Flying with no “out” – between a rock and a hard place

Like apple pie and motherhood, always flying with an “out” is considered doctrine. Trouble is, it’s not always easy to do that and sometimes it’s not even possible. Let’s look at that.

A phone call from our son in Atlanta brought the news that there had just been a bad crash onto the Interstate (285) that runs just north of PDK (Peachtree-Dekalb). It had happened in the past few minutes so there were no details.

As more became known, I had that old “been there and done that” feeling about this tragic event at PDK. When a pilot going down a path that I have often flown comes to grief I just automatically think it through and reflect on the times that I flew there. I also try to envision how I might have handled the event.

Airplane crash PDK
An airplane crash near PDK brings up a “been there and done that” feeling.

The airplane in the accident was a Piper PA-32. I used to have a Cherokee Six version of that Piper. This one was a retractable Saratoga.

I bought my Cherokee Six because it was the perfect family airplane for us. We could fly with a seat left over. The airplane lost at PDK was on a family mission to pick up folks and then go to a graduation. I family-flew to a lot of graduations (and wedding and funerals).

The family lost at PDK was going to Ole Miss to attend the graduation of the youngest of three sons. We have a grandson going to Ole Miss in the fall.

The flight originated at Asheville, North Carolina. My father lived his last years in Hendersonville, just south of Asheville and the AVL airport was almost like a second home base to me because I went there so often.

As mentioned, our son is near Atlanta and as a result I have flown between AVL and PDK many times. The Saratoga was based in AVL and one son was aboard; they went to PDK to pick up another son and his fiancée. I have done things like that many times.

I don’t know which FBO the pilot used at PDK but if it was Epps, that’s where I always went. Pat Epps and I grew up in the airplane business together and over the years I enjoyed many visits with him. He always ran a fine FBO and from what I hear the tradition continues.

Now we get to not having a good “out” and being between an aerial rock and hard place.

PDK taxiway diagram
Runway 3R is longer, but 3L is a shorter taxi – which one would you take?

The Saratoga took off on runway 3L at PDK. At 3,646 feet it is long enough for light airplanes but it always seemed short to me. My P210 and other airplanes I flew off that runway always felt like they were struggling to get up and gone.

The visual illusion is of an uphill but there is actually a slight down grade to the runway.

Another illusion is created by the fact that, at 150 feet, it is unusually wide for its length. I think the runway dates back to when the airport was built as NAS Atlanta for World War Two and more than a few airports of that era have runways that are relatively wide for their length.

A wider runway means that the visual sensation of acceleration on takeoff is not as great. This can be cured by taking off on the left side of the runway, closer to the edge, but I have always favored the centerline.

The parallel 3R is longer, at 6,001 feet, and narrower, at 100 feet. I preferred it and for that reason should have always requested it but I tended to take what was offered.

The Saratoga pilot was originally cleared to 3R, to hold short of 3L. He called in a bit and said he was holding short of 3L and ready. The controller gave the pilot a heading to fly and cleared him for takeoff. The pilot questioned the controller about which runway to use and the controller cleared him to take off on 3L.

Now, off the ground from either 3L or 3R, we come to the rock and the hard place, and I must say in advance that it looks better after departing from 3R than it does after departing on 3L if for no other reason than you are higher when you fly past the airport boundary.

As you climb after takeoff from either, with the power left at full until at least 1,000 feet above the ground, and follow the good practice of scanning for places to go in case of trouble, the view is not encouraging. In fact, it is downright hostile. After doing this a few times you almost get the feeling that the best deal would be to depart into clouds or not look down when flying visually.

PDK aerial view
After departing runway 3L at PDK, there aren’t may good options for a forced landing.

While climbing out of PDK I have asked myself many times what I would do if the engine failed right now. One pretty absurd thought was to land on the flat top of one of the many industrial building in the area. The plan there would be to slow as much as possible before going over the edge. None of the roofs appears large enough to contain a rollout. Land gear up and slide to stop quicker? That would be something to ponder.

