Bad Judgement Gets Worse
Remember back to when we were student pilots, with maybe 20 hours under our belts? We all asked our instructors "How many hours do you have?" Even if the answer came back as "400," we were in awe because our instructor had 20 times our experience.
Of course he was a great pilot; he had all those hours. Later, after earning our private certificates perhaps we met a pilot with 1000 hours, and then someone with even more flight time and a fancy airplane came into our aviation life. If we were sharp enough, we soon realized that hours in a logbook or the type of aircraft being flown can't hold a candle to a difficult to pin down concept known as judgment. Judgment we learned is the real core of what makes someone a good pilot.
Living The Dream
The 52-year-old private pilot with an instrument rating rode the crest of the Hi-Tech wave during the early part of this century. His contributions to his company culminated in an Initial Public Stock Offering which allowed him the luxury to retire early, enjoy life, sit on various boards and become a philanthropist.
As a pilot, he had accumulated a total of 790 hours. Of those hours, 59 were in actual IMC and 300 hours were in his 1992 turbocharged A36 Beechcraft Bonanza. This Bonanza was his second A36.
During the previous year he had flown 110 hours, of which 40 of those hours were accumulated in the 90 days preceding the accident. His brother described the pilot as an experienced instrument pilot who continued to take lessons in order to keep his skills sharp.
The pilot and his wife were on an extended family trip visiting their daughter in nearby Olive Branch, Mississippi. It was Tuesday morning and it was time to go home. At the same time a fast moving cold front was racing across the country.
The day before the accident the front was in western Colorado. The day of the accident it was approaching western Mississippi. If there is one thing we know about fast moving cold fronts in the South, it's that the weather is going to get nasty as moisture gets sucked up out of the Gulf. But give it a day and all we will be facing is bumpy skies in VFR or mild IFR conditions.
At 9:00 local the pilot called Flight Service to file an IFR flight plan home. His destination was DeKalb-Peachtree Airport, near Atlanta. During the weather discussion, the briefer asked the pilot, "Do you require the latest adverse [weather] conditions?" The pilot answered, "No, that's why we are getting out of here." Before ending the phone call, the briefer confirmed, "…you did say you had the adverse conditions?" The pilot replied, "Yes, I do."
Severe Thunderstorms Forecast
Earlier that morning the National Weather Service issued a Severe Weather Forecast Alert in effect for the entire time the Bonanza was expected to be in the air. Moreover, the forecast covered most of the route of flight from Olive Branch to Atlanta. The alert warned of severe thunderstorms with hail to 1˝ inches, wind gusts to 70 knots, and extreme turbulence, with maximum cumulonimbus cloud tops to 50,000 feet. Storm movement was from 240 degrees at 50 knots. Embedded thunderstorms were forecast. A tornado watch was in effect.
At 09:25 the Bonanza departed Olive Branch and began a climb to its filed cruise altitude of 17,000 feet. 29-minutes after departure and at 14,800 feet the Bonanza entered a line of severe storms which mimicked the weather alert issued earlier. The Beechcraft was spat out a storm with such force the debris trail covered 15 miles and took three days to completely trace. It then took another three days to recover 70% of the airplane.
The Other Side Of The Story
As is often the case, people who knew the pilot spoke up after the accident. This was not the first or even the second time the pilot had flown through severe weather. He had done it at least twice before.
The pilot's mechanic was willing to speak. Some time earlier the pilot brought his first A36 to the mechanic's maintenance facility for weather damage. He had flown it through a weather system so severe the aircraft almost had an in-flight breakup. The mechanic was truly surprised the aircraft was able to make it to the shop without coming apart in flight.
The estimate to repair the aircraft included more than 1300 hours of labor and countless parts. Not surprisingly, the aircraft was declared a total loss. The pilot blamed autopilot issues in IMC and immediately purchased the accident turbocharged A36 Bonanza.
He Did It Again
30 days after the purchase, the pilot returned to the repair facility after flying through "heavy" weather announcing nonchalantly "I did it again." Again, blame was placed on an autopilot malfunction in IMC, but the mechanic would have none of that and called the pilot out.
He sat the pilot down and said, "Don't come in here again and tell me that your autopilot got away from you." The pilot's wife refused to fly with the pilot after this incident.
The mechanic then commented how his repair facility now had two overstressed airplanes parked next to each other on the ramp. The second airplane was not as badly damaged as the first, it was reparable, although it required extensive work. When asked by investigators about the type of weather the pilot flew through, all the mechanic could say was "I've looked at what he flew into and 'shoot' man, I'd have stayed home."
The pilot was required to take a "709" ride with an FAA inspector and receive remedial training from a highly qualified upset training instructor after the second event. The mechanic said he continued to worry about the pilot for two years, but the pilot seemed to get better and the mechanic eventually stopped worrying.
It is only a hunch, but probably safe to say this pilot didn't get better and his flying through heavy weather never stopped.
Accidents in Instrument Metrological Conditions almost always involve fatalities. It doesn't seem to much matter how many hours the pilot has in his or her logbook. That fact is driven home each and every time I write the "In The Crunch" piece.
Writing about accidents takes some time and effort to remain dispassionate and analytical. I always step back after the first read of an accident report, take a deep breath and appreciate the accident involved real people and genuine tragedies. I also grasp that in many cases there but for the grace of God and a long-handled spoon go many of us.
Nevertheless, sometimes I come across an accident where all I feel is anger. This is a classic. I feel anger because one more fatal accident is added to our already less than great safety record. I feel even more anger because the accident gives the non-flying public more fodder to feed anti "little airplane" sentiments.
I also feel anger because the aviation people who knew this pilot tried to educate him or take him out of the system but it wasn't enough. Finally, I feel tremendous anger towards the pilot. If it weren't for his insistence on continuing his pattern of arrogant actions an innocent life would have not have been lost.
When It's Time To Step In
The lesson in this article is different than the lessons I usually write about. Many of us know a pilot like this character; someone, through personality defect or other reasons, goes beyond lacking the judgment to be safe in an airplane to the point where he consciously disregards the lives of himself and others. It may be one of the hardest things you will ever do, but the right thing to do is to step in.
First speak directly to the pilot and assertively try to convince him to ground himself. If that doesn't work, contact your local FSDO to work to have the pilot grounded. Think of how you'll feel if you don't act and he kills someone.
Armand Vilches is a commercial pilot, instructor and FAASTeam member who lives in Brentwood, TN. He brings an extensive background in risk management and insurance to aviation and flight instruction.
This article first appeared in the October 2012 issue of IFR Refresher magazine.