A must-be-there business meeting enticed two pilots to launch into weather they couldn't handle; with predictable results.
February 14, 2013
An old and often-used justification for owning a light General Aviation aircraft is the ability to bypass the automobile and the airlines in order to spend valuable time in a more productive manner. This rationalization focuses on the time savings created by flying oneself.
Thus, according to the reasoning, it is possible to easily meet with clients in distant cities and be home for dinner. And as pilots, we also know it's always more fun to fly ourselves than it is to drive or to sit in the back of a crowded airliner.
An Important Trip
The 47-year-old private pilot was a Vice President for civil engineering firm located in Flagstaff, Arizona. He owned a Cessna 205 and a Cessna 172. His wife considered him a "very conservative and conscientious pilot." She flew with her husband quite a bit, but did not know how many hours of flight time he had.
A review of the pilot's available logbooks indicated he had 960.9 hours; however, the last flight entry was seven years before the accident. Other business and tax records indicated he had as much as 1,765 hours of flight experience, including 775 hours in the Cessna 205. However, his application for his most recent third class medical indicated 1,550 hours. One logbook entry showed his most recent flight review occurred three years before the accident. Interestingly, the same flight instructor also signed an endorsement giving this non-instrument rated pilot an instrument proficiency check one year after the flight review. Perhaps he had lost the current logbook or just wasn't interested in logging his hours. Either way it appears he was flying enough to remain relatively proficient.
Also along on the trip was a friend (and fellow private pilot), which the aircraft owner considered to be an aviation mentor of sorts. This pilot came from a family of pilots and had over 2,500 hours of flight experience, much of it flying in Alaska's harsh weather conditions. This pilot held an instrument rating, but did not use it much since he did not care for flying on the gauges. His wife described him as "conservative and willing to cancel flights due to weather."
The two pilots often flew together and sometimes collaborated on business projects. The purpose of this flight was an important meeting with a mutual client. The first pilot's business had been negatively impacted by the economy. His company was struggling financially and worsening personal finances were also adding stress to the first pilot's life. A successful meeting would mean positive and significant financial gains for his engineering firm, and also for his personal assets. The second pilot was also seriously invested in the trip, as he had spent over a year preparing a presentation for this specific meeting.
At 1951 local time, the night before the flight, the first pilot called Flight Service for an outlook briefing for the planned trip from Flagstaff, AZ to Yuma, AZ. If the journey was done by a car it would take over 5.5 hours, however in the Cessna 205 the time could be shortened to only 2 hours. The first pilot told the briefer the proposed departure would be at 0630 local and the VFR flight would cruise at 8,500 feet. Then the pilot immediately corrected himself by telling the briefer that they may have to go IFR. If that was to be the case the altitude would change. It is almost as if he hoped his friend and mentor would step-in with his instrument rating, if needed, in order to complete the trip.
The briefer advised the pilot that at best marginal VFR conditions would exist for all the next day along the proposed flight. Light rain showers, mist, snow and mixed precipitation were predicted. The ceilings were forecasted to be 1,000 feet with scattered layers at 500 feet, but visibilities could also drop to as low as 2 miles.
The first pilot's wife mentioned to investigators that she heard him call flight service several more times that evening. She also mentioned he did not sleep well that night or the night before.
The second pilot's spouse also confirmed her husband slept less than normal the night before the accident. The importance of the meeting and the weather forecast must have been wearing on both pilots. They had placed themselves in a box, and the alternative, without 20/20 hindsight, was not an attractive option. To make the meeting on time without the use of an aircraft would require a long drive at night.
The next morning at 0611 local time, the first pilot called Flight Service for a standard VFR briefing. It appears the instrument rated friend was not willing to fly on the gauges, so that back-up plan was now off the table. The briefer advised the pilot VFR was not recommended. An area of low pressure was moving through the region bringing in moisture and lower clouds. An AIRMET had been issued for IFR conditions in Flagstaff and for mountain obscurations from the Flagstaff to Prescott, AZ.
The current conditions at Flagstaff were 1,300 broken and 1,800 overcast, with 10 miles visibility and a one degree temperature and dew point spread. Flagstaff's airport is located in an area of mountainous terrain, so ceilings which create marginal VFR conditions at the airport can easily obscure the higher terrain nearby.
At the airport, the First Officer of a commuter airliner witnessed an aircraft which appeared to be the Cessna 205 taxiing for departure on Runway 21. The winds were calm, the visibility was 10 miles and a ceiling was being reported as 1,600 overcast. The weather also appeared, to the First Officer, to be lower in an area of rising terrain to the south. As the Cessna departed the First Officer recalls thinking "Wow, they are departing VFR". The First Officer also noted that when he departed several minutes later he entered the clouds at around 1,000 feet, much lower than what was being reported on the automated reporting system.
The wreckage of the Cessna 205 was found about 10 miles south of the airport and just several hundred feet off the Interstate. It had impacted a hill in level flight at its cruising airspeed of 130 knots. Why two experienced pilots would have continued scud running into a cloud bank when they were reasonably familiar with the terrain so close to their home airport is the question that will never be answeredexcept for the term mind-set.
Using GA For Business
In many situations, using General Aviation for business travel works extremely well. For example corporate aircraft or chartered aircraft, with dedicated flight crews, can be an efficient and safe mode of business transportation. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the businessman pilot flying himself to meetings.
This is not say we shouldn't fly ourselves for business reasons, but rather that we need to be more aware of the increased risks involved when we divide our attention between business responsibilities and flight duties.
On the surface this appears simple, but remaining flexible as a businessman pilot is difficult to do. Most business meetings are planned events involving people with tight schedules and these individuals are not likely to have sympathy for any delays caused by self-flyers. Like it or not, missing a meeting because of small airplane issues is not how one lands new clients or keeps existing accounts.
Perhaps the solution is for us to judge the must be there factor for each business General Aviation flight we plan, and then set a hard deadline for the use of alternate and more reliable modes of transportation. This may cause some trips to be taken by automobile or the airlines when we would rather be flying ourselves, but at least the risk will have been properly managed.
Armand Vilches is a commercial pilot, instructor and FAASTeam member. He brings an extensive background in risk management and insurance to aviation and flight instruction. This article first appeared in the January 2013 issue of IFR Refresher magazine.