Know your limitations

One of the hardest things to do in life is to acknowledge our limitations. We all have them, and most of the time they are benign, but not always. A doctor with less than stellar skills can kill someone. A sub-par lawyer can cause someone to spend years in jail. There are people in every walk of life who make mistakes, some more than others. Pilots are no exception. Every time I crawl on board an airplane where I am not the pilot, be it a Boeing 747 or a Cessna 150, I trust my life to the person who has the controls, often with no idea as to his or her skill level, and as we all know, sometimes that trust is misplaced.

I lived over 50 years of my life in Lubbock, TX, and I still keep up with things going on there. When I lived there, the police department had a service where they emailed you alerts of places to avoid if there were problems, and I still get those emails. Late one recent afternoon, there was a particularly disturbing one. It said there had been a plane crash at 30th and Avenue A. I knew the location—it’s right under the approach to runway 35L. I’ve flown it many times. I also knew the weather was bad that day. There was a winter storm with sleet, snow, and freezing rain.

LBB track
Not a stabilized approach.

My immediate concern was whether this was someone I knew, since I still have lots of friends there. I went to Flightaware to see if I could tell who might have gone down, and it didn’t take long to figure out. It stood out like a sore thumb. All the traffic that day was either airliners or jets of some kind, with one exception: a Cessna 210. Looking at the track, you could see him headed for the approach, flying through it, then going on a rectangular pattern to the east before coming back and this time capturing the RNAV approach profile. About four miles from the field though, he seemed to reverse course, and the line ended—at 30th and Avenue A. Heading changes showed him evidently in a spiral at least, and possibly a spin in the last minute or so of the flight.

He wasn’t a local pilot. In fact, Lubbock was a diversion. The flight plan was from Belen, NM, to Corsicana, TX, but he had some sort of problem, possibly with an autopilot from listening to the tapes, that caused him to attempt the landing. The next day, the ATC tapes were available online, and the narrative was disturbing. It was clear from the first transmission that this guy was in way over his head. He was given a heading and told he was cleared for the RNAV 35 approach. He then asked for the heading to be repeated, and read back, “Cleared for the 17 RNAV approach.” The controller repeated the heading and corrected the runway, and the approach continued.

He flew through the final approach, and the controller told him that and asked him if he wanted him to vector him around to try again. The pilot agreed. A few minutes later he was asked if he was picking up any ice. He said he was. He was then asked what the OAT was. He replied that it was 10c. The controller asked if that was 10 or minus 10, obviously knowing that 10c would not produce ice. There was no answer. A regional jet leaving did tell the controller that the temp was -3. This time he did find the approach, and shortly afterward was switched to the tower frequency and cleared to land. His acknowledgment of that transmission was his last.

He was instrument rated, but obviously not instrument competent. It could well be that ice brought him down, but the real thing that caused the crash was his poor judgment in even leaving the ground in the teeth of a winter storm in an airplane with no ice protection. Perhaps the weather was better in Corsicana, but any flight must consider all contingencies. Did he have a plan if he ran into a problem before he got there? If he did, it didn’t work out too well.

Thankfully he was alone, not that being alone lessens the tragedy. I know nothing about the skills of the guy as a pilot other than what can be surmised from the tapes and the tragic end of this flight, but at least on this day, and perhaps others, he should not have been flying an airplane.

Colgan Air crash scene
Was the pilot of Colgan Air Flight 3407 simply in over his head?

I had a good friend in Lubbock who a number of years ago killed himself and three others in a crash. He was a wonderful person, but a terrible pilot, and everyone who knew him knew that except for him. He thought he was a great pilot, but in the crash it wasn’t so much his flying skills as his judgment that got him. He was in Branson in low IFR conditions and was having trouble with his comm radio. Rather than climb above the clouds and fly to a good VFR location, of which there were many within the range of his plane, he panicked and chose to attempt a below-minimums approach, with predictable results. He refused to admit his limitations, with tragic results.

It even gets up into the airline ranks. The Colgan air pilot in New York a number of years ago was obviously not competent for the role he had, and a number of lives were lost. More recently, the co-pilot of the Atlas Air 767 in Houston had some seriously deficient skills, and cost three lives.

I wouldn’t be good as a designated pilot examiner, because the responsibility is too great. It’s a judgment call to approve someone for a license to fly an airplane. You hate to tell anyone they aren’t good enough to do this, especially if flying is their passion, but there are cases when that’s the right thing to do, not only for their own good, but the good of those who might fly with them. There are some people who simply are not cut out to be pilots, and they need to be told that and accept that for their own good and those whose lives they might put in jeopardy.

If you have limitations, admit them before you hurt yourself or others. A lot of aviation tragedy could have been avoided by doing so.

19 Comments

  • Well done! As an aging pilot, I realized that while my skills remain sharp, my reaction and response times are taking longer. So, no more night solo or real ifr. Bought a STOL airplane and am having a ball VFR flying into the 30+ strips within 45 minutes of my home strip. I still fly as SIC in a Cessna Citation, so my IFR skills stay sharp, but there’s always the second brain watching my moves.

