Silent night over the Appalachian Mountains

Years ago I read the fatality rate for general aviation is about four times that for automobiles. It is close to the rate for motorcycles. That seems about right. We all have occasion to read accident reports, now and then, and hope to learn something for our effort. When we step into the cockpit, these thoughts are set aside in order to focus on the tasks of flying. It is only in the rarest circumstances when mortality infiltrates the cockpit and stubbornly takes hold.

I passed my private pilot check ride in the month of October more years ago than I’m going to say. We had purchased a C-150 for the express purpose of learning to fly and, that accomplished (in a manner of speaking), I was eager to build cross-country hours. After work, I’d drive to the Pickens County Airport (LQK) in upstate South Carolina, preflight the plane and launch into the darkness. I now realize the wisdom of this might be questioned.

Appalachians
The Appalachians are beautiful, but at night they can be remote and very dark.

On one particular night I was headed down the eastern side of the Appalachian Mountains to land at Jackson County (JCA) in northern Georgia and then return to LQK. It was unusually clear and cold that night. Flight Service relayed the forecast of 30-knot winds out of the southwest at 3000 feet. The air at ground level was dead calm and I was concerned about shear and turbulence climbing out of the inversion. The turbulence didn’t materialize and, leveling at 4500 feet (3000 AGL), I felt relieved. I’d be dealing with the challenges of navigation and that was quite enough on this flight.

Some pilots experience anxiety over radio communications with ATC. My affliction was so severe I would never be able to obtain an instrument rating unless it was brought under control. On each of these flights, I forced myself to contact Greer Approach and ask for VFR flight following. With the transponder code entered, I took in a breathtaking view afforded by the extraordinary visibility that night: the lights of Anderson, South Carolina, off to the left, and further out the glow from Columbia and Augusta. The luminance of Atlanta was straight ahead on the horizon. Clemson and Toccoa shined on the right and beyond them the pitch darkness of the Appalachians. We made slow progress against the headwind but eventually Greer handed me off to Atlanta Center. Shortly after I checked in, the Atlanta controller queried an Archer:

“Were you the aircraft transmitting on twenty-one-five?”

“Yes sir.”

“Do you have an emergency?”

“Uh… I need a little help finding the airport at Franklin.”

The airport at Franklin, NC (1A5), is located in the mountains proper in a narrow valley about 100 miles northeast of Atlanta. The field can be difficult to find in daytime and much more so at night.

“Number of souls on board?”

“One, just me.”

“What’s your fuel situation?”

After a long silence: “Not great.”

ATC confirmed his position and began vectoring him toward Franklin. That exercise was complicated by strong winds aloft and Center’s need to keep him quite high to stay above the sector MVA. Minutes dragged on and he just didn’t seem to be able to make visual contact with the airport beacon or the runway lights – if they were even operating. At one point Center enlisted the help of another plane transiting the area (a Mooney, I think) to help guide him. Time continued to slip away to no avail. By then I was closing in on JCA and told the controller I’d be starting my descent. A curt “frequency change approved…. squawk VFR” was Center’s response. I could appreciate how preoccupied they were. After some loitering to verify the airport and fly a standard traffic pattern, I landed.

Mountains airport
Not an easy airport to find at night.

Taxiing to the ramp, I noticed a couple of folks working on a twin Cessna in a lighted hangar. I stopped and chatted with them awhile then took my leave. Tonight I’d filed a round robin flight plan (LQK to LQK) and the wind had set the flight way behind schedule. Climbing east from Jackson County, I tuned our 360-channel receiver back to the Center frequency and, to my amazement, they will still vectoring the Archer pilot. The Mooney had long since departed. I did not want to add to their workload with a VFR request so I simply monitored the frequency.

The controller and the pilot finally gave up on Franklin and Center asked the pilot if he was familiar with the airport at Sylva (North Carolina, 24A). The question took me aback. In fact, it frightened me a little. The airport at Sylva was close by – a little over ten miles. But there was nothing else to recommend it on this night. Unlike Franklin, Sylva’s runway is perched at 3000 feet on the crown of a narrow ridge and closely surrounded by terrain ranging from 4000 to 6000 feet.

