Pilot Safety News
A Safety Journal for General Aviation
February, 2006 

 
by Max Trescott, Master CFI & FAA Aviation Safety Counselor
www.sjflight.com  (650)-224-7124

Index to Pilot Safety News
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Welcome!
One of the burdens we have to bear in aviation is occasionally flying new, sexy aircraft. This month we spotlight a test flight in the Columbia 400, the fastest piston aircraft in production. We loved it and think you will too. 

Great weather we're having! It seems like every other day during the last month brought rain and low clouds in the area. One client asked me what I do with student pilots on days like that and the answer is most of the time, we fly! I'd much prefer a student pilot to experience reduced visibilities and rain the first time with an instructor in the cockpit, rather than sort it out on their own after they get their license.  

For example, in late January, Hayward airport was reporting 10 miles visibility and broken clouds at 2400 feet, so we decided to shoot across the bay for some landing practice there. Halfway there, we entered light showers and forward visibility decreased significantly. I love it when the client says "Do you think we should turn around?" without me prompting them. It shows that the wheels in their mind are turning and that they're constantly evaluating their surroundings. That's what experienced pilots do all the time. The challenge for flight instructors is to help clients develop these skills early in their flying career so that they don't have to rely upon luck to keep them safe until they develop these skills. One recent accident in Gilroy, CA we'll discuss highlights how a low-time pilot got in over his head fast. 

One of the most bizarre plane crash stories--which has gone almost totally unreported in the press--was the total non-response by the Visalia, CA fire department after a crash was reported to them last month. You'll find more details below on why if you're going to crash, you may want to do it elsewhere.

What do these last few items have in common? Judgment and risk management. Good judgment for a pilot who turned around when he encountered reduced visibility. Bad judgment when a newly minted pilot took off on a cloudy night and crashed. And incredibly bad judgment when a fireman failed to respond to a plane crash. Even the best pilots occasionally have lapses in judgment. Read everything you can on this subject and develop your own personal minimums--it's your best safeguard when flying.

I'm starting to get busy giving seminars again. Here are a few upcoming ones:
Feb 8, 2006     Night Flying Safety     7PM  West Valley Flying Club at Palo Alto airport
Feb 22, 2006   Flying G1000 Glass Cockpit aircraft    7PM California Airways, Hayward airport
Feb 26, 2006   3 hour G1000 Ground School     Fee. Call Ahart Aviation 925-449-2142 to Register.

Feel free to forward this newsletter to your flying friends and encourage them to subscribe.   If you're on the distribution list, you'll receive an email each month highlighting the information contained in the online version of the newsletter. Submissions and feedback are always welcome!   

Have fun and fly safely!
best regards,
Max Trescott, Master CFI
650-224-7124


Pilot Nearly Buys the Farm By Crashing into Barn
The pitfalls of night off-airport landings
At Pilot Safety News, we try to avoid the sensational and just stick to the stories that have educational value for pilots. And while this story may have educational value someday, it just occurred last week and there's too little data available on it yet. So we'll go with the sensational since the photos are rather remarkable. [Details now available at end of article]

Here are the details as reported by news sources. On Saturday, January 28, a Piper Warrior that witnesses said was wobbling, and shaking crashed into a barn near Lancaster, PA, injuring the four people on board. The crash occurred at 5:50PM, which would have been a couple of minutes after local civil twilight time. A Berks County couple, their son and a foreign exchange student, were returning from a day trip to Cape May, N.J in the rented aircraft.

After the plane crashed nose-first through the roof of the barn, rescuers searched the area, not knowing where the small craft had come to rest. One of the first people to find the crash victims heard and felt the crash while he stood in his kitchen. Opening his sliding glass door and looking out, he saw nothing. There was no explosion, just the sound of splintering timber and crushing metal. He and another man grabbed flashlights, jumped over fences in the fields between his house and the barn, and headed toward the site. They reached the barn at about the same time as police officers, all still not sure where the plane came down. 

Walking around to the back of the barn, they found a woman lying on the ground and three males walking near one of the barn’s sliding doors, behind which the plane rested on its nose, with its right wing folded and its left wing reaching up to the roof. The tail of the plane was visible through the top of the roof.

The barn, which was built about 100 years ago, contained no livestock, though had some hay inside. HazMat personnel removed fuel from the plane and applied foam to reduce the chance of fire. “Aircraft fuel and barns do not mix,’’ said Lafayette Fire Co. Chief Ron Nolt.

Another aircraft was following the crashed aircraft as it tried to make it to nearby Smoketown Airport. That aircraft's pilot said that the pilot victim was "calm and collected" on the radio and "flying perfectly in control" when he suffered engine failure.
Bob Stoll, an investigator for the Federal Aviation Administration said "It's hard to believe (the pilot and passengers) survived. It's really unbelievable."

