What Does it Take?

September 21, 2011 by Bruce Landsberg

As you’ve probably heard by now, GA is on the NTSB’s most wanted list.  At AOPA Summit in Hartford this week, it will be a topic of discussion when I interview NTSB Vice Chair Chris Hart and member Earl Weener, both active GA pilots, on AOPA Live.  The GA accident rate is flat and it is disproportionately high in the personal flight category relative to the estimated number of hours flown.

One solution that comes up regularly is that “of reaching the unreachables.”  Unfortunately, that is a paradox or self-contradictory statement. For your consideration of the challenge, here is a informal review of a flight that took place last week at our home base of Frederick, a nontowered airport. The witness statement is from an Air Safety Institute staff member:

“Last evening at about 7:30, Bob and I were working late.  At the time, there was a thunderstorm sitting more or less directly over the airport, producing fairly heavy rain (though not a great deal of wind) and a lot of lightning—there were multiple strikes on the field, within half a mile of AOPA. Bob was standing outside watching the storm, and I ran from my car to meet him….and probably 30 seconds later we heard an aircraft engine, and watched a Cessna 172 depart Rwy 30, climbing rather anemically off to the northwest…..We noted the time, and grabbed the radar image.”

There was a severe thunderstorm warning and convective Sigmet in effect and the C172 was NOT on an IFR flight plan according to FlightAware. Fatal accident chain was well under way.  What part of thunderstorm, what part of cloud and rain (reduced visibility – IMC), what part of lightning strike did this pilot not understand? To be sure, the AWOS was reporting VFR conditions and it was looking better to the west. Does anyone remember the Jessica Dubroff accident?

  • Was this done from ignorance – The pilot was unaware of the risk?
  • Was this done from arrogance – I know the risk but I can handle it?
  • Was this done from complacency – I’ve been in situations like this before?

One of the above or all of the above? How badly would “the mission” that this flight was surely on, have been impaired by delaying another 20 minutes to let the cell move off?

I’d sure like the benefit of his or her thought processes. There has to be some logic here — somewhere. Ignorance we can and should fix although my sense is the pilot knew the risk. The other two attributes are really difficult to change without significant interference to the freedom of flight . What do you think?

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Jim McSherry

    Bruce, I wish it were as simple as a four-option multiple choice. In that case, I doubt you would have needed to write this column, because in that simplistic world the planning and performance would be obvious.
    I think anyone who has observed or instructed more than a handful of pilots will agree that these humans are strange and mysterious creatures. Some of us will not venture beyond a few miles from the home field in anything less than clear and a million; others will launch from a marine fog layer to fly 200 miles through Class B in IMC without an instrument rating. Go figure. Your case study may have been ignorant of the severity of the situation – “just a rain shower, I’ve flown through rain before”, or may have had the bad example of flying with a cowboy charter pilot who would venture into such conditions (but our hero here didn’t know the more experienced pilot had planned, nor have that guy’s skill level), or he may have suffered from impaired judgment brought on by biochemical conditions ranging from beer to PCP. There was a guy in Philadelphia a few years ago who flew his Cherokee around PHL long enough to draw attention, and was legally too drunk to drive when they arrested him upon landing.
    Whatever set the poor sucker up for this flight, I notice that you did not mention the outcome. That’s good, because the outcome, in this case, is irrelevant. It was a poor choice, whether he survived or not. If he did, that fact might encourage others to do the same. If he didn’t, the next genius will only say, “He was not as good as I am”
    In any case, as a rural deputy once said, “Until they outlaw stupid, there’s not much I can do in advance.” But I would like to find a way to convinve every reporter to mention the ratio you put in the column, comparing the few hundred fatal plane accidents to the thousands of car fatalities. It might be a start.

  • Cary Alburn

    A few weeks ago, I really, really, really wanted to take a new friend up in my airplane. He had driven up from Colorado Springs to meet me at Greeley, he’s a new pilot, and I’m an “old hand” with some 2300 hours and 38 years of flight experience, former CFII, etc. We had been looking forward to this get-together for several days. To explain, I “mentor” budding pilots on a couple of different forums, with the offer that after they pass their checkride, come visit, and I’ll fly with them in my airplane at my expense, while they do the flying.

    But the weather was as you described, with unforecasted T-storms moving in and out of the area. We had lunch, hoping that it would all pass out of the area. At one point, we drove out and opened the hangar–but while the weather was technically flyable, it would have been pretty bumpy as we would have circumnavigated the storms.

    So we lamented that our plans had gone awry, but we didn’t fly. That’s the best mentoring I could do that day. Learning patience is one of the most life-saving lessons any pilot can learn.


  • Mike

    I think 7000 people die every day in the US and almost none of them make the papers. I think aviation deaths get a lot of publicity because they are dramatic and very rare. I think regulations should focus on only those deaths of “innocent” bystanders of our flying activities – the people on the ground that get hurt when an aircraft crashes. The rest of us, including our passengers, are well aware of the risks, and we fly accepting those risks.

    Should there be zero risk for innocents? Of course not. There is not zero risk in any other public situation. A few years ago, two people were killed shopping in Walmart by a guy who ran his truck through the front door. Do we encase every Walmart in a 5 foot thick concrete wall, or put parking lots 300 ft away from any entrance? Of course not.

    We should enact regulations that target 80% of the deaths to innocents. The other 20%, which is a very very small number in the absolute, is the cost of living in a mechanized society.