  • Jay, was the friend that crashed at Branson flying out of Point Lookout Airport, PLK?. He was flying a Piper Twin. If so, I was there and met with the NTSB. Heard all of his ATC communications. I was allowed to go to the accident site with the NTSB.
    Even talked to him in the Pilot Briefing Room. BTW, PLK did not have an AWOS and they still don’t .

  • Aviation in general, and piloting in particular illustrate much about human tendencies, and their failures. Often, a pilot’s sense of who he/she is, their status in life, and their ego, is wrapped up in being a pilot. That phenomenon is often seen in what one does for a living, or what they do for recreation. The more status derived from the vocation or avocation, the harder it will be for the individual to admit that in truth, they are not up par. Old people, and here I speak from experience, will often admit that they do not recognize the wrinkly old person staring back at them in the mirror – yet seconds later they resume thinking of themselves and their personal appearance in an unrealistic way. How to overcome this human failing of denial is very difficult, unless reality intervenes. In the case of a professional football player, repeated hard knocks and an inability to perform forces acceptance of reality. A competitive motorcycle rider will fall repeatedly if their skills are sub-par, or have faded , until either serious injury or reality intervenes. For pilots however, denial is possible for so long as disaster is somehow avoided…

    • I get so tired of hearing that line. It was created by a news paper reportor back in th 20s or 30s. I’ve known lots of old/ bold pilots. What appears bold to some people are just normal for others.

      • Good point, Kirk. Sometimes being bold means to say, at times: “I am not going to fly in these conditions.” That might upset passengers or even a friend, but to speak up boldly can be better than acquiesce and get in trouble. I remember flying one night back to my home airport with my boss after a business meeting…..and being on the Atlantic coast, un-predicted winds came up, which were a direct crosswind to my destination lighted runway. I told my boss/passenger that we were going to land at an airport just 5 miles away with a direct wind down the lighted runway. He said: “Oh, you can make it”. I ‘boldly’ said: “Probably, but I’m not going to try.” We landed, spent the night there and flew home the next day under clear skies and light winds. That was about 40 years ago, I’m now in my late 70s. So, I guess I’m an ‘old/bold’ pilot.

  • Flying requires a level of honesty which is sometimes tragically lacking. I was in similar situation to that described, several years ago. I was (and am) instrument rated and competent. I was going from Riverside CA to Oklahoma City in an Archer II. The departure weather required filing an instrument flight plan to get out of California, but the weather was no better in Arizona. My first fuel stop was Tucson, trying to stay South of a troublesome weather system. From Blythe CA to Tucson I was on the clear but the temp was +1C to -1C fluctuating. I refueled at Ryan Field and took off the temp was solidly below 0C and I was approaching the cloud base at 11000. I re-evaluated the situation. I was looking at a probable two hours late evening IMC with a bad temperature. I contacted departure and advised I was returning to Ryan. They inquired whether I had an emergency, I told them no, I was just deferring the flight to later. I was honest in my assessment that too many factors were aligning to the no go side of the ledger. I called it quits before it became irretrievable. I spent a nice warm night on the ground. The next morning was sunny and clear.

  • Good decision W. Campbell, that’s all it takes is good decision making, and you will be home free & safe, good decision making, good decision making, can’t stress that enough…..

  • I think this writer thinks he knows all and can second guess the facts and evidence of this very sad fatal accident. I am sure the deceased’s family enjoyed his accident review when he was not in the left or right seat during the accident. I am multi engine instrument pilot with many thousands of hours both the military and as a civilian who has investigated over 1,500 fatal accidents and over 18,000 accident cases of all kinds and first licensed as an investigator in the 70″s and a pilot. I would never attempt to exposé by opinion online unless I was asked too by an agency, the family of the deceased or I survived the accident myself. A second guessing pilot serves no good purpose.

  • Scott, I beg to differ. As an old guy and former working pilot (3500 hours in a Baron, over an eight year period, flying 4-6 days per week all over the US and Canada, 7000+ total hours) and CFI-I with 2200+ hours of dual given (concentrated over a two-year period) I find the article and some of the comments valuable in an educational sense, helpful in raising our self-awareness, reminding us to remember and fly within our limitations, raising awareness of our changing capabilities, and the limitations of the aircraft we are flying.

  • PS: Not sure why my full name did not show up above. You might want to read my article written on a related subject, also on Air Facts.

    Cheers, Phil Hertel

  • Every pilot has an ego. It is how they manage that ego , will determine their altitude in aviation.
    Captain Jm Carney

  • I am turning 70 this year, don’t have anything approaching the credentials of most responding to this article but am very clear on two things: my flight will see no shortage of fuel and weather will not be a major problem. If there are IFR or MVFR conditions or a convergence of systems I stay on the ground. One time I showed up at SZP and it looked fine outside. A highly regarded CFI who teaches EMT training and aerobatics was in the break room. ‘I fly about 70-80 hours a week, I love it up there and I’m here on the ground. That must tell you something.’ We were in the middle of three systems: the ‘eye’; the calm before the storm. There are legions of flyers who decided to go ahead and were stricken with ‘get there itis’ or ‘it can’t happen to me’. Don’t be one of them.

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