Note the tail of the aircraft protruding from the roof in the photo below.


Lancaster crash photos by: Glenn Usdin, Webmaster,Lancasterfire.com
Chief, Lancaster Township FD
Command School Inc. President

Night off-airport landings
Finding a safe place to land a plane at night is problematic, which is one reason that twice as many accidents that occur at night are fatal, as compared to daytime accidents. Although there was a road nearby, roads are notoriously poor places to land airplanes, since they often have telephone poles along the sides of the road. 

One common piece of advice for night off-airport landings is to aim for dark areas, since these may be fields. The problem with this is that not all dark areas are fields and many contain obstacles. Given that it was just after civil twilight, the pilot may have been aiming for a dark area but couldn't see the barn until it was too late. 

What's the solution? Certainly, you want to plan a route and maintain an altitude that always keeps you within gliding distance of an airport if possible. Or, as one my clients recently told me, he's found that by judicious scheduling of his trips he no longer has to fly at night and that this hasn't inconvenienced him. He used to fly at night, but after being made aware of the higher night accident rate at one of my seminars decided to avoid night flying when possible. That may not be the right solution for everyone, but daytime flight certainly doubles your odds of survival if the engine quits and you can actually see what you're landing on.

Postscript 
According to the NTSB report that became available after this was written, the pilot reported that he departed an airport in Pennsylvania on the left tank and flew to Cape May, NJ. He returned later in the day and, while at 4,500 feet, the engine failed. He then switched to the right tank but was unable to re-start the engine. From this preliminary report it appears that he ran one tank dry and never switched tanks


Write Your 2006 Personal Training Plan
Now that the initial New Year resolutions have been broken, consider setting some realistic goals for your flying for 2006. First consider thinking through and writing down some personal minimums that you'll use in your future flying. Just how much visibility do you need in the day or at night? You can download a FAA Personal Minimums Checklist from my website. Print it out and fill it in. Make sure that on each flight you consider the unique risks applicable to that particular flight.

Then think about a personal flight training plan for 2006. If you have a Flight Review due this year, use it as an opportunity to do a phase of the Wings program. Attend one of the seminars listed at www.faasafety.gov and fly three hours with an instructor. Perhaps use the time to check out in a new airplane that you've been interested in learning to fly. Consider getting a new rating, such as an instrument rating or Commercial certificate. Or, check out in one of the glass cockpit aircraft available, such as Cirrus or G1000-equipped Cessnas and Diamonds available for rent at many FBOs. 

Or, consider mentoring someone who's thinking about getting their license or perhaps just got their license. You probably have a lot of valuable information to share and most new pilots are unique creatures. Not only do they still have a lot to learn to stay safe, most are still receptive to learning! So write down a plan and get started on it today! If we can help you make progress on your plan in any way, please email us.


 

 


Flying the Columbia 400
We give the fastest piston airplane 2 thumbs up!

This month, Pilot Safety News tested the Columbia 400, the fastest certificated piston aircraft. These airplanes are gradually becoming available for rent at FBO's around the country. If you're interested in flying or buying one, just email us and well get you in touch with the right people. 

If the name Columbia is not totally familiar to you, then think "Lancair." That name is well know as the supplier of very fast kit-built airplanes. In fact the name was so strongly associated with kit aircraft that when the company started selling certificated aircraft, they noticed that pilots often visited the booth at trade shows and said that they'd consider buying the plane on display, but didn't want to have to "build it." So to help make it clearer that these are factory-built aircraft, Lacair changed it's name to Columbia Aircraft. 

They currently have two major platforms. The Columbia 350 is similar to a Cirrus SR22 and has a normally aspirated 310 horsepower engine. The Columbia 400 we flew is a turbocharged version that will take you up to FL250. For the last year, these aircraft have come equipped with the Avidyne glass cockpit, though they use the vertically oriented displays rather than the more familiar horizontally oriented displays used in Cirrus aircraft. 

Late last year, Columbia announced the 350i and 400i versions of these airplanes. The difference? Instead of the Avidyne Entegra, these planes now ship with a G1000 glass cockpit. So now you have your choice of glass cockpit and it will be interesting to see over time which one the market prefers.

First things first.  Before jumping into a Columbia, you really want to take a moment to just stand back and look at the airplane.  As you can see, just sitting on the ramp, it already looks fast.  You can see the influence of the many years of Lancair kit aircraft on the composite structure design. As you take a closer look, you'll notice that the fit and finish of the aircraft is exceptional.

Large gull-wing doors make getting into the airplane easy. Like the Cirrus, you don't want to step onto or kneel on the seats, since you could crush the honeycomb designed into the seats to help absorb the impact of a crash. The leather interior is immaculate and the door locking mechanism is solid, and doesn't seem to have any of the problems associated with the gull wing doors on early Cirrus aircraft.

