Rockaway Beach Landing: Distorted Reality
When I took my ATP checkride some years ago, the examiner, who knew me, posed a question: Could I prove that I met the requirements of FAR 61.153 (c)? In case you're a little rusty on the FARs, that clause requires ATP candidates to be of "good moral character." Hah,hah…very funny. But I do wonder why that clause got there. Maybe it had to do with hauling mail pilots out of saloons to fly from St. Louis to Chicago in a blinding snow storm. What's really needed, however, is a clause in 61.103—private pilot eligibility—that says: must be demonstrably less impressionable than a six year old.
This would apply to the pilot who decided it would be a good idea to land on Rockaway Beach, south of JFK International, at dusk one evening last week. Here's the news story on that event and, to better understand it, listen to the recording of radio exchanges (MP3) from LiveATC.net. (Take your time, I'll wait while you get up to speed.)
There's so much wrong here, that it's hard to know where to begin. When NYPD Pilot-Detective Dennis Derienzo landed his helo on the beach to render assistance, the pilot explained himself by saying, "What's the big deal? It happens all the time in Alaska," evidently referring to a popular Discovery Channel program called Flying Wild Alaska. Derienzo replied: "Welcome to New York." In other words, if I have to explain this to you kid, you couldn't possibly understand. Obviously, apart from the risk to innocent bystanders on the beach—probably not much on a chilly April evening—you've got first responders racing to the scene, the risk of the landing itself, then the task of recovering the airplane. Speaking of which, one photo had the airplane up to its wing in saltwater from the incoming tide. I wonder if the thing is trashed. Then the enforcement mechanism has to figure out what to do with this guy. On the one hand, it's not wise to discourage emergency declarations, on the other, there are limits to everything.
Ironically, Flying Wild Alaska is, in a sense, a show very much about aeronautical judgment of the sort not displayed here, in my estimation. It's a reality series about a family-run air service based in Unalakleet that provides a range of scheduled and on-demand air transportation throughout the state. I've seen a few of the episodes and whether it accurately represents commercial flying in Alaska or not, it's informative and entertaining. In one recent episode, the series' pater familias, Jim Tweto, struggles to lift his overloaded Cessna 180 off a short field that was unexpectedly covered with snow. After a couple of tries, he has the hunters he's carrying dump 400 pounds of gear, lightening the airplane enough to claw its way into the air. The gear will stay there until spring, probably. It's the sort of simple, direct problem solving that I suspect happens every day in Alaska, but that you wouldn't expect to see in say, Van Nuys.
And that's the point. Context is everything. In Alaska, pilots land on beaches, sandbars, glaciers, the cleared tops of hills and even public highways and no one blinks because it's a necessary part of the way things work. But there are better ways to get to Rockaway Beach than by Piper Warrior. This, I suspect, will be the painful lesson our young pilot is about to learn.
Just a word here about the controllers. Listening to this tape reminds me of why I miss flying in the New York area. Despite dealing with a pilot who seems to have, shall we say, a non-standard agenda, the controller is polite, friendly and professional. In reality, he could be forgiven for having told the pilot to put his compass on E move along to someone else's airspace.