Another drawback to a rooftop landing would be things like air conditioning units and other obstructions on the roof.

I have looked over the parking lots but none appear large and most are well lit which means a lot of light poles to say nothing of the cars. Business is apparently good in the area because most of the lots are full most of the time.

Soon after takeoff the Saratoga pilot reported that he was having some problem climbing. A witness reported seeing the airplane at low altitude and said the engine sounded normal and despite what appeared to be slow speed, the airplane was not “wobbling.”

In his last transmission, the pilot said he was going down “here at the intersection.” He had obviously decided that is only choice was to attempt a landing on the Interstate.

A police dashcam captured the last part of the flight. The airplane comes into view in what looks like normal glide, with the landing gear down. It is aligned with a highway. It flew almost out of sight but at about the time the pilot said he was going down at the intersection the airplane turned to the right and impacted the highway. Because of the intersection, or interchange, looming ahead the highway he had been aligned with would have become a bad target and that was the apparent reason for the right turn.

PDK crash dash cam
A police dashcam shows the pilot turning right at the last moment.

He was not lined up on the intersecting highway at impact because there were ground scars across four traffic lanes, ending at a Jersey barrier. When a probable cause is issued, it will likely have an opinion about whether the pilot was in or out of control when the initial impact occurred. From looking at the dashcam video, I think it could have been either.

It is true that the best chance of survival in a forced landing comes if the airplane is in control up until the moment when the crash sequence begins. Best chance could mean anything from little chance to excellent chance with the determinant being how the crash evolves. Hitting a Jersey barrier at any angle and speed would never be good.

There have been many forced landings in congested areas that were survivable. The two most bizarre events involved four-engine jet airliners, a DC-8 and 707. Both ran out of fuel, thus no fire, and because of the nature of the impact there were far more survivors in the DC-8 than the 707. The message there is to keep flying and trying to make it work as long as possible.

I read one report that local pilots had been using the internet to bemoan the fact that there are few options in case of a power problem when departing PDK. A realistic thought would dismiss that complaint out of hand simply because there is no way to fix it. For more options, use an airport out in the boonies.

I don’t know why my thoughts on this always revolved around PDK. I used White Plains (HPN) just as much and the options there are just as bad. Maybe the fact that the area around HPN is residential with a lot of trees makes it less ominous in appearance than the largely industrial area around PDK. There are still not many places to go unless you might be able to splash down on one of the reservoirs in the area.

SMO aerial view
Santa Monica doesn’t offer many forced landing options either – just ask Harrison Ford.

Another airport that came to mind is Santa Monica, SMO. Harrison Ford had a power problem there in his PT-22 and put it on a really small golf course just southwest of the airport. From the pictures it appeared that the airplane hit slightly nose down which would suggest he was running out of airspeed and altitude at the same time. That would have been close because the nature of a PT-22 is such that running out of airspeed with much height would mean hitting well nose down. It is an airplane that will spin with only slight provocation.

The area around SMO is solidly residential with that little golf course about the only exception. If you want to look at the area around any airport, Google Earth gives a neat insight. Just search the airport name. The code doesn’t work as far as I could tell.

It is also true that a lot of airports not in urban areas offer few options for a pilot with power trouble after takeoff. Rough terrain, mountains, fully forested land and other natural hazards can offer real challenges.

Contemplating this led me to do some research to see if I could determine the magnitude of any problem.

In the scheme of things are mechanical engine failures in piston airplanes a big factor in serious accidents around airports in congested areas? I looked at the three airports mentioned, PDK, HPN and SMO, to see what the experience has been at those locations.

Do note that I mentioned mechanical failures. A substantial percentage of power problems on and after takeoff involve fuel mismanagement or contamination and there have even been cases of fuel exhaustion soon after takeoff, weird as that may seem. Those are easily avoidable. So are the ones where a pilot tried to fly away with a known mechanical problem with those happening more often in twins than singles.

To start, I asked my son, who has flown in that area for over 30 years, if it has been a big problem at PDK. He said it hasn’t.