All glass cockpit aircraft come with standby instruments in case the all electric glass cockpits bite the dust, and it's always interesting to see where the manufacturer chooses to place these instruments. On the Columbia, the three round gauges are located in the middle of the instrument panel, between the two displays, where they are easy to scan by either pilot. This is an ideal location, since you barely need to move your eyes to see them. If you lose the primary instruments while you're in the clouds you don't want to be looking way down or in the far right corner to see the tiny gauges that are there to save your bacon. Sudden head movements to look at distant instruments can induce spatial orientation and Columbia gets big points in our book for the placement of these instrument. Also, the standby attitude indicator has an inclinometer mounted on it, which makes it easy to use its traditional ball if you prefer it to the PFD's slip/skid indicator.

Flying the Plane
As good as the plane is to look at, it's a lot more fun to fly!  The plane started easily and we were soon taxiing toward the run-up area. The plane has a castering nose wheel, which means that the only way you can turn the plane is via differential braking. This is the same system used on the Cirrus and Tiger aircraft. If you've never taxied one of these planes don't worry--you'll get used to it almost immediately. With the large 310 hp engine, the Columbia has a strong left turning tendency, even when taxiing on the ground. To minimize brake wear, a good practice is to keep your feet off the brakes until the aircraft starts to turn to the left (which it will!). Then apply sufficient right brake to return it to taxiing straight and take your feet off the brakes again. The same technique works well in a Cirrus SR22. 

Control in the air is through a side mounted stick. If you've only ever used a yoke to control an airplane, you'll be surprised at how quick and natural the transition to using a side stick occurs. On takeoff, the Columbia 400 climbs like a homesick angel. In most airplanes you feel like you either climbing or you're making forward progress, but not both simultaneously. Not so in the Columbia. Check out the PFD carefully. 

At the left of the screen, you'll see our indicated airspeed of 131 knots. At the right, you can see that as we're passing through 6,620 feet, we're climbing at about 1300 feet per minute. Not bad you say? It's gets even better. Look at the box under the airspeed indicator and you'll note that our true airspeed is 147 knots--while we're climbing at 1300 feet per minute! As you can see, this is one plane where you can make real forward progress as you climb. One of my favorite features is the wind vector. Look above and to the right of the HSI, and you can see that we had a headwind from ahead and to the right. Here, it shows are winds aloft were from 185° at 23 knots. Having this real time information makes it easy to find the best altitude for optimal winds or to watch how the winds change as you descend on an ILS approach.

 

At 11,500 feet we leveled off and the airplane trued out at 206 knots true airspeed! Now that's the way to get somewhere. Had we climbed higher into the flight levels, we could have attained the maximum 235 knots. We reduced the manifold pressure to 32 inches, and leaned the engine to 50° lean of peak, which results in significant fuel flow reductions and lowers cylinder head temperatures. At these power settings, we were still moving along at 193 knots TAS.

Trim control in the Columbia is a dream. A large indicator near the center of the instrument console uses lights to show the present trim position of the elevator and aileron trim. Trim is accomplished using an electric trim switch (there is no manual trim wheel in the Columbia). Best of all, the trim motors run at a rate which gives you very precise control, so it's very easy to trim the aircraft exactly where you want it. By contrast, the Cirrus, which is also a very excellent aircraft, has a very rapid trim motor movement which makes it difficult to make tiny trim adjustments. 

What Goes Up, Must Come Down
Anyone who's flown any of the fast, slippery airplanes (Mooneys, Cirrus, etc) knows that there's a real challenge in getting these airplanes down. The problem is that these airplanes like to fly and they don't necessarily want to come down in a hurry when its time to land. In training aircraft, that's not a problem. To get down, we simply pull off the power and gravity and the draggy airframes bring the plane down for us. 

In slicker airplanes, you could simply pull off the power, but you risk shock-cooling and damaging your engine if you do. So if you reduce the power gradually (1" per minute or 2" per 2 minutes are typical recommendations) to baby your engine, you're not going to be able to descend rapidly without building up excessive airspeed. All of this requires that you start power reductions and begin a descent early. So for example, if you're descending at 210 knots and need to drop 10,000 feet at 500 feet per minute, you need to start your descent 70 miles from your destination!

 

Columbia's elegant answer to this problem is speed brakes. As you can see in the picture, these can be activated on the wings to greatly increase your descent rate and they can be left up all the way until landing. On our test flight, we popped the speed brakes while running 27 inches of manifold pressure, which is still a relatively high power setting. At 200 knots TAS, we were able to descend at 2,000 fpm! Problem solved. The speed brakes allow you to gradually reduce your power settings to baby your engine while allowing you to descend at significant rates. 

