Every flight consists of a series of
decisions. Those decisions begin with the basic question of pilot capability,
continue during preflight planning, and culminate in flight, where sound
judgment is critical. A breakdown at any point in the process can place the
flight in jeopardy. A series of poor choices, on the other hand, is an
invitation to disaster.
On Jan. 1, 2006, a Beechcraft 55D
Baron crashed while circling in IFR conditions at Dawson Municipal Airport in
Dawson, Ga. The 1,500-hour pilot had already attempted instrument approaches at
two other airports and was nearly out of fuel. While attempting to locate the
runway below a 100-foot overcast, the pilot stalled the airplane. He and a
passenger were killed. Three other passengers were seriously injured.
The flight took off from Indianapolis
Metropolitan Airport in Indianapolis, Ind., at 10:30 a.m. One hour prior to
departure, the pilot contacted the local flight service station, obtained a
weather report, and filed two IFR flight plans—one from Indianapolis to
Moultrie, Ga.; the other from Moultrie to his final destination of Ft. Myers,
Fla. The terminal area forecast nearest to Moultrie Airport called for a broken
ceiling at 800 feet with five miles visibility in mist.
The flight proceeded without incident
for the first three hours. At 1:35 p.m., the pilot contacted Jacksonville
Center and requested the VOR approach to Runway 22 at Moultrie Airport.
Approximately 35 minutes later, he performed a missed approach due to a low
ceiling and asked ATC for an alternate airport.
The controller suggested Southwest
Georgia Regional Airport in Albany, Ga., about 34 nautical miles to the
northwest. The pilot agreed and was given vectors for the ILS approach to
Runway 4. At 2:30 p.m., he reported a missed approach and told the controller
that he needed to find another airport nearby because he was “running out of
fuel.” In response to ATC queries, the pilot reported that he was in IMC and
had about 15 minutes of fuel remaining.
The controller issued vectors to
Dawson Municipal Airport, approximately 17 nm to the northwest. At 2:41 p.m.,
radar contact with the airplane was lost. The controller continued to call the
pilot, and a minute later the pilot reported that he was “trying to get this
thing down.” No further communications were received.
Witnesses at Dawson Airport reported
that the Baron crossed over Runway 31 and “made three passes, circling the
runway.” During its final pass, the airplane “swung around,” and the nose
suddenly dropped straight down, colliding with the ground. Weather conditions
at the time of the accident were overcast at 100 feet, one mile visibility in
mist. A review FSS data revealed no record of the pilot requesting any
in-flight weather information. In addition, according to the pilot’s logbook,
he had not performed an instrument approach during the previous six months, and
nearly three years had passed since his last flight review.
The NTSB attributed the accident to
the pilot’s failure to maintain sufficient airspeed, which resulted in an
inadvertent stall and loss of control while circling to land. Contributing
factors included the pilot’s inadequate planning and weather evaluation, low
clouds, and the low-fuel condition.
Proper aeronautical decision-making
should begin long before a flight leaves the ground. An honest self-assessment
is part of that process. Are you current and proficient? The accident pilot did
not meet the criteria for either.
Preflight planning is another area
where decision-making is key. The accident pilot planned a trip of
approximately 830 nm. Rather than stop for fuel at the halfway point, he chose
an airport that was 540 nm away. When he missed the approach there, he had
about 35 minutes of fuel left. When he went missed at his alternate, he only
had 15 minutes in the tanks. The FARs require a 45-minute reserve at that
point. The AOPA Air Safety Foundation recommends a “golden hour.”
Perhaps the most critical decisions
are those made in flight. Has the weather at your destination deteriorated?
Will you need to divert? If so, is your alternate still viable? The accident
pilot apparently made no attempt to update his weather information en route. By
the time he realized how low the ceiling was at his destination, he was no
longer within range of a suitable alternate. After a series of questionable
decisions, the pilot had essentially run out of options.