Choir Preaching & Who’s Responsible?

March 13, 2013 by Bruce Landsberg

windsockIt’s always an honor for me to present to the Aero Club of New England’s somewhat provocatively named “Crash Course.” Every year more than 350 pilots turn out for an evening of safety and information. Some of it’s pretty sobering and other parts are more entertaining.

FAA Regional Administrator, Amy Corbett, discussed NextGen and sequestration, which would be informative if not so maddening. We preached to the choir for about two hours, and upon return to my room I read some of the responses to last week’s blog, Beware the Windy Ides of March.

Your thoughts on what appears to be a nearly suicidal flight by a low time Mooney pilot in to a 33G47 knot crosswind at high density altitude were remarkably uniform:

  • 8% thought the airport should have been closed
  • 78% thought the PIC had the responsibility to make the call
  • 10% thought the passengers should have been advised of the risk
  • 3% thought that there would always be risk in GA

I made a bet with Amy that it would be tough—maybe impossible—to crash without having broken at least one rule and possibly more. So here goes; the most obvious is operating an aircraft outside its limitations but sometimes it’s not that simple. Demonstrated crosswind velocity is NOT a limitation but it’s a starting point. On the M20E Mooney it is somewhere around 12-14 knots if my memory serves correctly, and in the hands of a competent pilot more can be handled safely. How much? Depends on the pilot, but at some point one usually runs out of rudder and that’s your answer. Y’all be careful because mistakes are really expensive.

We don’t know the specifics yet but presumably the Mooney at Angel Fire got airborne with only limited climb capability in an area with significant downdrafts. The aircraft was outside the performance envelope, and since one usually doesn’t crash on takeoff it follows that the pilot was outside the operating limitations (unless a mechanical malfunction is found—these comments are still speculative).

Lawyers refer to that as Prima Facie or on first blush—something that is obvious. I’m sure there is legal maneuvering to work around that, but Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography is brilliant in its common sense: “I can’t describe it but I know it when I see it.”

Maybe that’s what’s needed—a rule to exercise good judgment and common sense. Oh wait, we’ve got that already: FAR 91.13 (a); Aircraft operations for the purpose of air navigation. No person may operate an aircraft in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another.

What do you think, should I call Amy and ask her to pay up?


Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Cary Alburn

    The title hints pretty strongly at the problem. Those who need the preaching aren’t listening; those who are listening don’t need it, because they’re already doing everything they can to be safe.

    The probable cause of the Angel Fire/Mooney accident will likely talk about density altitude, heavily loaded airplane, and pilot inexperience. Too many low time pilots will look at it with some shock, because 500 hours sounds like a lot to many. But 500 hours out of a low elevation airport doesn’t begin to prepare a pilot to fly a normally aspirated aircraft out of a high elevation airport such as Angel Fire.

    We’re all taught about density altitude, but until we experience it, we really know nothing about it. A 200hp Mooney out of an airport at 385′ MSL (Marshall, TX, nearby to Scottsville) performs well, even with a gross load. A 200hp Mooney flying out of an airport at 8380′ (Angel Fire), regardless of whether the DA is higher than the elevation, will be marginal at best, even with only a partial load. Good guess that he rotated to the pitch angle he was accustomed to using back home, immediately fell behind the power curve, and just couldn’t persuade himself to lower the nose in order to climb.

    Unfortunately, the history at Angel Fire indicates that many low land pilots fly in there, but can’t fly out again, for much the same reasons. So sad that often innocent passengers are victims of the pilot’s lack of preparedness.