Archive for March, 2013

Beware the Windy Ides of March

Wednesday, March 6th, 2013

planeMarch—in like a lion, out like a wildebeest, or perhaps a three toed sloth. No matter the animal of departure, March is often the windiest month. The winds can make flying much more difficult and sometimes downright dangerous. Case in point is the accident this week of a Mooney M20E that crashed shortly after takeoff. My comments are speculative because the accident is under investigation, but here are some early details.

  • Depending on fuel load, the aircraft was heavily loaded with three adults and one child—not necessarily overweight, but heavy.
  • Angel Fire, N.M. (KAXX), was the reported point of departure with a field elevation of 8,379 feet—there won’t be a lot of extra climb left in a normally aspirated, 200hp engine.
  • The winds were reported to be gusting up to 47 knots.
  • The pilot was reported to have just over 500 hours total flight time. The Associated Press interviewed the airport manager who said the pilot, “…felt comfortable with his abilities and the aircraft. And given as we are not policemen, we can’t ask him for the keys. We had all kinds of warnings posted on the front desk, plus we questioned the pilot as to whether he really wanted to go in that weather.”  The manager noted that no other flights arrived or departed that day.

This is one of those heart-breaker mishaps—I won’t call it an “accident” because this could be easily foreseen. We don’t know yet much about the pilot, but the desire to return from a family ski trip apparently was compelling.

I co-chair an FAA safety committee that is tasked with lowering the GA accident rate, and personal flights have the worst record. We recently discussed that all the usual educational efforts that the Air Safety Institute, FAA , EAA, and many of the type clubs have undertaken will work quite well for 90 percent of the pilots. The other 10 percent are just not susceptible to this approach, and the conversation then shifts to safety culture. (The percentages are made up you can use any you like.)

Changing culture is a long term effort, and the results are slow to be seen. It took two generations to get the majority of drivers to start wearing  seat belts. Driving under the influence is another area that has taken considerable effort to swing the pendulum toward safety. In all cases of potentially destructive behavior in any personal activity, there will be people who don’t understand, or have a much higher risk tolerance than is healthy.

The question comes down to whether the decision-making is taken out of the cockpit for personal flight or, as in automobiles, motorcycles, or boats, we accept that a small percentage just can’t be saved. The price of freedom is never free—education efforts should continue and they will, but the human psyche is complex and sometimes perverse.

Beware the lions and tiger and bears.

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