I had ventured up there shortly after gaining my certificate. It was a difficult and intimidating flight. The runway was somewhat narrow and, at one end, the pavement had been swept off the ridge in a rock slide. It took me three attempts to land in a moderate crosswind. Later, my instructor, Mike Walling, admonished me not to return without some instruction in mountain operations. A short time later, the two of us flew back to Sylva where Mike pointed out the hazards and how to mitigate them. What stuck in my mind was his warning to never get the airplane on the downwind side of the ridge during takeoff or landing when there was a strong crosswind, as the orographic shear might exceed the airplane’s ability to climb.

Warnings in the current A/FD include: Rwy 15 300’ dropoff 300’ from thld both sides and 90’ left and rgt of cntrln along rwy. Rwy 33 300’ dropoff 200’ from thld…. Rapidy rising terrain all quadrants.

If the wind I was currently experiencing was an indication, the runway at Sylva might have a crosswind component of 30 knots or more. Even if they could find the airport a landing might prove impossible. I was sure the controller was aware of these conditions and must have had some kind of plan. That said, I did entertain the thought of breaking in and expressing my concerns about Sylva. But who was I? I was a 100-hour novice who was afraid of moderate turbulence on a clear night. The people at Atlanta Center did this for a living! So I kept my counsel and listened as the situation unfolded.

One thing began to gnaw at me though. It had been well over an hour since the Archer pilot reported his fuel situation, vaguely, as “not great.” It made little impression on me at the time. I had a friend who considered the fuel situation not good any time the needles approached the one half mark. But most of my flying acquaintances viewed anything less than one hour at cruise to be not good. With far more than an hour already off the clock, and nothing resolved, it seemed like their exercise in frustration could devolve into one of desperation.

Sylva airport
Sylva is a nice airport, but not in a 30-knot crosswind.

Meanwhile, the Center controller and the Archer pilot had shifted their attention to Sylva. More time slipped away and, as success eluded them in finding a suitable landing place, a blistering tailwind pushed our 150 toward home. As the lights of Anderson slid beneath the strut, a course of action dawned on me. The regional airport at Asheville lay maybe 35 miles east of Sylva. It had a 7000-foot runway with high-intensity lighting and approach lights. It was situated just south of Asheville in a wide valley along the French Broad River, and relatively unobstructed (for this part of the country).

With these winds I guessed the Archer could cover the distance in 20 minutes, even throttled back. Why hadn’t they discussed Asheville? There, the pilot could at least regroup and get gas. I set that thought aside to focus on copying the ASOS and activating the runway lights at LQK. My friend Gary was staying in a trailer parked next to the cinderblock FBO office. He called me on the CTAF when the runway lights came up: “You better get down here and call Flight Service. They just phoned saying you’re overdue.” Just before entering the pattern I tuned my receiver back to Atlanta Center to see how things had resolved. After a period of silence, I heard a broken transmission from the Archer pilot “20 minutes of gas.”

I cancelled the flight plan, tied down the airplane and sped home. When I arrived, the 11 o’clock news was just wrapping up. The anchor-person broke in with a late-breaking report that a small airplane had crashed in Brevard, North Carolina. There were no details. The next morning confirmed what I already knew – the pilot had been killed and there was no fire.

A day or two passed and it occurred to me I was probably the only other pilot who experienced the local conditions aloft that night. I called the NTSB and, eventually, spoke with the investigator assigned to the accident. He was a young gentleman, not a pilot and, I suspect, seriously overworked. I could hear him shuffling folders on his desk as he searched for the file. I explained why I had called and left my contact information. It ended there.

I never returned to Jackson County. Two years later we moved to the other side of the country. A couple of years after that, we bought a more capable airplane and let the 150 go. Ten more years came and went. One afternoon I queried the NTSB database and downloaded the Accident Final Report – ATL99FA045. The analysis reads in part:

The pilot reported a low fuel condition to the air traffic controller. The air traffic controller gave the pilot alternate airports available for landing in the immediate vicinity of the accident site. The pilot circled the area for approximately 2.5 hours. After failing to identify any of the airports, the pilot flew towards Brevard, NC. While in a descent towards the vicinity of Brevard, the airplane struck several trees and a power line before impacting the ground.

