The not knowing is the hardest part. Reading tea leaves. Following a 1200-squawk aircraft until it drops off radar - we thought because that was the edge of the coverage are, but, no, that’s where he crashed. Etc.
I’m not talking about Dan (though it appears he, a CFII and FedEx line check pilot and a chairman of the FedEx Pilots Association’s Accident Investigation Committee, with thousands of hours in F-15s and flying an F-5 as an aggressor out of Nellis AFB, etc., etc., was scud running).
And I’m not talking about Kevin, who I don’t know at all (unless you count watching YouTube videos - and of course I don’t count that at all).
And really I’m not talking about the pilots flying the fatal accidents I’m looking at below. I don’t know them, I only know what’s in the NTSB reports, etc.
But these things all sort of having me asking myself: Why do smart pilots do stupid things? (I count myself in that group, though I think I’m less dumb now.)
Cases in point ...
- N7ZL. Pilot was experienced and highly credentialed: Air transport pilot certificate, airplane multiengine land and helicopters; commercial pilot certificate, single-engine land; instrument rating and a flight instructor certificate for airplane single- and multi-engine land, helicopter, and instrument; airframe and powerplant mechanic. Age 47, he had 2,349 hours. It appears he responded to a “low fuel” alert on his EFIS, clearing the announcement, and then proceeded to take off, presumably destined for Whiteman and cheaper fuel. Accident probable cause:
- The pilot’s improper decision to take off despite low fuel alerts, which resulted in a total loss of engine power due to fuel exhaustion, his subsequent failure to maintain adequate airspeed and his exceedance of the airplane's critical angle of attack, which led to an aerodynamic stall and loss of control at too low of an altitude to recover. Contributing to the accident was the pilot’s distraction due to his sending e-mails and being rushed during taxi and takeoff, which resulted in reduced vigilance about the airplane's fuel status.
- N6201N. Pilot was a 56 year old private pilot, airplane single- and multi-engine land, with an instrument rating. He was also an A&P. He had about 2,500 hours, and flew the route (KTSP to KTOA) several times a week. But he departed in low weather (TSP does not have any instrument approaches, so no diversity departure, and there are no published departure procedures). With an “unapproved” ELT with almost two-year past due batteries. He wasn’t talking to anyone and was not IFR. Accident probable cause:
- The pilot's controlled flight into mountainous terrain while attempting to operate under visual flight rules in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC).
- N3484X. This one’s not as much of a head scratcher; relatively young (33 years old) low time pilot (459 hours), who appears to have been simply in over his head: “A weather research and forecasting model indicated that, at the time of the accident, the accident site was located within a turbulent mountain-wave environment, with low-level windshear, updrafts and downdrafts, downslope winds, and an environment conducive for rotors (that is, a violent rolling wave of air occurring in lee of a mountain or hill in which air rotates about a horizontal axis). The pilot had no prior experience flying out of the accident airport and it was the highest elevation airport he had ever used. In addition, he had limited experience flying in mountainous areas.”
As my own flying has progressed into more challenging situations (Big Bear, Owen’s Valley into Mammoth, cross-country flying in December, etc), I’ve become hyper-conscious of the health of my engine (troubleshooting “still fine, but, could be better” issues with Savvy and my A&P; oil analysis; etc) and getting additional training wherever it seems like it will be beneficial (mountain flying...). As we approach the anniversary of my last declared emergency, with Dan’s death still fresh in my mind (his funeral was on Friday) ... I’m still flying. But I’m trying to be (and largely believe, earnestly, that I’m succeeding) to be incredibly mindful.
‡ I won’t claim to be a close friend, but we’d flown together in his Nanchang, and would stop and catch up whenever we bumped into one another at Zamperini or out and about. I was helping his family with a legal issue, and Dan had made it a point to inform me I had an open invitation to fly up to his new place in Wyoming to go skiing - an offer I’m sure he made to many. He was one of the friendliest pilots I’ve ever met, and I miss him already.