Probable Cause #4: Scud Runner

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There are many aspects to flying safely, and FAA regs just scratch the surface. An experienced Marine helicopter pilot seemed to have the skills necessary to fly close to the earth; but he forgot how quickly new towers are built, as we learn in this week's Probable Cause column.

This article originally appeared in Aviation Safety, January 2004.

Probable Cause

Currency, endorsements, certificates and "all available information" notwithstanding, the safety of flight depends on the pilot not exceeding his or her capabilities -- except for that small minority of accidents caused by calamitous mechanical failure. That's easy to say, but somewhat more difficult to live by.

What can happen, for example, when you have a highly experienced and qualified pilot flying a relatively simple airplane on a VFR cross-country flight? Well, most of the time you have a successful ending to the flight. But experienced and qualified pilots can make poor decisions, too, spurred on by the most elementary of desires.

The owner of a Nanchang CJ-6A ex-Chinese military trainer had flown his airplane from one suburban Atlanta airport to another for a condition inspection. The mechanic had the airplane for nearly three months, but did not sign off on the inspection.

The mechanic said the airplane was in good mechanical condition, but it had been modified for air racing and he did not have any data to support signing off on the modifications that had been made. The wings had been shortened by about 3.5 feet per side. The controls and avionics had been modified so the airplane was to be flown solo from the rear seat rather than the front seat.

The previous owner had gotten the airplane's condition (and modifications) signed off more than 18 months before the pilot brought it to the mechanic and nearly 24 months before the accident flight. That two-year-old inspection was the last recorded maintenance.


Finally in late January the owner arrived to take the airplane. Another pilot drove him across town to get the airplane, and the two were planning to reposition the airplane from the Atlanta area to New Mexico, where the owner had recently moved. The pilot said they "were on a schedule" and would depart despite the snow and low ceilings along part of the route of flight.

The pilot's companion left to take the car back to the airport where the airplane had been based, and the pilot was planning to pick him up there. With a few minutes to kill, the pilot conducted a short local flight, and then flew across town to get his friend.

On the other side of town, the pilot topped the fuel tanks, his friend boarded the airplane, and they departed VFR. The airplane was next heard from in Columbus, Miss., where it landed at Columbus-Lowndes Airport later that afternoon. The airplane took on 29 gallons of fuel, and the occupants called it a day.

The next morning the weather was clear and cold. The pilot and passenger departed VFR toward a planned refueling stop in Magnolia, Ark. When they got to Magnolia, the pilot commented to people there that the airplane's heater was not working and that it had been a very cold trip. Another 32 gallons of fuel, and the Nanchang was off for Texas at about 12:55 p.m.

The airplane landed at Mount Pleasant and took on fuel, even though they'd only been flying for a little over an hour. The weather had deteriorated to an overcast of about 500 to 600 feet AGL, although visibility below the overcast was good. The pilot of a King Air who talked with the Nanchang pilot said they were heading for Alamogordo, N.M., and that they didn't expect to have any problem with the weather once they got west of Dallas.

The Nanchang departed at about 3 p.m. The weather was looking better to the west. In Tyler, about 60 miles to the southwest, the weather was reported as a few clouds at 1,300 feet and overcast at about 3,300 feet. Witnesses at Mount Pleasant said the airplane leveled off at 300 to 500 feet AGL and proceeded on course to the southwest.

About 15 minutes later, four people on the ground saw the airplane suddenly "go up" a bit, then bank sharply and dive to the ground. Both occupants were killed in the crash.

The Hidden Danger

The airplane came to rest not far from a 419-foot tall tower that had recently been constructed. Paint transfer marks and debris showed the Nanchang's left wing struck a guy wire at about 273 feet AGL and about 20 feet from the tower itself. The airplane traveled on about another 1,500 feet before crashing near a high school.

The pilot had been navigating using a current Dallas-Fort Worth Sectional chart, but the tower did not appear on it.

The tower had been completed a few months earlier, topping out in September. It was lighted in accordance with the FAA recommendations contained in the Advisory Circular covering obstruction marking.

After the tower was completed, the company that owned it filed the proper paperwork with the FAA, and the tower entered the FAA database on October 2. However, the cutoff date for updates to the sectional chart the pilot was using was August 10, so the tower was listed only in the Aeronautical Chart Bulletin. The tower was added to the sectional chart published two months after the accident.

Following the accident, the FAA issued a NOTAM saying the tower's lights were out of service, although the company said the lights on the tower were operating at the time of the accident. The intent of the NOTAM was to give the company time to check the guy wires and lights for damage from the aircraft impact.

The NTSB cited the pilot's neglect to update the navigation chart as a contributing factor to the accident, and also blamed the pilot's intentional flight at low altitude.

Low Flight Expert

The pilot's ability to fly close to the ground, however, is certain. He had been a Marine helicopter pilot, flying Cobras, and remained in the Marine Reserves flying Cobras. He had more than 15 years experience flying military helicopters, which operate almost exclusively close to the ground. But the pilot also had credentials for flying high, including type ratings for Hawkers and Citations. He was employed by Executive Jet Aviation as a Citation captain and as a first officer on a Hawker the year earlier. The NTSB report does not specify if he was still employed by the company but news reports at the time indicate he was.

On his recent Class I medical application, the pilot reported 8,500 hours, with 500 hours in the previous six months. He had purchased the Nanchang about 18 months earlier.

Accompanying the pilot was another Marine reservist, a Lt. Colonel who was an aerial observer in the reserves. He held a third-class medical certificate and a student pilot certificate that had been issued 18 months earlier. On that medical application, he reported 1,925 hours of flight time, including 25 in the previous six months.

The fact that these two Marine reservists were comfortable in the down-low world of helicopters and other military operations may have played a decisive role. Confronted with snow, and a deadline, the pilot set off. Faced with low ceilings, the pilot apparently didn't worry too much about scud running to daylight.

In the competitive world of flying fractional jets, the pressure to complete trips is intense. In military flying, completing a trip can have even higher stakes than the pilot's life. Repositioning one's airplane to another state is a different matter, but a pilot trained to make the flight might not always make the right call when asked to operate outside the normal envelope.

It's easy to fly the way you're accustomed rather than analyzing any given flight and judging it on its own merits. As the hours pile up, it seems, that call gets ever more difficult to make. But as the Nanchang pilot learned, what worked before is no guarantee that it will work again.

More accident analyses are available in AVweb's Probable Cause Index. And for monthly articles about safety, including accident reports like this one, subscribe to AVweb's sister publication, Aviation Safety.