Air Traffic Control
Controllers aren’t airport experts – it’s up to the PIC to be assertive.

The analysis is factually true, but it overlooks the extraordinary interaction between ATC and the accident pilot that night. For months, I carried a smoldering anger at the Atlanta Center controllers in my mind. Maybe it was displaced anger at me for my own inaction. In time, common sense prevailed. Atlanta had tried its best to service the pilot’s request. There is no way the controller could have had detailed knowledge of every facility in the sector.

I’ve occasionally related the events of that night to acquaintances. Non-pilots sometimes ask me if I feel partly responsible for the outcome. Truthfully, I don’t. The FAA made it clear long ago the pilot in command is solely responsible for the safety of the flight. Every year of flying gives me a greater appreciation for the wisdom of that rule. Certainly, I would do things differently today. I have a more complete understanding of the system we fly in; of the capabilities and limitations of controllers and their abiding commitment to help pilots; of the necessity to provide accurate and complete information when asked and, sometimes, when it is not solicited.

Finally, a person cannot experience an event like this without some lasting effects. From that night until I write these words, I have topped off the tanks many times when it wasn’t necessary, but I have not experienced a fuel emergency.

24 Comments

  • You are correct. The boils down to the fact the pilot in command is ultimately responsible. Instead of circling perhaps you should have checked his sectional and asked for a larger more visible airport while he still had fuel if you could Circle for two and a half hours you could have made the larger airport you were described the fault eventually comes down to the pilot in command

  • I was on the scene with Brevard Rescue. It’s Been many years ago but still pains to remember a fellow pilot lose his life.

  • Mr. Hunter,

    Thank you for sharing this.

    Some of my pilot friends give me a hard time about “carrying more fuel than I need” for a given flight. Your story is a great reminder that I am doing the right thing, and I will continue to fly with “too much” fuel.

  • Grant,

    Thank you for providing this last piece of the story.

    You live(d) in one of the most beautiful regions of the United States. Some of the happiest days of my life were spent in the Pisgah National Forrest and the Shining Rock Wilderness area.

    You will understand better than most that the outcome of a forced landing there is out of the pilot’s hands.

  • Thanks for sharing this experience.
    It gives us a lot to think about.
    I always give the tanks an extra look after fueling. Just to make sure.

  • Sobering story. I lived for a year in Asheville and regularly fly between MI, and my new home in SC. Also learned to fly under Detroit Bravo. Where did you train?

  • Donna,

    I originally rode my bicycle to the old Berz Family Airport on 15 mile road where a Piper Colt (wet) with an instructor was $20. Back then it was pretty well out in the country. Eventually, the Berz’ property was acquired by Oakland County and most of it was developed. However, a remnant remains as the Troy Oakland airport (VLL).

    At that time no one could have imagined such a thing as class bravo. If you wanted to go to Wayne Major (now DET) you just took off and called the tower a few miles out.

    I hope you are enjoying South Carolina. While not perfect, it is a wonderful place to live.

  • Kim-
    I trained and earned my PPL at KVLL; I’ve heard stories from the old timers about the old airport there, however. Small world!

    While beautiful, those mountains can be unforgiving if not prepared. I’m also one of those pilots who flies with full tanks, and I cannot even imagine trying to spot one of those airports between ridges, in the dark. It must’ve seemed like a black hole. Terrifying.

  • Your description of the North Carolina airports is very accurate. In the summers as a young boy our family vacationed in Bryson City. We had a small farmhouse near Lake Fontana. Before getting my PPL I remember flying at Ferguson Field with Mr. Ferguson in a C-182. Mr. Ferguson perished in 1972 in a plane crash, and the field was sold by his survivors. Much later in life, I flew my own PA-32 Lance into Sylva. After landing and taxiing in to tie-down, I watched as a plane took off and appeared to drift off the runway just after becoming airborne. It disappeared below the trees and I thought for sure it had gone down. I quickly notified the FBO and they told me later that everything was okay. I also remember Sossamon Field was on top of a mountain with a steep cliff at one end. I remember a plane crash after losing control and running off the end. I can assure you these memories made indelible marks on me and taught me a healthy dose of doing proper research into an unknown airfield before flying in. Which helped me later when flying into Pikeville, KY. An airport next to a river, such that the runway curves with the bend of the river, planes parked close up to the runway asphalt, and an approach hidden around the mountain that crosses a suspension bridge before final approach.

