Famous last words… or thoughts

It wouldn’t take three guesses to come up with the one word most often heard on cockpit voice recorders before a crash. In private piston airplanes we don’t have recorders but that word likely wins hands down when a pilot realizes he has lost the battle. There are exceptions and at the end of this I’ll share with you the words that I have always considered the most touching of all.

More important than that last word is the thought process that led to it. Some famous last thoughts have stood out over the years.

I THINK I CAN MAKE IT

That probably precedes serious trouble more than any other thought. The definition of pilot-in-command defines absolute responsibility and, given that, a pilot should be able to know that what he is about to do is reasonable and proper.

Let’s look at this in relation to weather, both VFR and IFR flying.

Starting with VFR, most pilots who embark on a scud run probably do so with the thought that they think it will be okay.

scud running
I think I can make it…

The relationship between the VFR pilot and marginal weather is, though, one of the most complex relationships in flying. Not only are there no black and white answers, there are hundreds of shades of gray, and also, in this case, shapes of clouds.

Scud running is an art that was widely practiced some years ago. Pilots could get pretty good at it, too, but the ones who were successful always flew with an out. Back in the really good old days, one frequent escape when conditions got bad was the precautionary landing in a random field. Oh pshaw, I think I’ll land here and wait a while.

The old airplanes had low stalling speeds and big tires so the terrain didn’t have to be too smooth. Most airports were little more than random fields and the lack of electrification on a lot of the country meant there weren’t too many wires. That also helped if a road was selected for the precautionary landing.

Now, precautionary landings are almost out of the question. If a VFR pilot starts flying out of VFR the only option might be a 180 and return to better weather. A study of accidents suggests that a real hazard is flying into the ground during the 180, or, if visual reference is lost, losing control of the airplane.

Clearly today’s scud running pilot has few options. Some might think that the terrain display on a moving map can be used to stay out of trouble, but if the clouds droop down into the terrain, that won’t do you much good. The only option is usually an airport.

VFR weather accidents have become less a factor over the years. That is the good news. The bad news is that many pilots have switched to IFR flying and in many cases they have taken their accidents with them.

I’ll SEE IF I CAN MAKE IT

There is no rule that prohibits a pilot flying under Part 91 (not for hire) from flying an instrument approach when the reported weather suggests below minimums conditions. We can even try it with zero-zero reported. So maybe the IFR approach version of I think I can make it becomes I’ll see if I can make it.

Foggy approach lights
Those lights can be a trap if you’re not careful.

The IFR version might be even more deadly than the VFR version, especially if it is done in the dark or if repeat approaches are flown after a missed approach.

I think that risky approaches becoming accidents is related to the fact that the pilot wouldn’t have started the approach if he didn’t think it could be successfully completed. The strong urge is to continue onward and downward. The latter can become destructive.

The reason night is such a big factor in these accidents is that lights can send a come-hither message even when further descent won’t yield a good view of the appropriate things. The temptation to complete the approach when lights are dimly visible can be unbelievably strong. That is also true on multiple approaches after missed approaches. The accident history there is pretty grim.

I guess the only answer when there is doubt is to either leave it alone or to seek information that confirms either the possibility or impossibility of getting there VFR or completing that instrument approach. Then never go below minimums unless you can see, really see.

That said, there’s never a yes/no window, even on the smartest screen, and to earn PIC stripes a pilot has to continually make good decisions while evaluating what is happening now and what must happen next, and next, and next, all the way to the hangar or tie-down.

I’LL PICK MY WAY THROUGH THOSE STORMS

A clear example of the relationship between airplanes, pilots and thunderstorms comes when you compare the airline record with the private flying record in piston airplanes.

I know of only two jet airliners that crashed after a tussle with en route thunderstorms in the U.S. One was a Braniff BAC 1-11 that was lost in a low altitude (5,000 feet) squall line penetration. That one also involved an almost unheard of structural failure in a jet airliner. In the tumbling air related to the squall line, an angled gust caused a simultaneous increase in airspeed and incredible side load on the vertical tail, which failed. It was a t-tail airplane so the horizontal went with it. Subsequently a wing failed and the airplane actually got to the ground in a relatively stable flat spin.

The other jetliner was the Southern Airways DC-9 that got both engines punched out by massive rain and hail ingestion in a humongous thunderstorm. The airplane came through powerless but still flyable and the crew was almost successful in a dead stick landing on a highway but, alas, a wing clipped a gas station and everything came unraveled. There were still survivors, 22 of the 85 aboard, so it was not a total loss.

thunderstorm cloud
You can pick your way around storms, but only if there’s a lot of room in between cells.

So that is two jetliners in 50 years. If I were to list all the private piston airplanes lost in thunderstorms while en route over that period it would take pages. The exposure isn’t that much different, either, because while we have many more airplanes, the airlines fly many more hours per airplane and fly as many or more IFR hours than we do.

