Down in Lake Michigan

July 27, 2010 by Bruce Landsberg

Blog-7-26-10This appears to be one of those exceedingly rare, one-in-a-million, wrong place, wrong time mishaps. A Cessna 206 flying a cancer patient from Michigan to the Mayo clinic in Minnesota went down in Lake Michigan. The volunteer pilot who had flown numerous medical assistance flights did not appear to be affiliated with any of the organized volunteer medical flight groups such as Angel Flight Central or Wings of Mercy that carry patients in the upper Midwest.

As usual, it is very early in the investigation process so these comments are subject to change. There were 5 people on board and the flight was westbound over the lake at 10,000 feet, nearly to the midpoint, when the pilot reported engine trouble. He turned back east to take advantage of the tailwind and glided to within several miles of shore where they went into the water. The waves at the time were reportedly 4 – 8 feet which makes ditching difficult. The pilot was the only survivor and was picked up within an hour of the crash.

Why pick the direct route over the lake?  It’s shorter by about 100 miles and avoids all the Chicago area air traffic which might extend the meandering. There was a large cluster of thunderstorms on the southwestern side of the lake that could be completely avoided by the direct route and at 10,000 feet, the the aircraft would have been out of gliding distance of land for only a short period of time. What were the odds that there would be an engine problem right there?

This week, hundreds of aircraft will make the lake crossing uneventfully enroute to Oshkosh. I’ve done it myself reasoning that a well maintained engine would carry the day and it always has. At this point we don’t know the maintenance history of the aircraft or engine. Fuel load should be easy to determine and the pilot is available to provide his insights. It reinforces the multi-engine mentality but we have many accidents, as the old saying goes, where the second engine takes the aircraft right to the scene of the accident. The second engine on a piston twin will not always be sufficient to prevent a crash and must be managed properly by the pilot, which it frequently isn’t. There is also double the odds of an engine failure.

This mishap perfectly illustrates the heartbreak of very low probability, high consequence events that are the bane of aviation. Perhaps the investigation will uncover something that might have been done differently or perhaps this one of those random events that plague human existence – the trash truck that crosses the center line of a two lane highway into your lane, the tree that falls in the woods when someone was out walking, why some people get cancer and others don’t, the bullet in a war zone or during a robbery that has your name  on it. Our condolences go out to the families and friends but especially to the pilot.

Life is precious and uncertain – live it well and work hard at managing risk when flying.  You can’t eliminate it.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Philip

    I would not have crossed the lake in a single engine with 4 passengers in the plane. By myself probably – but not with 4 other people. When I fly with my wife and daughter I always plan the route so as to be in gliding distance of an airport. It takes a bit longer, but the overriding concern is to keep them safe. That does not mean I take chances when I fly by myself, it just means passengers add an extra element to the overall flight planning process…My heart goes out the families of those lost – and to the pilot who will live with this incident the rest of his life.

  • Eric Hummel

    I agree with Bruce Landsberg’s assessment of this tragedy. The only way to completely take the risk out of flying is to stay on the ground. To never fly at night, or over water, or over inhospitable terrain, or to always remain within gliding distance of an airport will certainly make you safer, but negates an enormous amount of the beauty and utility that IS aviation.

    My heart goes out to the families of those lost, and to the pilot who will probably unfortunately have this event remain as a defining moment in his life.

  • Bob H.

    Wow! We just crossed the lake yesterday coming back from Oshkosh. We took the scenic route via Meigs on the way to OSH. I hadn’t seen this accident info before I left, but talk about ADM, I concluded right then and there as we reached the shoreline of Muskegon that was the last time I would be in that situation in a low performance, low altitude (9000′) aircraft, if ever.

    This extremely unfortunate accident confirms it for me, but also really re-focused my thinking on the “it’ll probably be okay” problem. It applies a little more to single-pilot IFR ADM, but covers the gamut from taking a few extra pounds, to pushing the fuel range, to leaving some frost on the control surfaces, to ignoring tires with low pressures, to thinking the nick on the prop isn’t so bad, that the oil under the cowling is close enough to normal, to launching VFR into OVC002, to landing on a short runway with a tail wind, ad infinitum.

    Rod Machado offers the what do you have to gain approach to ADM. I’ll suggest that if the thought is that “it’ll probably be ok”, then start adding some risk mitigation so that if it turns out that probably becomes NOT! then there are tangible and realistic (concrete) outs. The glide distance out came up just short on this one, and that might just be unfortunate rather than ignoring the issue. What about 12K to cross the lake and be certain that glide distance is always available?

    Kenan Thompson’s “Fix-It” bit on Saturday Night Live is my mantra on this subject. It’s simple and straightforward:

    If it’s *probably* okay, “Identify the problem, FIX IT, FIX IT!!!, identify another problem, FIX IT!, repeat as necessary until it’s fixed!!!”

    Hulu will let you skip to 2:00 minutes and get to the point:

    There is even a bit in there about, “The light [on the cowl] is broken and someone needs to get down there and FIX IT!”! if you follow closely.