  • Years ago, I used the John King videos for ground school study. Something he said the video, which i never forgot, and every pilot should have engraved on his head bone is, “Always leave yourself an out”. Seems the Archer pilot did not do that. Always be thinking ahead.

  • My goodness. He could have been in Charlotte from there in an hour or less or any number of airports along the way. Thanks for the sobering story and the realization that you don’t necessarily HAVE to be anywhere in an airplane.

  • Great story. Perhaps it would have ended differently if the accident pilot had answered “2 hours” instead of “not great” when queried about his fuel status.

  • I bought my aircraft from a guy at Western Carolina Regional. We flew up there in a cabin Waco. The pilot, with thousands of hours in all types of aircraft gave me some pointers about flying the mountains. Some of which were never alone and never at night. If I wanted to fly get instruction from an experienced flight instructor in the mountains.

  • Fantastic story and as others have agreed the pilot is responsible. I can’t imagine why the pilot hung around for so long and was still circling. Such a shame but like others here ever since I first went solo cross country here in Australia I always topped off the tanks whether on a one hour or four hour cross country jaunt. Nothing would frighten me more than running out of fuel. Thank you for sharing.

  • When are pilots ever going to learn:

    “We’re here to help”

    does NOT mean we’re here to hold your hand…and clean up your mess ?

  • Hey come on rk a man died perhaps atc should have been a little more forceful and directed him to a better airport to land. For all we know now this was a junior night flight pilot who had simply panicked. Hindsight as we know is 20 20 vision and yes atc is there to help re what I said above but thank you for your insight.

    • There is NO distinction to be made between a “junior” or “senior” when it comes to getting yourself slightly killed. FAR 91.103 Preflight Action applies to us all, anywhere, anytime.

      Read the NTSB report and decide for yourself:

      https://app.ntsb.gov/pdfgenerator/ReportGeneratorFile.ashx?EventID=20001204X00007&AKey=1&RType=HTML&IType=FA

      “…
      PILOT INFORMATION
      In January 1996, the pilot surrendered his instrument rating following a reexamination for his instrument rating.

      Flight Time: 2841 hours (Total, all aircraft)

      HISTORY OF FLIGHT
      After impact with the ground parts of the airplane collided with a mini-van parked on the street, and the propeller assembly separated from the engine assembly coming to rest in a house 45 feet beyond the mini-van.
      …”

      This fool was no “junior”. He was the poster boy for careless & reckless operation until he INvoluntarily retired himself from that post…permanently.

      It is a tragedy when anyone gets hurt in the pursuit of our passion. The REAL tragedy is when the rest of us fail to learn from the mistakes of others. Have we invented any NEW ways of ruining our days after 115 years of powered flight ?

      You tell me.

  • You know I was thinking that mountain flying has a lot of similarities to flying in outback Australia. It is so unforgiving but the three p’s prior preparation and planning rule the flight. It is a lesson all can learn from.

  • Yeah I agree as PIC junior or senior we are responsible for checks. My instructor made sure she hammered through my head about making and sticking to a fuel balance and making sure I landed before I entered into my reserve. It seems this guy, as experienced as he was and I also have over 2000 hrs became fixated on arriving at his target airport. It is a shame and yes we all need to learn from this. My heart goes out to the ATC as it seems they tried everything to guide him but at no time have I suggested they had to hold his hand. Lessons need to be learnt printing these stories helps and shows like air crash investigations. However a man died and can I suggest a little compassion be given for this. Anyway well written thank you for sharing.

    • Did you read the NTSB report:

      “…
      The airplane propeller assembly was found in the living room of a single family dwelling 30 feet southeast of the main wreckage. Family members were in another location of the house when the accident occurred.
      …”

      It was a miracle, even in rural North Carolina, that nobody on the ground was hurt.

