, it knocks all of us back a step. Add in the fact that the flights involved kids and relatives, escaping work or school for what should have been a fun holiday trip, and it’s even worse.

Let’s look at the specific accidents. First, the requisite disclaimer: these accidents are very recent, little is known for sure and the NTSB won’t issue a final report for many months. With those caveats in mind, we can engage in some thoughtful speculation:

  • Five days before Christmas, a Piper Cherokee 6 went down in Texas, killing the pilot, his wife, his two kids and his brother. There were thunderstorms in the area and it was night. The family was on the way to Waco to visit family.
  • A day later, a TBM 700 turboprop crashed in New Jersey, taking the life of the pilot, his wife, his two kids, a co-worker and the family’s dog. Icing has been mentioned as a factor, with numerous pilot reports of moderate and even severe icing around the crash area. The plane was headed to Atlanta for Christmas.
  • Finally, a Cessna 441 Conquest crashed in York, Pennsylvania, just a mile from the airport, killing the pilot, who was the sole occupant. The flight originated in Los Angeles, and there are some reports of engine failure, possibly due to fuel exhaustion. The pilot was planning to visit family in the area.
Flight track of Texas plane track
Serious weather for a Cherokee (courtesy of flightaware.com).

Ice, thunderstorms and fuel exhaustion are nothing new in NTSB reports. They show up with depressing regularity. But there’s one factor that is even more common in accident reports, and it was certainly present here: all three flights probably had some pressure to complete the trip. As any pilot can attest to, the decision to cancel a flight can be incredibly difficult; it’s in our nature to complete the mission and not admit “failure.” Imagine the increased pressure if you’re taking the family to Grandma’s for Christmas.

And while it’s easy to Monday morning quarterback, none of these flights were clearly dangerous. Sure, they weren’t exactly Sunday afternoon joyrides, but for experienced instrument pilots (and all three pilots were) the conditions did not necessarily call for an immediate cancellation.

There were numerous reports of moderate ice in the area of the TBM crash, but that’s true of a lot of winter days in the Northeast and the conditions this day were only forecast to last for the first 100 miles (for a full account of the weather conditions, see Scott Dennstaedt’s detailed post). Certainly no airplane is immune to severe icing, but if you canceled every time ice was reported, you wouldn’t get much utility out of the airplane. Not to mention, the ability to fly in icing conditions is one major reason pilots buy turbine airplanes like the TBM. It may have been that, in this case, the moderate icing that is so common was actually severe or SLD.

In the case of the Cherokee, the thunderstorms were serious, but they were also in fairly well-defined lines that are often possible to navigate around. The airplane may have been trying to do just that when it crashed, although night conditions certainly would have made this harder.

And then there’s the Conquest. While California to Pennsylvania may sound like a long flight (and it is), it is not impossible in a high performance turboprop like the Conquest, especially with a good tailwind. In fact, the airplane had flown a 6.5 hour flight earlier in the year, only slightly shorter than the accident flight was planned to be.

But read the details of each of these three accidents carefully, and it’s apparent that these scenarios are exactly where accidents happen–at the margins. The conditions were just good enough to encourage making the flight, but just bad enough to be dangerous.

Indeed, it’s fairly easy to cancel a trip when the bases are at 200 ft., the tops are at 35,000 ft. and there is ice everywhere in between. Likewise for a 9 hour trip in an airplane with 7 hour range. But how about relatively low tops or just a little bit longer flight than you’ve done before? It’s a much harder decision. Throw in the insidious effects of “mission-itis” and the desire to impress family, and it’s easy to see why the pilots launched on these trips.

Like most pilots, I’ve noticed the same effect in my own flying career. In particular, Sunday trips when I’m trying to get home before the week starts often have an added pressure, whether I realize it or not. Over time, I’ve forced myself to be extra conservative on these trips. I simply tell myself that the weather is either too bad to fly in or it’s not–there cannot be a different standard for Sunday flights and Tuesday flights. In fact, you almost need to take a contrarian point of view: the more important the trip, the more skeptical you should be.

Ice on wing of turboprop
How much is too much ice? How do you know?

The same goes for family and non-family flights. Just because I’m trying to make a trip on time with my family should not affect my personal minimums. In practice, this is an extremely difficult emotion to manage. We are all salesmen to a certain extent when we fly with family. We want to prove that all the money and time we spend on airplanes is worth it, and brings value to the entire family. We also want to prove that we are good pilots. The feeling of failure if we cancel can be overwhelming in these situations.

