A Fatal Accident: Would You Do Better?
In reading over all those fatal accident reports for my blog earlier this week, the pedestrian obvious suddenly occurred to me halfway through the sweep: When we climb into airplanes and to slip the surly bonds, we don't expect to crash. Maybe that's the problem. Maybe we should expect it and thus develop what I've always thought of as a consciousness or awareness of survival. Life or death in potentially risky endeavors often turns on the smallest things; the routine habit adhered to, the nagging premonition acknowledged, the urge to say no (or yes) abided.
I thought of that when reading this accident report, one of nearly 300 fatals that occurred in 2010. In any batch of 100 or so accidents, there will be one or two of these and they're the kind that make the hair on your neck stand proud because you can't parse how or why they happened. That leads to the inevitable question: Could this have happened to me? I'm thinking the way to make sure that it doesn't is to admit that it could.
This accident occurred in October of 2010 on a cool evening in Sebewaing, Michigan, on Saginaw Bay north of the town of Saginaw. A 2675-hour CFI was giving another pilot a flight review in an 8KCAB Decathlon. The two flew into Sebewaing, did a full-stop landing, taxied back and, after a brief time on the runway, took off from runway 18, homeward bound. Two minutes later both were dead. Witnesses said the engine was heard to sputter, then die entirely. The airplane was headed back toward the airport when it nose dived into an open field and burned.
Sounds like a typical turnback accident. Or was it? The NTSB summary said the airplane failed to maintain airspeed but the word stall isn't mentioned. This is one of the frustrations of making sense of accident reports. You sometimes have to connect too-few dots. If there's any immediate lesson, it's that the investigator observed there was a clear area suitable for a straight-ahead landing. But to me, the more troubling question is why the two pilots, especially a 2675-hour CFI, couldn't, in desperation, at least pull a survivable crash out of a possibly botched decision to turn back to the airport. Where was the consciousness of survival? Where was the deft hand that could unload a wing just enough? These are unanswerable questions but they lead to another: Would I have done any better? I have a large enough ego to know that I would, but I'm seasoned enough to realize that the CFI probably thought the same thing.
Without falling into a debate about the turnback maneuver, I have, over the years, waxed and waned on two pre-takeoff habits. I'm currently waxing on cranking the shoulder harness straps down as tight as they'll go and never skipping them and deliberately telling myself that yes, this time, the engine really will quit. So until 500 feet or so, I sit in spring-loaded anticipation ready for that to happen, hoping I'll have that extra second or two to nose the airplane over and examine my options. I also pre-load the decision for a turnback, looking for that altitude when it might be possible, ignoring it if it isn't.
This may be utter self-delusion, but when you think of it, confidence springs from self-delusion and if it didn't, how many of us wouldn't even bother to get into airplanes in the first place?