I queried the NTSB database for all three airports and this didn’t reveal a lot of serious accidents related to engine failures around any of the three airports. Ironically, one of the few other power-related accidents at PDK was also a PA-32. That one spun in after a power failure. In that case, the pilot had apparently taken off with a dry fuel tank selected.

Cirrus with airframe parachute
The only option when you have no “out?”

Where you do find serious accidents related to power problems around congested airports like this the usual end result is a low-speed loss of control. I guess that when a pilot runs out of ideas on where to go with the airplane he might also run out of airspeed. That said, I’ll add that pilots have also been known to spin-in while attempting forced landings in Kansas.

This area of concern is a bit like night flying. Pilots give a lot of thought to engine failures at night yet almost all serious night accidents involve a pilot hitting the ground in a perfectly functioning airplane. In either case, climbing out at an airport like PDK or flying at night, the good accident history would give comfort unless your engine decided to pack it in at an unfortunate time and present you with a bad case of rotten luck. Then best be ready with a burst if brilliance and some fancy footwork.

I know that there are purists who will sanctimoniously say that there is no excuse for ever flying without options or an “out.” Realistically that is not possible if we use our airplanes to fly where we want to fly when we want to fly.

We semi-purists hold that the best deal is to work hard to minimize the risks that are inherent in any flight. It is often repeated but the lowest risk is found flying a perfectly-maintained simple airplane on a clear calm day from an airport of generous size in flat country surrounded by open fields. From there we start adding risk that has to be managed.

There is one other area of concern related to this. It has to do with the aging fleet of airplanes and the increase in maintenance costs if the airplane and engine are kept in top shape. I did some research a while back that showed that older airplanes had more maintenance-related accidents than newer airplanes. I think that had more to do with money spent on maintenance than with the age of the airplanes and it could well become an ever-increasing problem because as airplanes age they have less value but ever-increasing demands for expensive maintenance.

If you worry about things like this, you might want to fly a Cirrus, with an airframe parachute. Trouble there is that I am not sure the Saratoga at PDK got high enough for a chute to have been effective. I’ll leave the absolute answer to that in the hands of the Cirrus community. Do speak up.

23 Comments

  • It’s nice to talk about managing risk but this story proves there are those that obviously can’t be “managed” and the consequences of a problem at those times is probably going to have an ugly ending. That needs to be remembered by semi-purists that want to go where they want when they want.

  • Providing an “out”, preferably multiple “outs”, is always a good strategy to strive for, but such a strategy sometimes is simply not feasible as Dick points out, as in takeoffs from airports in crowded urban or industrial areas like PDK.

    The risk of an engine failure on takeoff in a well-maintained modern piston prop aircraft is quite low, but never zero. Yet there are still “outs” available to a pilot who desires to manage his/her risks. Such outs may have to be exercised BEFORE going wheels up, however, instead of implemented in the air during takeoff.

    There are at least two obvious options to mitigate the risks of an engine-out on takeoff, under this particular scenario, including:

    – Make sure the aircraft is well-maintained and operating reliably. This technique should be practiced on every flight, of course, but all too often it’s not, and the results when ignored should not surprise.

    – Use another airport; PDK was not the home base or the flight origination point for this accident scenario, so the pilot could have selected another airport in the general area at which to pick up passengers and/or fuel the aircraft.

    So for purposes of managing flight risk it’s preferable to select an airport where there is a more amenable runway safety environment. This is an easy mitigation technique to use in many instances, especially for intermediate stops in large urban areas like Atlanta that are often ringed by many, sometimes dozens of outlier GA airports.

    Such outlier airports may represent some minor inconvenience for the passengers being collected. This inconvenience factor is mitigated, however, by the fact that avgas prices are usually much lower at such outlying airports than at the closer-in urban airports. If your passengers awaiting arrival at an intermediate stop object to driving out to the country to hitch a ride, you can always offer to bill them the difference in cost for a fill-up at their desired embarkation airport vs. that at the outlier. That figure can easily run to hundreds of dollars!

