Why Isn't Technology Fixing CFIT?
As I'm writing this, the views are still piling up on a grainy webcam video of a Turbo Commander plowing into an Arizona hillside at night. It was a tragic crash that killed two experienced pilots, a mechanic and three young children. From the video, it looks like classic controlled flight into terrain; you watch the aircraft lights fly perfectly level until they transform into a fireball as the airplane impacts a rock wall only 400 feet below the summit.
Unless there was some incapacitation of both pilots—possible, but not high on the probability scale—it's hard to understand why an accident like this still happens. First, there's the technology aspect. I'm told this aircraft had a Terrain Awareness Warning System, or TAWS, which should have chimed out a terrain warning and then a clear "Pull-up!" command at least 30 seconds before impact. Both warnings would have been accompanied by flashing yellow and red alerts on some relevant display. Another piece of the puzzle here is that it's likely the airplane was down below 5000 feet because a recent airspace change around Phoenix means staying that low until you're close to the mountains before climbing if you want to stay out of the Class B. But that begs the question: Why not get clearance into the Class B VFR? Sure, it may mean some vectoring off your course, and on a 45-minute flight that can be annoying. But cost in annoyance (and time and fuel) is peanuts compared to potential cost of screwing up when to climb. That point comes round to the technology issue again. If we have super-accurate position from a GPS, the climb should be possible precisely at the outer ring of the airspace. But that's not what happened here.
Now it's possible the TAWS wasn't working. It's possible they didn't have any of the dozens of portable GPS or apps that will show terrain higher than the aircraft in blazing red. It's possible they didn't have a GPS at all.
But it's also possible they did have all that stuff working and the pilot's familiarity with the area got in the way of it saving the day, not to mention setting up the accident chain in the first place. Comfortable with the airspace, they were willing to stay out of the Class B even if it made a late climb to a safe altitude. Comfortable with the terrain, they were confident they knew when to make that climb. For whatever reason, the climb was delayed. It happens. We all make mistakes.
But when the TAWS started chiming—and here's the potential hole in all of these technological safety fixes—the pilots' confidence could have counted against them. Because they "knew" they should still be safe, the warning didn't make sense. Call it delayed action due to cognitive dissonance. I've certainly seen it happen to people, including me. (Luckily, I was just heading for off-limits airspace, which isn't quite so deadly.) It takes time to reconcile something like that, and time is what those pilots and those kids so tragically ran out of.
Monday-morning quarterbacking is a dangerous game, and I'm not saying I know what happened in that cockpit. But the point is that this possible scenario ripples to the larger question as to why we still see a steady stream of CFIT accidents despite so much technology to prevent them. Like recognizing a slowly failing attitude indicator, the pilot must still parse conflicting information and decide which action is the right one. And, like the siren song of a failing attitude indicator, it's tough to pull off successfully unless you train for the surprise failure.
This is a double-edged sword of the high-tech cockpit. The constant nowcast of your exact position, the autopilot freeing you from constant engagement with the aircraft, and the warning systems lying in wait all make it easier to relax in the moment. And that comfort may make it that much harder to arouse your critical thinking enough to act in the short span between "Pull-up!" and tragedy.