We don’t lose airplanes in thunderstorms because they have weak wings. In fact, the g-tolerance of our airplanes is generally greater than that of most jetliners. There is no comparison when it comes to weight and size, though, and those things count big time when an airplane is flown into a thunderstorm.

Our lighter airplanes have a more vigorous response to convective activity and our smaller airplanes develop greater rolling moments in the tumbling air of a thunderstorm. They are thus more difficult, if not impossible, to control once in a storm. Once control is lost the airspeed goes off the chart and then the airframe fails.

OR, I’LL HEAD FOR THE LIGHTEST SPOT IN THE LINE

This can work in heavy airplanes but success is far less likely in lighter ones. The trouble with a broken line of convective activity is that the potential for development exists all along the line, not just where it has already started to rain. The ride through in a light airplane can be difficult at best. If you think I learned that the hard way, you are right.

IT NEVER HURTS TO TAKE A LOOK

This one is potentially lethal only if it is done improperly. When using private airplanes for transportation, pilots have almost absolute flexibility. If we go look and don’t like the look, there’s often an airport close by where a new plan can be made while chowing down on peanut butter crackers and a soda pop. I have written before about drawing lines in the sky and not crossing those lines unless it looks okay to continue. I have also long argued that it’s not about go/no go but all about start/continue.

Piston airplanes don’t go really fast so the weather can vary greatly from a forecast in the time it takes to fly a little distance. If that happens, you do want to be thinking continue? instead of go.

IT’LL FLY WITH EVERYTHING YOU CAN CRAM INTO IT

It is true that a person who learned to fly recently doesn’t need to be concerned about the good old days but there were honestly some things about the past that were good and this thought relates to that.

Weight and balance chart
Those weight and balance charts are a lot more limiting than they used to be.

It was common for a four-place airplane to be able to fly with four people, baggage and full fuel tanks. As recently as 1979, the P210 that I flew for 28 years rolled out of the factory with a useful load a few pounds short of 1,500. That meant it would fly with six 170-pound people and within a few gallons of full tanks. Leave a little fuel out for baggage.

That is not true of the piston airplanes built today. Most have expanded fuel supplies, accessories not dreamed of in 1979, more elaborate interiors and more soundproofing plus the far heavier seats required by new regulations. The four-seat Columbia 400 (now Cessna TTx) I flew a while back would fly with me, full fuel, and 125 pounds of whatever else I wanted to carry. Four and baggage and enough fuel to fly any distance would be a serious overload.

Overloading airplanes is not unheard of, but it is not a good idea. Every little bit above the maximum certified weight takes away a corresponding amount of margin. The stalling speed goes up and the g-tolerance goes down to say nothing of the soggy rate of climb and reduced cruising speed and range. Best just fly an airplane that meets your weight needs.

IT LOOKS LONG ENOUGH TO ME

When flying piston airplanes, we don’t often go to the trouble to calculate required field lengths for takeoff or landing. We don’t need to because most of the runways that we use are far in excess of what might be required. But if the day comes when you need to do the calculations, you need to do that worse than anything else in the world.

The book numbers are for new airplanes flown by test pilots. Just using the book numbers provides absolutely no margin. There are several rules of thumb to take the sweat out of a takeoff or landing on a runway that is shorter than usual.

For a minimum runway length for takeoff, using the distance required to take off and clear a 50-foot obstacle might be a place to start. So might adding the required takeoff run to the required landing roll. That gives room to take off and perhaps room for a safe stop if things don’t seem to be developing well.

For landing, adding 60-percent to the distances shown in the POH is the way to go.

AND THEN THERE IS NO THOUGHT AT ALL

Reading the last words of a pilot or crew is unpleasant. Listening to them on an ATC or cockpit voice recording is something I did a couple of times before deciding not to ever do it again.

What I have learned from the final words is that in the majority of the cases the pilot didn’t actually know what was wrong. All he knew was that something was wrong. He was not able to think through the situation and arrive at a solution or even a reason for his plight.

When instructing or flying with other pilots I would often ask what are you thinking about when they were getting farther and farther behind the airplane. The two common answers were nothing and I don’t know. From what was going on, I could verify the accuracy of the answer.

Spin from cockpit
Bad thinking or simply no thinking?

I am going to link this to the elephant in the room, the number-one cause of fatal accidents: loss of control.

When a pilot flies an airplane into a low-speed loss of control accident, it is obvious that his thought process failed. Nobody is going to intentionally stall an airplane at low altitude so when it happens it is apparent that something brought rational thinking to a screeching halt and the pilot became a passenger.

Distractions, confusion, fear and panic can all affect thinking and I always thought that there are ways to combat this. One is by talking about what you are doing. If describing actions and conditions, the mind almost has to stay active. I know for a fact that this works on instrument approaches where a running narrative on everything can keep the mind active and make the flying better.

