Archive for August, 2008

“A Random Act of God…”

Tuesday, August 5th, 2008

“It was a random act of God for that plane to have zeroed into the smallest house around.” So said the owner of a vacation rental property in Gearheart, Oregon, a seaside community west of Portland, as quoted in media reports. Details are sketchy at this writing but it appears that a rental Cessna 172 took off from the Seaside airport with two people on board in the early morning around 0630.

As is usual for that part of the world, it was foggy. The Cessna crashed into the house about a mile from the airport and a three alarm fire resulted. So far, there are three survivors with injuries and three confirmed dead that were inside the house. The pilot and passenger are presumed dead.

Ground fatalities caused by light aircraft accidents are exceedingly rare, which is small comfort to those affected but it helps the rest of us understand the real risk. It’s way too early to cite specifics but here are some points for pilots to consider. An IMC takeoff requires thorough preparation and concentration. Close to the ground there are few options.

First, is the decision to go itself. Suppose the engine quits. It’s rare but it does happen – now what? How much ceiling and visibility would you like to have—just in case? Every hundred feet of additional ceiling yields maybe another ten seconds of maneuvering time to avoid obstacles. Likewise, forward visibility is at a premium. What if the primary flight display or the vacuum pump just packed it in? (See last week’s blog.) Are we ready for partial panel before even settling into the routine of normal instrument flight?

Statistically, it is more likely for the pilot to have a lapse or become distracted at a critical time. These are normal human failings and early climb is the place to be on guard. Nothing else matters but keeping the wings level and a positive climb flight attitude. Spatial disorientation is always a possibility for a variety of reasons. Open doors, open windows, ATC communications, passenger distractions, anything that takes away from gaining critical altitude is irrelevant.

I’ve had both lapses and distractions in my flying over the years and have learned from each one that there are better ways to deal with them then I did at the time. I suspect most of us have had a few along the way.

There is always tremendous pressure to speculate on accidents like this. In this case, mechanical or instrument malfunction, pilot lapse, spatial disorientation or incapacitation are all possibilities. I’ve been wrong way too many times to repeat that mistake.