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.
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?”
“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.
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.
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.”
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.