    • Anecdotally, two of my three in-flight engine failures occurred immediately after takeoff – one in daylight, one at night. I rarely buy lottery tickets. 😉

  • Epps is still awesome. It is not as modern as many of the other nicer FBOs around but the service is excellent and they have everything you could want or need. I had an avionics problem that potentially grounded the plane and they solved it quickly and inexpensively. I wanted to kiss the tech on the lips (they declined).

    But after 5 trips there, I was tired of the bustle in Atlanta airpace and the traffic once in the rental car. I also wanted cheaper gas. I have been gravitating away from the big FBOs in a number of cities, not just Atlanta.

    I now avoid PDK and go to Cherokee County (CNI), Lawrenceville (LZU) or another collar airport. They really aren’t in the boonies since most of my clients are on the north side. Cherokee County is my favorite. The runway is built on top of a landfill so it is like landing on a plateau and the winds are really challenging and fun. Brand new terminal, great people. The difference in gas price more than pays for a rental car on many short trips.

    Lots of room for a power off landing, too, although that was not a part of my calculation. And I don’t intend to make it one. You lose a lot of utility if you start making decisions based on consequences from engine failure after departure.

    It is another good reason to use a collar airport. I intend to continue, but if the mission is best met at PDK, I’m perfectly willing to risk the lack of a landing place on engine failure at departure.

  • A pilot always has one option – – – unless a wing has departed his airplane. That residual option is simply “Land the Airplane.” And that means to fly it until it has come to a stop. Still, when a pilot is down to that singular option, he is on very thin ice and a long way from shore.

  • KPDK is my home airport and where I got my ticket, so I’m a bit on edge about this accident. I don’t want to speculate but Richard seems to say in a round about way that this is not a W&B issue. I found it strange that the notion is being discounted. No one yet has said the engine sounded bad on take off.

    The pilot landed at PDK picked up fuel, two passengers, luggage, a dog, and took off all within a 40 minute window. Is it not possible that the pilot skipped a W&B calc and just “eye-balled’ it? The Piper can haul some weight but how sensitive is it to CG?

  • While I know you write with only the best intentions, you must know that a large number of Santa Monica residents and local politicians are attempting to shut down KSMO. I can almost guarantee that they will use this article to add even more fuel to their fire. I really wish that you selected another, less vulnerable, example.

    • Rick – Mr. Collins is just restating some well-known facts about a well-known accident that already occurred involving a very famous celebrity. As for the fate of the airport itself, it appears that battle has already been lost, in the public vote taken last year. The pro-airport people lost the election to the anti-airport folks. SMO appears likely to be a goner, just a matter of time.

  • You, Richard Collins, sir, are an eminence of aviation. As a new pilot (200 hrs), I treasure my Sporty’s Air Facts DVD set, and this article just reinforces that feeling. Not auguring bad things, but the aviation world will not be the same once we don’t have your wise ponderings to read.

    Sincerely yours,
    Luis Ochoa.

  • I live in a Airpark south of Chicago and every time I take off (southwest) I ponder the choices I have in case of an engine failure. The choices are few at low altitude. The area is loaded with homes. Although I am very diligent with maintenance and thorough preflights there is a short period of time,that if the engine faltered, I would be in serious trouble. I understand that flying has risks,and I always try to minimize those risks, but I also recognize that is not always possible.Maybe luck has something to do with it.

  • Very early in my flying education (now some 40 years ago) my instructor handed out a few pearls of wisdom related to forced landings in undesirable terrain. “If you HAVE to hit Something, at least try to pick what you are going to hit, and how you hit it.” — Don W.

  • Google earth offers 45 degree satellite imagery. Being able to see shadows as well as the sides of structures makes it is far more useful than the pure top down images for this kind of analysis. In dense areas like the ones we’re discussing you can look from any of the four cardinal directions! Could even be used as part of a preflight in places where options are few and there would be little time to think in the air.

    For my money I’d plan to take the railroad tracks if it came to that.

