Weather Mindset

August 5, 2009 by Bruce Landsberg

Weather Wise_Thunderstorms and ATC

The August AOPA Pilot landmark accident described a twin Comanche pilot who was working with ATC to get around a major cluster of thunderstorms. He had XM weather datalink but no onboard radar. Both he and the TRACON controller thought he was clear of the weather when he turned back on course. The aircraft subsequently broke up in flight.

I received a nice note from reader Paul who wanted to know why the pilot put himself into such a situation.

“Why was it that a seasoned pilot with 4,000 hours elected to fly into the jaws of a monster?…Are there studies by cognitive psychologists and medical specialists that shed light onto the mystery of what it was that might have influenced this particular pilot in command? And most important, what tools are out there to assist us in recognizing when we too might be falling into whatever traps were out there on that fateful day in April, 2007?”

My response: Sadly, in the very soft science of Psychology there is not much definitive to go on. Certainly nothing new that I’m aware of. ASF is coming up with some procedural guidelines that will be coming out this fall which will help but ultimately it comes down to judgment. When it comes to convective weather – the only sure thing is to add lots of quality flying miles away from the storms or land.

Weather is an uncertainty for many people and the desire to get to a golf outing (in this accident), business meeting or family reunion is strong. I’d like to say pilots are better at decision making than drivers, political figures or celebrities but we sure seem to get a lot of really poor examples.

NTSB is cautious not to speculate on the items you noted unless there are some very clear markers, which they didn’t mention in this case.

I know that wasn’t the crisp definitive answer you were looking for and if this were easy, the industry would have come up with a course or some other solution besides ” just say no.”

Thoughts from the group? If anyone knows of a reputable study on this please send me the link.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Jim McCord


    I’ve spent the last year as an active FAASTeam Rep, leading several CFI workshops. In preparing for some of the discussion topics I’ve looked at local accidents and often been puzzled, as in this case, how seasoned pilots could end up dead. I try hard not to be quick to judge, but have tried to learn more about the “soft science of Psychology” to understand why pilots end up in these situations.

    I recently picked up a book that might have some insights: “On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not” by Robert A. Burton. If you’ve not read this book, it might be worth a look. The very short version is that our subconscious may generate a feeling of “certainty” even when the data does not support it. As pilots we’ve been reminded to trust that feeling when things “just don’t feel right”. This book might lead us to add “and triple check things even when they DO feel right”.

  • Bruce Landsberg


    I’ve reached much the same conclusion which has been characterized by the saying” As pilots, we may not be right but we’re never in doubt.” That is not unique to just pilots as seen regularly in the news and leads to much difficulty.

    For those who fly, however, the bad outcome may come quickly for them and, sadly, their passengers. A little self doubt and thorough questioning is always helpful

    Many thanks for your thoughts……Bruce

  • Kelly

    My father is the pilot that was written about in the August 2009 article. I haven’t seen the article but would like to. My father never took chances, ever. He was the one people wanted to fly with that were questioning the weather.

    What you’re failing to mention is he clearly stated he lost attitude. Also, he was around the weather and then was suddenly going North. The place where he had the maintenance done on his airplane has failed to turn over his maintenance logs, saying they don’t have them. I know for a fact that they have them. The attitude was fixed many times.

    I believe instrument failure and ATC played a huge part in this accident.