Beware the Windy Ides of March

March 6, 2013 by Bruce Landsberg

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.

Educating pilots on improving their skills and enhancing GA safety is a core tenet of the AOPA Foundation’s Air Safety Institute and its educational programs. Your contribution funds these activities and ensures we continue to address the needs of pilots everywhere. Show your support with a donation today.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Turlough

    Four people died.

    AP Style Guide:
    Mishap: Accidents that kill or injure people are not mishaps. A mishap has minor consequences.

  • Alan D. Resnicke

    I’ve flown out of Angel Fire airport in my Grumman AA5 Traveler. The winds are almost always 90° to the runway and very gusty. The FAA finally installed an AWOS up there several years ago or I wouldn’t have descended into that bowl of Moreno Valley in the first place. Winds weren’t bad on the ground when I lifted off, but just above the surface they kicked in and I did a close visual inspection of the roofs of several buildings in town (departing south).

    Not listening to the local’s advice, loading heavy in high DA, mountainous bowl conditions, and then over-rating your own skills (or the plane’s) is signing your own FAA investigation.

    Bruce is right… you just can’t reach everyone. Sadly, as the gene pool is cleansed, they often take innocents with them and make others look bad… and then there’s someone behind them to take their place.

  • http://AOPA Walter Robert Carnes

    As former chief pilot for a well known flight school operating at near the New York metro area (HPN) the winds during the early spring can be strong to severe. Coupling this with the hilly terrain in the practice areas made our students apprehensive. I instituted a rule that when the surface winds exceeded 18-20 Knts there would be no solo flying by low time students. Instructors were to fly with all students to acquaint them with such problems as overcontrolling for aircraft stability and wind correction techniques for no less than three cross wind landings landings in accordance with the accft flight manual. Despite grumbling among some time building instructors we saved a lot of sick bags and students welcomed the ground instruction about our windy conditions so near the Bershire and Catskill mountains. WRC

  • louis viggiano

    a man has to know his limitations (clint eastward quote from a movie)

  • Louie McGinnis

    I am based at Raton, NM, just down the hill from Angelfire. I really don’t know what it’s going to take to get through to people. I have over 13,000 hours in everything from a Benson gyrocopter to 727s and DC6s. I wouldn’t fly into or out of Angelfire in any type of flying machine with that kind of wind. It is surrounded on all sides by high mountains and with a 50 mile an hour wind anybody with two brain cells to rub together would expect severe turbulence and up-and-down drafts. And I was told that the wind was across the runway. Take away the wind and you still have an overloaded Mooney trying to launch with a DENSITY altitude of 10,000 feet to 12,000 feet. You can’t regulate or legislate sanity and I don’t know what the answer is. This is far from the first same kind of accident at Angelfire. Mother Nature is very good at weeding out those who violate her rules but lots of innocents go with them. Perhaps a short Written course with an exam required before going into a high-altitude field.I would really like to hear some good ideas.

  • Bruce Landsberg


    Thanks for your note. As for the course, Air Safety Institute has a free online Mountain Flying course that goes into considerable detail and has been available for years!

    Turlough , thanks for the AP tip. I’ll try to reform.

  • Mike Chesser

    As the article stated “A small percentage just cant be saved”. Its the sad reality.
    As a new pilot, I wont fly in 15knt crosswinds. As the previous poster said. “A man needs to know his limitations”. I know mine.

  • Ken Scherfee

    For the benefit of newer pilots especially, and all pilots in general, it doesn’t hurt to
    use a matrix of conditions to determine whether to “go or no go.” That matrix should
    include items such as pilot condition, pilot experience in aircraft, known conditions increasing risk of flight, aircraft squak items, and pilot familiarity with the planned flight envelope. Military pilots and their commanding officers use such a matrix for every flight. Perhaps AOPA can get their hands on a good matrix used by the military or even commercial flight operations, and share that with G.A. pilots.
    We really need to encourage every caring pilot to make every flight a safe one, especially with passengers on board. Impetuous pilots we need to weed out, using Darwin or other effective prophylactic measures. We need to work together on this.