Power problems often lead to low speed losses of control and, if, as a pilot flies into such a situation, he is thinking that this is an excellent opportunity to bust the old butt if the airspeed and angle of attack are not managed properly, then the chances of survival go up.

HIGH SPEED LOSS OF CONTROL

When there is a high-speed loss of control, the first thing that happens is for the pilot to fail at keeping the wings level or at managing the bank angle in a turn.

There was an airline accident a long time ago where the crew lost control while trying to turn around once they had penetrated a thunderstorm. The turbulence wasn’t that bad but the precipitation was extremely heavy and the noise from it hitting the windshield was loud.

I always thought about that when flying in heavy rain and I always noticed how the noise and the cascade of water back over the windshield was doing its level best to move my attention away from job one, concentrating on the instruments and keeping the wings level.

BACK TO LAST WORDS

Cockpit voice recorder requirements were first implemented in 1967 with the thought that a lot could be learned from the cockpit conversation before a crash.

I remember that after a few years there had been some accidents where the CVR gave an insight into what had happened but in many the only suggestion was that there was confusion in the cockpit.

There was one unusual similarity in some of those early crash recordings. More often than not someone on the flight deck was whistling. Maybe that was a sign of complacency or it could have been nervousness. There was never word on the tune being whistled but if it was Nearer My God to Thee that would be cause for concern. Few people whistle now, in flight or anywhere else, so that has become a moot point.

There is no reason to question the value of CVRs because they do always provide clues if not answers. For example, when Air France 447, an Airbus A330, crashed into the Atlantic Ocean on May 31, 2009, the big CVR clue was that the crew had no idea what was happening until right at the last when it was profanely acknowledged that the end was near.

Airplane crashing
Ma, I love ya.

When added to the information on the flight data recorder and other available sources, though, the CVR information from this crash shed some light on what happened and why the crew didn’t know what was going on with the airplane.

The last words I will always remember did not provide any clues or answers, either, except about the character of the pilot who uttered the words. These words came in the final moments before the impact of the Pacific Southwest 727, Flight 182, that crashed in San Diego on September 25, 1978 after colliding with a 172. The airplane was out of control, with a windshield full of houses. Yet instead of cursing or screaming, one of the flight crew simply said:

Ma, I love ya

8 Comments

  • It is mentioned that a precautionary landing is not really an option now days for the trapped VFR pilot. Presumably, because modern airplanes are not suited for off field landings. I would agree that landing a J-3 in a field has a much higher probability of success than say, a Cherokee. But many times I think the hapless VFR pilot gets in so deep that even the recommended 180 degree turn won’t work. Today, students are taught that if that happens just go to the gages and call for help. I’m not so sure; I think even a Cherokee with a torn up landing gear in a small field would be preferable to pulling up into the clouds with no plan, no situational awareness and little if any skill to fly the plane. That method often doesn’t work even for really skilled pilots.

  • A serious topic, but to add a bit of levity I must quote the famous last words of a copilot to the captain in a Far Side comic:

    “Say…what’s a mountain goat doing way up here in a cloud bank?”

    Thanks, Gary Larson 🙂

  • A good forced landing is one where pilot and pax all walk away. A GREAT forced landing is one where the aircraft flew again. If you’re a private pilot, don’t make your insurance company’s problem into your problem.

    Steve Carmick
    Cherhalis, WA

  • When I used to investigate military aircraft accidents, we didn’t have a CVR but we usually had other pilots in the vicinity to interview about last comms.

    As a rule of thumb, if the last word s were something like, “Oh, Shite” it was probably pilot error. The pilot was pushing some line or taking some risk and he just realized he couldn’t make his “pilot magic” thing happen.

    If the last transmission was something like, “What’s that noise” or “What was that?” we stated looking for mechanical problems.

    Yeah, those memories were very poignant for the surviving pilots.

  • I remember the last accident to which you referred. I had received my private certificate four years earlier. I don’t think the “Ma, I Love ya” recording was ever made public. What I do remember with great astonishment was the pilot with amazing calmness transmitting; “We’re Going In”. It made a lasting impression upon me and I would like to think that I would stay calm and collective as this professional. Over the years I have learned that as pilots we are so busy and focused on handling the problem that there is no time to be scared.

  • It’s amazing how anything related to an ongoing incident you may have considered will come back to your mind, even if not thought of for years.
    Some early model Cessna aircraft have an emergency procedure for inadvertent IMC. I have never had a pilot flying those machines able to tell me about it.
    Upon loosing visual, immediately release the control wheel. Reference the turn and bank, and with rudder only, establish a standard rate turn for one minute. Then level the wings and fly out of the condition.
    This also works for night lose of visual references. Adding power will cause climb to possibility regain visual

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