Most people are surprised to know that I watch every TV show about airplane crashes that I can. Why? Because it’s a learning experience for me. Not only do I like knowing about the accident, but I like learning what the pilot could have done differently to avoid it. Most of these shows deal with high-profile airliner crashes, such as American Airlines flight 191, which crashed on takeoff from Chicago O’Hare (ORD) in 1979, or the fatal crash of the Concorde only a few years ago.
So why surround myself with the details of what can happen? Simple. So I know what I can do to avoid it. Some accidents cannot be prevented by the pilot, for example, the Concorde crashed because of a fragment of debris on the runway which caused a breach in the left main fuel tank. The pilot had nothing to do with the accident, and could not have prevented it. So what do I learn from this? The importance of runway safety checks and, in my case, the importance of checking the runway on the takeoff roll for any debris. If I were to notice that I had struck something on takeoff, and I could still abort the takeoff, I would.
The Most Common General Aviation Accident Cause
Not from any TV show, but from the NTSB’s Accident Database, we can learn the most common accident cause in general aviation is continued VFR (visual flight rules) flight into deteriorating weather conditions. Simply put, the pilot is not instrument-rated, and flies into a low-visibility situation without realizing it, and looses his or her ability to maintain the attitude of the aircraft due to spatial disorientation. No pilot would knowingly do this. No safe VFR pilot would fly into a layer of overcast, but when the weather gradually deteriorates, it can be a different story. The pilot doesn’t realize his situation, and gets too far into the clouds, fog, or haze, and cannot figure out how to get back out.
This knowledge hit home for me just two days ago. I made a flight with two passengers from my home base at Marion (MWA) to Sikeston, MO (SIK) for lunch. We arrived in Sikeston at about 1pm in clear skies and calm winds. I did my homework for the flight. Although we were only 55 miles from home, I had enough weather information with me to make a five hour flight. We returned to the airport at 3pm, to overcast skies. None of my preflight weather had indicated any possible problems with clouds. The closest TAF (Terminal Area Forecast) was for Cape Girardeau, MO (CGI) indicated the possibility of clouds at 20,000 and 6,000 feet. I made a quick call to the automated weather station back home, which reported good visibility and clear skies. There was no problem with visibility in Sikeston, just the clouds. There was no precipitation in the area, and winds were calm.
With the aircraft preflighted and the engine running, I tuned into the weather station at Sikeston, which reported a ceiling, broken, at 2,700 feet and visibility of 10 miles or better. This is still very legal VFR weather, the minimums are a ceiling of 1,000 feet and visibility of 3 miles, but it made me slightly nervous. I had never flown under a ceiling as low as this. The Garmin 496 on the yoke in front of me showed no radar returns, and no high obstructions in the area. I made the decision to go, and to level off at 2,000 feet for the flight home.
Once airborne, a quick glance in the direction of home revealed improving weather, and no visibility issues. I am completely familiar with the Sikeston area, and wasn’t worried about finding an alternate airport in case of a problem. My passengers wanted to divert to Cairo, IL to overfly the join of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, and with the clouds high enough, and the visibility not a problem, I happily complied. We didn’t waste any time over the river, and flew a direct course home — with a very welcome tailwind pushing the Warrior to 115 knots.
Overall, this flight was not dangerous, nor would I hesitate to do it again. However, I was very aware of my surroundings for the entire flight home. I kept an extra-sensitive traffic scan, as I knew other pilots could have been diverted from their intended cruising altitudes, possibly making the airspace crowded (although I didn’t see any traffic). In the end, I am now more confident flying under an overcast if needed, but I also have a respect for the weather not always being what is forecast. I do not believe that I could have been more prepared for the flight, nor do I fault the TAF for an incorrect cloud forecast, but in the end, I am the pilot, and I have the ultimate authority to make the call, and had the weather concerned me, that plane may well still be sitting in Sikeston.
One of the most amazing commercial aviation accidents resulted in no deaths, British Airways flight 009, a Boeing 747, flying in the pacific, had a quadruple engine failure. The engine failure was caused by a volcanic dust cloud. The crew had never been trained for this, and knew nothing of what was causing the problems, but managed to work through the situation, gliding the 747 until it descended out of the ash cloud and then were able to restart all four engines. An emergency landing was made, with a badly-obscured windshield, and everyone on-board was saved.
Airline pilots are now trained on what to do in this situation. While I don’t ever expect to find myself in a volcanic ash cloud in Southern Illinois, this incident does highlight the need to stick to procedures even when the symptoms are different than what you have trained for. The British Airways crew’s actions saved the lives of everyone on-board because they stuck to the engine restart procedures and managed to restart them as soon as they exited the ash cloud.
Air crashes should not be ignored by pilots, they should be studied. The NTSB’s online accident database allows you to read the official reports, conclusions, and recommendations for every incident and accident in the US. Don’t be scared of reading about what can happen, it will prepare you in the event that it does.
And always remember, your first job as pilot is to fly the plane.