We received an interesting email from Duane Truitt, one of our readers, who suggested a topic for discussion among pilots. Duane has a particular interest in the tragic accident in Venice, Florida, where two people walking along the beach were killed by a pilot making an emergency landing: Duane is from Naples, also on the southwest Gulf Coast of Florida, and he also owns a Cherokee. Duane’s email is an article in itself, so that’s how we’re presenting it to you. Great food for thought and discussion.
The pilot of a Cherokee reported to the tower that he lost power not far from the Venice airport, and intended an off-airport landing on a nearby beach on the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately, though the pilot was able to make an emergency landing on the beach, his airplane, or portions of it, hit a young father and his nine-year old daughter who were walking on the beach, apparently in the same direction that the aircraft was approaching (so they did not see it coming in, nor hear anything given that the engine was not running). The 36-year old father was killed immediately, and his daughter was severely injured. She was reported to have passed away sometime later while in intensive care.
Reading the comments on various news websites in the Florida area, there was quite a bit of anger directed at the pilot for failing to ditch and avoid hitting the two beachgoers. Understandably so.
A few stray thoughts:
- The pilot and his right seat passenger were uninjured–yet they will live the rest of their lives knowing the pilot’s actions unintentionally caused the death of two innocent people who were engaged in the simplest and most innocent of family recreation, not even realizing they were in danger of imminent death. I believe these two fellows are going to be haunted forever.
- This accident, though uncommon if not freakish, is exactly the worst kind of negative image for personal aviation, so it potentially affects all of us pilots.
- The family of the father and daughter are obviously hugely hurt by this, forever more. Offering our condolences is not enough in such a terrible yet avoidable loss.
- The accident pilot released a written statement a few days ago. He said that he did not see the two people as he approached to land on the beach, and did not realize the aircraft had hit them until after he and his passenger left the aircraft. It is not difficult to imagine that the beachwalkers weren’t visible from the aircraft, given that the normal nose-high attitude of the aircraft might screen them from the pilot’s view. However, that by itself does not relieve the pilot of the responsibility, as pilots need to know that faced with a similar power off landing on a beach, or a highway, or a city street, or other occupied place on the ground, any of us will likely also not be able to see people who are directly below in the final flight path… meaning, this is a good reason to stay well away from any such occupied areas, even if they seem temptingly straight and unobstructed.
- Practically speaking, it is going to be difficult to ascertain that a stretch of beach is completely vacant of people unless the pilot has sufficient (but not too much) altitude to do a fly-over above the beach, or perform a spiral descent, at sufficiently low altitude to really examine the area carefully before attempting a beach landing. The same applies for scoping out any off-airport landing site that might be occupied by pedestrians or vehicles, such as a road, park, parking lot, golf course, or other open area.
- My intent here is not to condemn the accident pilot, or to second guess what the pilot should have done, but rather, my intent is for us pilots to use this case to look for lessons should we ever be faced with a situation such as he faced, with very little time to think about the best course of action.
- A lot of commenters on various websites this week assumed that the better decision for the pilot, though riskier to the pilot and his passenger, would have been to have ditched in the water just off the beach. Ditching, more often than not, typically does not result in a fatality, especially in a situation like this one, in very shallow water next to land. But what we don’t know is if the pilot and/or his passenger could swim, or if they were equipped with life preservers (in all likelihood, probably not). Nor do we know yet if the pilot simply didn’t know how to safely ditch his aircraft (it’s not taught in most pilot training programs).
- It seems that there should be an obligation for us pilots, especially those carrying passengers, in flights over or near the water to be mentally prepared and sufficiently knowledgeable to conduct a safe ditching. Of course, we also don’t know (based upon media reports so far) if there were any swimmers in the water whom the pilot saw and was also trying to avoid… but even in that case, moving the aircraft’s flight path to even 50 yards or so off the surf line would likely avoid most if not virtually all swimmers at the typical ocean beach. But that of course would put the aircraft in somewhat deeper water, thus increasing the risk of drowning should the aircraft flip upside down in the surf after touchdown (which is not uncommon, especially for fixed gear high wing aircraft).
- Sure, this kind of accident is freakishly uncommon. But not altogether improbable for any pilot to be confronted with this type of choice of emergency responses when flying along or near a shoreline (ocean, lake, or river).
There are no easy or cheap answers for this… if it were me in that aircraft (I own and fly the same Piper Cherokee model that was involved in this incident, and I live near the Gulf Coast and have regularly flown near or just off the beach areas), I am mentally prepared to ditch near the beach if I cannot make it to an airport after a loss of power. Whenever I fly over or near the coastline, I routinely examine both the shoreline (for people) and the character of the wind and seas so that I know where I can set down if need be… just as when flying over land I continually scan for potential emergency landing sites. I’ve studied up on how to ditch, so I know more or less what to do in a ditching (though I’ve never had to do one, thankfully).
Now with this accident as a fresh reminder, I know that even with the best of intentions, landing on a beach near any kind of occupied stretch of the coast may result in hurting innocents, which would be simply unacceptable. Ditto for off airport landings on occupied roads, parking lots, or other areas with lots of people on the ground.
Pilots really do need to think through these scenarios in advance and be prepared to act accordingly.
What are your thoughts? What is your reaction to this accident?
Duane is a civil engineer and real estate development manager who learned to fly in 1976 while a member of the US Navy, in between cruises on a nuclear fast attack submarine. A couple of years after earning his pilot certificate, the demands of raising a family and attending college on the GI Bill meant dropping out of aviation. Three decades later (2008) Duane got back into flying, finding that it was relatively easy to pick up where he left off. Shortly thereafter, Duane purchased his 1968 Piper Cherokee which he flies mostly on business trips and sometimes for recreation.