Probable Cause #18: Greater of Evils

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This article originally appeared in Aviation Safety, Aug 2004.

Probable Cause

Scud running, the practice of flying underneath a low ceiling, often in poor visibility, has claimed its share of low- and high-time pilots, even those with Instrument ratings. The risks of scud running, while manageable, are definitely higher than flying on a clear summer day and include collision with man-made objects like antennas and power lines. There is also the possibility of running into natural obstructions. While man-made objects might not be charted, the natural obstructions usually are. Either way, you need to know where they are and avoid them by healthy margins.

Generally, high-time or Instrument-rated pilots need a good operational reason to scud-run: Either the aircraft is not up to the task because of missing or broken equipment, getting an IFR clearance is impractical, icing or thunderstorms make a climb into the weather riskier, or the pilot isn't confident of flying the airplane on instruments.

Try, Then Try Again

Beech S35 Bonanza

It was an apparent lack of confidence that led to the July 26, 2002, crash of a Beech S35 Bonanza near Clear Spring, Md., killing its solo pilot. The flight departed Hagerstown Regional Airport (HGR), Hagerstown, Md., with Lovell Field (CHA) in Chattanooga, Tenn., as its planned destination. Instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) prevailed, including relatively low ceilings and mountain obscuration, although a visual flight rules (VFR) flight plan was filed. There is a lot of mountainous terrain between Hagerstown and Chattanooga; how the pilot intended to scud run all the way is open to speculation.

In fact, the accident flight was not the pilot's first attempt to get to his destination. At about 1000 local time, the airplane departed HGR, but returned about 15 minutes later, after telling the tower controller he "could not maintain VFR." After an uneventful landing, the pilot obtained an abbreviated weather briefing and stated he would attempt the same flight later in the day.

Though lacking an advanced certificate, the private pilot of the Bonanza had earned ratings for single- and multi-engine land-based airplanes. He was also rated in single-engine seaplanes and was instrument rated. According to the NTSB report, FAA records showed he had at least 11,550 hours of flight experience.

At 1121 local, the pilot again departed HGR. A weather observation taken 30 minutes later included winds from 170 degrees at six knots, a scattered cloud layer at 1200 feet, and an overcast cloud layer at 1300 feet. The temperature was 66 degrees Fahrenheit, and the dewpoint was 63 degrees Fahrenheit. At the same time as the HGR observation was taken, weather at the Eastern West Virginia Regional Airport (MRB) in Martinsburg, W.V., -- at an elevation of 557 feet and approximately 22 miles southwest of Hagerstown along the pilot's route -- included an overcast ceiling at 600 feet. The temperature and dewpoint both were 64 degrees Fahrenheit.

At 1124, the pilot contacted a Washington Air Route Traffic Control Center controller and requested VFR flight following. The controller suggested that the pilot land, and file an instrument flight rules (IFR) flight plan. Shortly thereafter, a tower controller at HGR noticed a VFR target on his radar screen, about 15 miles southwest of the airport, in level flight at 1000 feet. He later expressed surprise to investigators because the target was only 300 feet above the airport's 703-foot elevation. The controller called another controller's attention to the target, but the target then disappeared from the radar screen.

Several witnesses around Fairview Mountain, located about 12 miles southwest of HGR, reported they heard an airplane fly overhead, then heard the sound of a crash. Some witnesses saw the airplane appear briefly out of the clouds, then re-enter them seconds before striking the mountain. The peak elevation of Fairview Mountain is 1690 feet MSL.

Too Thick To Fly Through

Mountain Fog

When the witnesses were asked to describe the weather at the time of the accident, they all mentioned rain and dense fog. Visibility estimates from the witnesses ranged from 50 feet to 150 feet. One witness, who climbed the mountain in search of the wreckage, stated, "The fog was so bad, we walked right by the plane and didn't see it."

All major components of the Bonanza were accounted for at the scene. The airplane had impacted heavily wooded terrain with an upslope of about 40 degrees. The wreckage path was approximately 250 feet long. The trees along the wreckage path from the initial impact point to the main wreckage were all broken off at the same approximate elevation, about 1230 feet MSL. Fragments of wing, fairing and airplane skin, plus several pieces of cut wood, were found along the wreckage path.

Subsequently, the airplane's owner stated that the pilot's ultimate destination was his home in Florida. The airplane's owner said that the pilot was well-acquainted with the airplane, as he was its previous owner. The owner also noted that the airplane was well-equipped, including an IFR-certified GPS navigator, and was certified for IFR operations. Additionally, a full array of flight publications, including current VFR charts, IFR charts and instrument approach procedures were on board.

An Intention of Safety

However, the owner related to investigators that the accident pilot had told him some two years earlier, "I'm not flying any more [at] night, and I'm not flying anymore IFR." As demonstrated by his aborted flight earlier that morning, flying IFR was something the pilot wanted to avoid at all costs. Why?

The NTSB didn't answer that question for us, so we can only speculate. One obvious reason could be that, a some point, the accident pilot scared himself on an IFR flight -- perhaps at night -- and decided the best way to avoid repeating such a situation would be to restrict his flying to daytime VFR. Another reason is perhaps not so obvious.

The accident pilot reportedly had more than 11,000 hours total time and a private certificate. Building those hours over a career is something we can all hope to accomplish, but is exceedingly difficult if we're paying for it all. Without certification to fly for compensation or hire, gaining that much experience could take a lifetime. The NTSB report did not disclose the pilot's age, but we can speculate, because of his flight experience, that he was getting up in years. Perhaps his eyesight wasn't as good as it used to be, or his reaction times had slowed.

Whether because of an earlier scare or recognition that he wasn't as sharp as he used to be, the accident pilot refused to fly IFR in a well-equipped airplane and chose to scud run into rising terrain obscured by weather. He probably thought his decision was the best of the choices he had. In reality, it was the greater of the evils.


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