There were a number of fatal accidents over the Thanksgiving weekend, and while in my previous blog I lamented that we ought not to be speculating too publicly, the preliminary investigations do not bode well for pilot decision-making. Below are the facts that we think we know at this point.
1. Medical flight with five people on board crashes in Illinois – 3 fatalities. The flight went from GA to IL with only a few miles to go to destination. Strong NW winds apparently slowed the ground speed aboard the Piper Navajo. From the Chicago Tribune, Pilot told air traffic controllers moments before, “We are out of fuel and we are coasting.” NTSB noted there was no fuel in the tanks or on the ground. Fuel exhaustion?
2. Turbo Commander 690 on a beautiful VFR night slams into a mountain with 6 fatalities. The weather is reported as 26003 KT 20 SM SKC. There is speculation about configuration of Phoenix Class B airspace and the pilot attempting to stay below it to avoid ATC. Controlled flight into mountainous terrain at night while VFR?
3. A VFR pilot (according to the flying club manager) is returning his daughter in a Cirrus SR20 to college along with another daughter and a friend – 4 fatalities. Weather at the crash site is reported as 9 OVC 1 3/4 sm -RA BR. VFR into IMC? No IFR flight plan has been located at this writing.
All the pilots involved were reasonably experienced and had been flying for some time according to acquaintances. Aftermath—Three pilots deleted from the already declining pilot population, 12 passengers who won’t be around for next Thanksgiving, multiple families and communities devastated by these losses, more negative publicity for GA.
Both the Foundation and the industry have been in ongoing discussion with FAA and NTSB on how to address GA mishaps like these. Were these systemic failures or individual failures?
- Is it possible that any of the pilots did not know the risks involved?
- Have we in the industry not done a good enough job of explaining the risks?
- Fuel is needed for engines and the rules require a reserve.
- VFR at night runs the risk of not seeing mountains – there is no rule for avoiding mountains per se but you won’t be happy with the results.
- Flying in the clouds is extremely hazardous unless you’ve been trained to do it—there are minimums for VFR flight.
- Is it possible that despite all the warnings that people become complacent or ignore them – certain that they can some how succeed?
Some think more regulation is the answer. In two cases a violation of Part 91 seems highly likely. In the Phoenix accident should we make it against the rules to challenge a mountain?
Most of these questions are rhetorical. Friends within FAA and NTSB have privately acknowledged that “We can’t fix stupid.”, but by the nature of their positions they must continue to try. Whether these incidents fall in to that category won’t be known for certain until the investigations are complete. Learning from past mistakes really is the best way not to become a statistic. Nobody sets out to kill themselves, their passengers or their loved ones. Teaching decision-making to all pilots seems like an easy non-answer because the absorption capacity and risk tolerance varies so greatly.
Is technology the answer? Fuel flow transducers are capable of predicting to the gallon when the engines will go silent. Synthetic vision and TAWS predict impact in time to avoid it and autopilots are capable of keeping aircraft under control when the pilot can’t. Can we change human nature? Can we make the aircraft foolproof? Does everyone need the same level of oversight and at what cost to personal freedom and bank account? While political correctness may dictate one answer, does reality provide another?
Constructive suggestions are welcomed.