      I have all the compassion in the world for the blissfully unaware passengers who willingly place their lives into the hands of the irresponsible and the people on the ground who find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.

      I gladly reserve all of my contempt for the pilots who are driven by some arrogant sense of entitlement just because they can and then expect ATC or their insurance or their mommies to bail them out of trouble.

      Tell me, should I have compassion for this negligent pilot (on so many levels – read the report before your heart bleeds for this guy) in the story below or for the passengers he victimized and the 11 children now orphaned, including his own ?

      http://cbs12.com/news/nation-world/three-couples-killed-in-plane-crash-leave-behind-11-children

      http://www.wtva.com/content/video/481267801.html

      https://app.ntsb.gov/pdfgenerator/ReportGeneratorFile.ashx?EventID=20160814X40011&AKey=1&RType=Final&IType=FA

      Perhaps more importantly, was all of this negligence and subsequent waste preventable ?

      What is it going to take for the pilot community, anywhere in the world, to learn from the mistakes of others ?

      The last thing it is going to take is any compassion for a fool.

      • I was there and had forgotten about the prop…. A lady had just gone to bed when it came through the side of the house at the couch she was sitting on.

  • Neil and RK,

    When I wrote this article I limited the information about the accident pilot. I may have been mistaken to do so but my reasoning was to show the elements of the mishap from the viewpoint of the only person I can honestly speak for – myself. Of course, my own inaction during the accident sequence now circumscribes my ability to criticize any of the actors that night.

    I want to commend RK for doing the research and expanding the narrative even though it puts me in the uncomfortable position of commenting on the pilot’s state of mind. He was an experienced airman on the basis of hours and ratings. He was also compelled to surrender his instrument rating previously. The circumstances were not given but it is an indication that he was on the downward trajectory of his flying career. The accident flight originated in Louisiana which would have made for a very long day when early darkness descended. Even with the limitations of com radios fatigue was detectable in his voice. Tired and lost, he seemed to surrender the difficult process of decision making. For the controllers’ part, with an entire sector to manage, Atlanta center took a narrow view of the pilot’s request and complied with professional efficiency in that context.

    At the time of the mishap I was much younger and viewed fatigue as an inconvenience. I now see it as a potentially life-threatening mental state and, as anyone my age can tell you, it is vexingly difficult to assess. Knowing that, I understand Neil’s viewpoint and agree with it to a degree. But when we get behind the controls of an airplane each of us takes on an inescapable responsibility for the consequences of the flight. It is not a bad thing to have an RK in our lives confronting us with the unvarnished truth about ourselves, our responsibilities and the consequences of not meeting them.

    So, thank you both for your comments and for bringing the story to its logical conclusion.

    • “The accident flight originated in Louisiana which would have made for a very long day when early darkness descended.”

      How does Louisiana and early darkness figure into this mess ? If we are to believe the HISTORY OF FLIGHT below, this guy was doing donuts in the sky for at least 2.5 hours and terminated himself around 10pm and within 60 miles of 6A3, now known as KRHP. Darkness in late January begins around 5pm so it sounds like he departed into darkness.

      “…
      Factual Information

      HISTORY OF FLIGHT

      On January 27, 1999, about 2205 eastern standard time, a Piper PA-28-181, N1875H, collided with trees while maneuvering for a forced landing in Brevard, North Carolina. …The flight originated from Andrews-Murphy Airport in Andrews, North Carolina, at an undetermined time.
      …”

      It doesn’t really matter how well rested he was, I have no doubt his demonstrated ADM caused rapid fatigue beyond exhaustion and to the point of surrender, exactly as you described.

      It is the results of our ADM that are tantamount to the consequences of our actions and the equivalent to a bell that cannot be un-rung. As unpleasant as it may be, it takes the review of these incidents to first LEARN and then REMEMBER what is truly at stake.

      It is gratifying to read about the sorts of things that made an indelible impression on you in the course of your flying career. I am confident you are a better pilot for it.
      Negative reinforcement is only negative when we choose to ignore the positive that can come out of it.

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