Editor’s note: Richard Collins started a healthy debate when he argued that reviewing accident reports should be part of any safe pilot’s routine. Since then, many Air Facts readers have written to echo Richard’s thoughts, and to encourage us to periodically discuss accidents that offer a lesson for pilots. With that in mind, we will be offering a regular series on accident reports.
The checkride is always a stressful time for student pilots, as months of preparation culminate in a big test and hopefully a new certificate. It’s also a time of transition, when new pilots go from the clearly defined instructor-student relationship to the much fuzzier examiner-applicant relationship. Who’s in charge? The simple answer is the applicant, but an accident from late 2013 shows how tricky this question can be in real life. It also offers some lessons for all pilots.
The 36-year old student pilot wasn’t going far in his rented Cessna 182, just 20 nm east to a neighboring airport. Here, he planned to meet a designated pilot examiner for his Private Pilot practical test. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t cooperating this morning, with a 600 ft. overcast and 4 miles visibility at his departure airport (KAJZ). The pilot called the examiner to discuss the weather, and the NTSB report describes the conversation:
According to the DE, the student pilot called him on the morning of the accident and informed him there was a cloud deck at KAJZ. The DE told the student pilot the cloud deck was likely a thin layer that would burn off and to fly to 99V after the weather cleared up.
How this was interpreted by the pilot, we’ll never know. But a short time later, surveillance cameras at the airport show the 182 departing on runway 3. The airplane flew just two miles on runway heading before crashing and killing the pilot. Examination of the airplane did not show any mechanical malfunctions or pre-impact failures. It appears to be a simple VFR-into-IMC accident.
Unlike some of these scenarios, the pilot didn’t stumble into ever-worsening weather. It was clear from the ground that weather conditions were not good, and the pilot knew this (as demonstrated by his phone call to the examiner). So why would a student pilot launch into weather that was obviously unsafe for VFR flight?
The NTSB report makes note of the pilot’s “go-go-go” personality and his motorcycle racing background, suggesting he was not afraid of some risk. He was clearly a successful, goal-oriented person who viewed aviation as a way to support his business, and perhaps expected too much from a pilot’s license. His flight instructor apparently warned him about not trying to “push too hard” to complete a trip and “not getting over his head.”
On the surface this sounds like simply a reckless pilot who did not recognize his limitations. That may be part of it, but other details suggest this is an oversimplification. According to the CFI, the pilot was clearly feeling pressure, both personal and business, to complete his flight training. There was even a discussion about trying to schedule the checkride before the airplane had to be taken down for its annual inspection.
The pilot’s personality and the pressure he felt set the table for a potentially unsafe flight. With that context in mind, the examiner’s comment about the cloud deck burning off seems like the final straw. Here is a much more experienced pilot suggesting that the clouds are not a major problem, since they will not last long. While the examiner very clearly said he should not fly over to 99V until after the weather cleared up, the student pilot may have taken that as encouragement to make the trip. He may have heard what he wanted to hear. And it was only a 20 mile flight.
Regardless of the pilot’s thought process, this accident is a reminder for all pilots that only the person sitting behind the yoke is pilot in command. That authority cannot be outsourced to anyone else, whether it’s ATC or a more experienced pilot. Learning to say no, even to implicit pressure or harmless suggestions, is hard. But it’s a life-saving skill.
This happens to pilots of all experience levels. When the controller says there’s a gap in the weather, but you’re not sure, do you give into that subtle pressure? When the mechanic says the airplane is ready to go, but you have your doubts, do you have the backbone to push back? When a flying buddy says the weather is good enough to go, but it’s below your personal minimums, do you stand firm?
These are all hard decisions, and the right answer is not necessarily to cancel every flight at the first sign of trouble. But there is only one vote that counts in the go/no go decision: the PIC. Guard that power jealously.