Despite the flippant headline, there is always tragedy with controlled flight into terrain or CFIT accidents. It remains a steady fatality producer with highly lethal results. The accident in question occurred last week in southwestern Virginia and is in the preliminary stage of investigation. My usual caveats and disclaimers apply concerning conclusions.
The night VFR training flight had a student and an experienced CFI on board. Good VFR conditions prevailed, but over the mountains one is often on the gauges with few ground lights to guide the way. The Cessna 172S had departed Frederick, Maryland, on a routine training mission to Winchester, Virginia (KOKV), which is on the edge of higher terrain.
For reasons yet unknown, the decision was made to go on to Hot Springs, Virginia (KHSP), which is definitely in the mountains. There was no contact with ATC, and according to radar the Cessna impacted the mountain at about 3,100 feet, roughly 300 feet below the ridge line at a steady ground speed of 87 knots. It’s too soon to tell if there were any mechanical malfunctions. The student survived but the instructor did not. We don’t often get an insight into the thought process of CFIT pilots so this accident may provide some learning possibilities.
When flying at night, which is a great time for IFR training, we recommend IFR procedures. This works well for VFR pilots too. The magic of IFR, or just using those procedures to keep aircraft from whacking the ground, is in the numbers. Specifically it’s the numbers on the chart—whether it’s paper or electronic. The altimeter is your friend and the ultimate arbiter between an uneventful landing and a tragedy.
The Air Safety Institute produced the Terrain Avoidance Plan (TAP), which suggests just a quick look at a sectional or low altitude en route chart to determine what the minimum altitude should be until it’s time to come down. The VFR Maximum Elevation Figure (MEF) on sectionals provides no separation, unlike the Minimum Obstruction Clearance Altitude (MOCA) and Off Route Obstruction Clearance Altitude (OROCA) minimums on IFR charts. Add at least 1,000 feet to the MEFs. The quadrant MEFs bordering the accident site were 5,100, 3,600, 4,800, and 4,000. A VFR westbound altitude of 6,500 feet would be just the ticket!
KHSP’s field elevation is nearly 3,800 feet msl and is surrounded by mountains. The instrument approach procedures chart shows a minimum safe altitude—except when on a published route—of 6,000 feet. How could it happen that the CFI chose only 3,000? We don’t know.
When flying in unfamiliar areas pay a lot of attention to the vertical. Horizontal is important too, but altitude is everything. Superb navigational accuracy with GPS and moving maps can generate considerable confidence. Direct to anywhere is easy in the dark, but we still don’t see well. Even in good VFR, a hillside with only a few lights disappears into the darkness.
On-board terrain databases will help as they light up the obstacles that humans can’t see, but they are intended as a supplement, not primary, to see and avoid the planet. Years ago, an early Cirrus model attempted a night scud run up the Columbia River gorge apparently seduced by glowing electrons in the panel despite warnings that it was illegal and illogical to do. The aircraft hit the same rock outcropping as too many of his less-equipped predecessors did.
Without belaboring the point, which I already have, if pilots don’t have a terrain avoidance plan my bet is on the mountain. How about you?