In the end, we have to remember that the most powerful safety tool we have as private pilots is the ability to cancel a trip (or divert to another airport). If you’re being paid to fly an airliner, it’s a different story–you’re going unless the weather is truly awful. But in Part 91 flying, there is almost never an occasion when we have to make the trip, even for Christmas.

It’s possible that some or all of these accidents would not have happened had the pilots delayed their takeoff or diverted. That’s speculation and that’s also easier said than done. But it’s worth remembering a line from Dick Collins: “Airplanes are near perfect, all they lack is the ability to forgive.” The point is you only have to be wrong once, and the airplane doesn’t care if this trip really counts, and it doesn’t care if your family is on board.

My new year’s resolution for 2012? The next time I feel like I have to make a flight, I’m going to slow down and take a hard look at the conditions–weather, airplane and pilot. If it’s going to be a stretch, even just a little one, I’m pouring another cup of coffee and staying in the FBO.

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11 Comments

  • Great message for all pilots.

    Or drink a cocktail and then you have no choice but to wait a few hours before launching.

  • “At the margins” — I could not agree MORE! This is exactly where accidents happen, even in the highly professional and detailed planning environment of Flight Test. Test pilots do the same thing.

    The message, I think, needs to be this: “Give yourself more options.”

    We don’t spend enough time and energy in mission planning investigating the many, many ways to add margin to our flight–find suitable alternates, figure fuel reserves when flying around weather, etc.

  • Don’t forget the fatal Cessna 172R IFR traning flight that crashed the week before Christmas in TX.. that makes 4 accidents. Your comment about “proving” that the time & money spent on flying is worth it is right on..the feeling of accomplishment after a cross country flight in a GA airplane is huge, a great “elixir” … also, those with families want and need to get the family involved witht their flying if they are to continue to stay current…flying in general, and especially flying for travel, is a huge personal commitment…it almost seems to me that those who really do use small airplanes for meaningful travel have to push the envelope… otherwise work and family time would not allow the wait-it-out time due to weather… as pilots, these accidents definitely leave a sour taste in our mouths..how can flying–something we pilots love so much—cause so much pain…very sad

  • a very well written and respectful review. i’m a “new” pilot, about 160 hours, and always interested in what has caused these tragedies. and how to avoid them.

  • Indeed a great message! I am gonna do the same! Really take a long look before I launch. We all know people that have pushed it and lost.

  • There are more options than cancel or fly. It is frequently completely feasible to “change the plan”. In the Conquest it is pretty straightforward: Stop for fuel? The TBM could have flown at a lower altitude, and faster (helps boot effectiveness). It is for only a hundred miles or so, then back to normal. I think the issue may be recognition that a revised plan is needed. Sometimes that recognition occurs too late. We can work on making our plan changes sooner…

    We do want to demonstrate our airplanes are useful and desirable. Accidents don’t do that. A slightly revised plan probably wouldn’t torpedo the image.

  • Hi there,

    even in germany we heard of two of those accicents … it´s tragic and makes me really sad. Especially becuase I lost a friend of mine because of a CFIT in the Suisse Alps.
    For everyone who is further interested in GA Safety I suggest you to read the Newsletters from Bob Miller.

    Happy new and safe year 2012!

    Dan

  • The conditions mentioned in these three cases would have kept me on the ground. I am an experienced instrument pilot that always flies with an IFR cleareance. I am saddened by the poor decisions made by these pilots. We all should check our personal minimums and stick to them or revise them if they are not safe. When I get that ‘feeling’ I stay on the ground. ‘nough said.

  • Very good article, here. It got my attention because this issue – pressing on, when conditions and obvious signs suggest that you shouldn’t – is something I feel strongly about. As a long time pilot, and Accident Prevention Counselor – now, “FAASTeam Rep” for the FAA’s Accident Prevention Program, I have always emphasized to new, or low-time pilots the importance of flying conservatively, and never allowing oneself to continue a flight if the pilot wasn’t completely comfortable with doing so. There’s certainly a lot of General Aviation accident history, covering just about ALL the years that I’ve been flying (45+), that indicate that “get there-itus” was at least a causal factor in those accidents… and certainly a lot of them fatal.

    Thanks, John for a good article.

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