    If I’ve been tracking you correctly from some other recent posts, you might want to change your name from Bruce to Oscar. :)

    “ASF Update witb Oscar Landsburg” ? Or maybe Kenan Thompson would consider donating some time to ASF to make the point?

  • Gene Marsh

    Bruce said it well…

    I have crossed the lake many times with singles as well as twins and will continue doing it. Accepting a reasonable amount of risk is the only way you can live a full life.

    I fly only well maintained aircraft and keep my skills up to minimize risk…but you can’t eliminate it unless you stay in bed. After more than 53 years of flying I am fully aware that my day may come, but I happily accept that reality in exchange for the rewards of maximizing life through flying.

  • Joyshop

    I have crossed the lake several times to and from Oshkosh. My last crossing was delayed by a three day stay in Milwaukee. Returning to Ohio from Oshkosh I had a vacuum failure just as I was crossing the shoreline. I elected to turn around and have it repaired as halfway across in a C172 I would have been out of gliding distrance to the shore if I lost the engine and most accidents are a chain of events. The lake crossing has more risk but as I have also gone around Chicago it is still my choice wheather permitting.
    My prayers go out to the families of those lost and to the pilot.

  • Dick Van Pelt

    I have crossed the Great Lakes several times in my Mooney 201, usually at 10,000 to 13,500 feet. The one I remember well was eastbound over the middle of Lake Michigan at 11,500 feet. It was a very calm summer day using the autopilot with heading and altitude hold. Midway across I was alarmed by a gradual loss of ground speed (say 7 knots). The engine was fine, and it wasn’t headwind because the airspeed also dropped. By turning off the altitude hold and regaining speed I concluded it was downdraft. Later, after giving thanks for my arrival, I realized that there was probably downflow over the entire middle of the lake, where surface water is considerably colder than near shore. This matches up with the observation that there is often on-shore wind along shorelines where the water is colder than the land. Could it be that the accident 206 was also holding altitude in a down draft, lost airspeed and hence overheated the engine? Does this seem possible to anyone familiar with the 206?

  • Allen Penticoff

    As a former aircraft insurance adjuster whose territory included Lake Michigan, I can tell you plenty of stories with sad endings of pilots flying over Lake Michigan. I often had to fly a Cessna 182 or similar aircraft from Northern Illinois to Michigan. I went around the end of the lake. It is cheap insurance for the little extra time. I did cross the lake a few times, but up where it is only 40 nm wide, rather than the 80 nm at the “fat part.” Even then a Cessna 182 can barely hit the beach from 14,000 feet at mid lake, and making the turn around decision would be a tough one. I’d thought about it plenty. There are few ships to help, and you better land ON one if there is one in the area. They won’t see the splash. Finding a person floating in the cold water is very difficult in the best of circumstances. The Great Lakes are too cold to swim in pretty much year round. Recommendation. Don’t take the chance just to save a bit of time. I’ve taken the long way many times and am still here to write about it.

  • Scott Clark

    Given the location of the engine failure, it’s just terrible luck. Given the status of the physical condition of the passengers, perhaps it would have been better to go around the bottom or top of the lake. However, flying over Chicago with the buildings or over the forests enroute to Rochester offers potentially more hazardous off airport landing options. I fly part 91, over the lake, at its narrowest point regularly with approved life vests and flight following and passengers physically able to exit the aircraft. There’s significant boat traffic which I’m assuming would provide assistance in the event of a water landing. The conditions must be right though. VFR, healthy engine, capable passengers. The pilot and dispatchers of the flight made a decision based on the situation present. It appears that it was just bad luck that the engine failure occured at exactly the wrong time for these poor souls. My heart goes out to all aboard and their families..
    Scott Clark

  • JC Harbottle

    They could have gone up past Traverse City (TVC) and across on a northwesterly heading. The Manitou, Fox and Beaver islands all have either a runway or enough open space for a landing. Unfortunately, the Michigan DNR is trying to close and prevent anyone from using the strip on North Fox island. Some local pilots had been mowing and maintaining that strip.
    Some of us in the area are working with the RAF to get some help from Lansing.
    The north end of Lake Michigan is a good way to go, scenic and no Class B.

  • Tom Helm

    I have just over 27,000 hours, most of it while flying for an airline. One night I listened to a pilot talking to Milwaukee Approach Control. That pilot coming across the lake had lost his engine and was hoping to glide to shore. He landed approximately 5 miles short and was never found, at least for the rest of that winter. Several years later, another pilot also landed short of landfall, eventually calling for help on his cell phone while standing on the top of the aircraft as it sank. He was also not found.
    In all my career, I have had some close calls, incidents, etc. that lead me to say to myself afterward, “Why did I do that”. I now consider that thought before attempting what might be a risky event. This mature thinking was learned from years of experience and replaces the common ‘can do’ attitude displayed by less experienced pilots. I never want to be in a position that would cause me say “Why did I do this”. The short cut across Lake Michigan is a great time and distance saver. If the engine is ever going to quit, it will be at the mid point, and the pilot will be saying, “Why did I do this”, and he will be tortured with this thought during the entire descent to the lake. He and his passengers will perish.
    Tom Helm