    • Where they’re available trees wouldn’t be so bad to hit either. Nothing makes sparks like metal on pavement, so perhaps the risk of the fuel igniting would be less in the trees? At least you have a coin toss chance that way.

      Also I imagine a simulator could be quite helpful to get some of those sight pictures you hope you’ll never see. In Xplane it’s quite easy to set the engine to fail a number of seconds after takeoff, and if your computer can handle it it can look an awful lot like the real world.

    • I think of that accident at least once a week when taking off from PDK. Lousy options all around. At least mine is a motorglider with a good turn radius so if I can get to 350 ft (add some for your plane model) that should be good enough for a return (Left return if from 3/21, Right return if from 34/16). Near the end of the runway until return height is frightening every time.

  • I had a partial power failure going out of Boeing Field (Seattle) to the North one day. There’s not much available there either. I found that the urge to pull it around in a 180 degree turn to be almost irresistible, despite all the training and admonitions about going straight ahead. Perhaps it’s because you subliminally know that the only clear spot is right behind you, so you go for it. Fortunately, that day, I had enough power left to get around. I might have made it without the power, it’s hard to say. Just a year earlier a guy spun in at that same spot after losing an engine in a Skymaster; so two engines didn’t seem to save the day either.

  • A family member reported there was maintenance performed on the plane the day before the accident. They also reported the pilot test flew the plane the day before the accident to confirm all was well. As a commercial rated pilot, he was experienced and likely did the best he could.

    I hope the report shows a mechanical failure as opposed to misfuel, or worst yes, pilot error. More and more development is crowding airports and outs on every take off are things we as pilots dread. Not always an easy choice, but we all know the risk, know when and when not to try the impossible turn, and most importantly, keep our airframes well maintained.

  • It is always great to read Mr. Collins’ articles.
    Cayenne, French Guyana: I will mever forget ferrying a Bonanza from Wichita to Paraguay. In the flight plan office a placard read: “NO SEARCH AND RESCUE IN THIS AREA”. You really had absolutely no place to try to ditch should you have any type of problems. Pray and take off. fortunately it was a brand new airplane so not very many concerns about the machine.

  • I’m having a hard time with Richard’s statement that you’ll be higher at the airport boundary departing from one runway versus the other. Won’t the takeoff roll start at the same distance from the boundary? How would runway length affect climb performance (assuming the pilot didn’t try to rotate too early and end up in ground effect below climb airspeed)?

    • When you fly past the end of the longer runway you would be higher than from the shorter runway. I should not have referenced the airport boundary because I don’t know exactly where it is.Thanks for you comment. Richard

  • I fly out of KFRG and though some runways have decent options some leave none. I owned (with partners) a 1982 Mooney M20J and my biggest fear was where I’m pointing the nose of the airplane if I lost power. The Mooney was old and had a rudimentary shoulder harness. We decided to upgrade to a Cirrus SR20. Honestly that parachute is a huge piece of mind. Basically at 500AGL it should get you on ground alive. Banged up but alive. I trained to think about chute pull on takeoff and brief it and announce it when at 500AGL. If I’m climbing at 85KTS accelerating to 96 at 300-400 Feet I can raise the nose and get that that last 100 or so and pull. I’ll take my chances with that vs a100 hour a year private pilot trying to dead stick a landing off airport with little options.

  • Thank you for the article, although the subject aircraft was actually a 1977 Piper Lance, a PA-32R-300, as shown at http://flightaware.com/resources/registration/N5802V (SN 32R-7780365, where the “77” refers to its year of manufacture), rather than a Saratoga (which would be a PA-32R-301). I actually owned a 1977 Piper Lance that I kept at PDK for several years. Other than the fact that the Lance had the straight (Hershey bar) wings, while the Saratogas have tapered wings, there was little difference between them, although later Lances did have the T-tail configuration that Piper abandoned when they came out with the tapered wing Saratogas. Also, confirming that the subject aircraft was a Lance is the advertisement at http://www.tixaviationsales.com/aircraftforsale/piperpa32r300n5802v.html where you can clearly see the straight wings.

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