Bells & Whistles--This airplane has them all
By now, you've figured out that the Columbia 400 is a great flying machine. But what about all of the value-add features that we all look for in modern aircraft. The short answer: It's hard to think of a feature that's not available in the Columbia. Well there is one--if you want an airplane with a parachute, you're going to have to wear one, since Columbia does not incorporate the CAPS parachute available on Cirrus and a few other planes. On the other hand, a parachute is not a cure-all for all problems. One website cites 31 fatal Cirrus accidents and 5 successful parachute deployments. Whether these numbers are accurate, we don't know. Suffice it to say however that there have been many accidents where having a parachute didn't help. 

One of the most innovative options is Columbia's new E-Vade anti-icing system. This novel system employs a heat-conducting tape along the leading edges of the wing, horizontal stabilizer, and propeller. A dedicated 100 amp, 70 volt alternator (that's 7 kilowatts folks, which is enough power to run your house!) supplies power to the system, and is totally independent of the two batteries and alternators for the rest of the plane. At 35°, the system becomes armed. At 33°, it heat each of the surfaces alternately for 90 seconds each. At 28°, it goes into a run wet mode, where it continuously heats the leading edges of the wings, and alternately heats the other surfaces every 90 seconds. The system is not certified for known icing, since there is only one alternator for the system and no heated windshield.  However, the key advantage is that it can be used continuously throughout the entire flight. Since it is not a glycol based system, you'll never run out of fluid! New planes shipping now should be able to be retrofitted when E-Vade starts shipping in August, 2006.

The airplane is also strong. Most high performance aircraft are certified in the normal category, which requires that they withstand up to 3.8G loads. The Columbia is certified in the utility category, so it can withstand up to 4.4G loads and it's been spin tested. The key benefit is that this airframe is less likely to experience a structural failure.

The Columbia also comes with inflatable door seals along the gull wing doors and baggage door. When inflated, these reduce cockpit noise. The plane also has long legs--with it's standard 98 gallon tanks, it has a range of 1300 nm. The only plane I recall with longer legs was my T210 with tip tanks, which would fly 1400 nm when flown lean of peak (though it was 50 knots slower than this plane!). The baggage compartment is large and can be easily expanded by removing the backs of the rear seats, leaving room for 3 full-size golf bags. 

Built-in oxygen is available as an option, which is a must for planes that can go up into the flight levels. The plane is equipped with two batteries, which can be tied together so that you can start off of both batteries, which is a real advantage for cold weather starts. There is no up/down adjustment on the front seats, but Columbia does have different height seat inserts available so that you can tune the height of your seat for the length of your upper body. Also, Columbia was the first piston aircraft to come with a carbon monoxide monitor (Cessna has just begun shipping CO monitors standard in their 2006 aircraft).

Avidyne Entegra glass cockpit
You now have a choice of glass cockpits in the Columbia, and the features do vary somewhat between the cockpits. Columbia now offers E-Plates, which allows display of Jeppesen approach plates, departures, arrivals and airport diagrams. In flight, approach plates may be viewed full-screen in identical format to the paper plates. When actually flying the approach, the aircraft appears directly on the overview depiction until landing at which time the view switches to the airport diagram. You'll find taxiing at a strange airport easy as you monitor a symbol, representing your aircraft, moving along the taxiways depicted on the airport diagram on the display! 

Data link weather is available with a subscription to XM WX Satellite Weather. Additional software is also provided for the MFD which enables display of NEXRAD on the Map page as well as METAR’s on both the Trip and Nrst pages. At this time, the Avidyne cockpit does not support XM Satellite radio, so you'll need to bring your iPod along.

You can also order the E-Cast option, which provides two-way messaging via ORBCOMM's satellites. This option is great for flight schools, allowing them to stay in touch with and monitor the position of all of their aircraft. Weather information can also be obtained though E-Cast on a pay-as-you-go basis, rather than a monthly subscription. 

Garmin G1000 glass cockpit
The G1000 cockpit also includes XM Satellite Weather on a dedicated weather page. NEXRAD radar and lightning can also be displayed on the Navigation Map page. METARS and TAFs are available whenever you're looking at an Airport Information page, from which you can also load frequencies directly into the G1000's COM and NAV radios. In addition, XM Satellite radio, with hundreds of radio channels, is available for your listening pleasure. The G1000 can be configured to mute the music whenever you receive a call from ATC. 

TAWS, the Terrain Awareness Warning System is available standard with the Columbia 350i and 400i and is expected to become available in Avidyne cockpits later in 2006. It shouldn't be confused with the less capable terrain proximity capabilities available in all G1000 aircraft and many Avidyne cockpits. Terrain proximity requires that you look at a display to assure that you spot and avoid higher terrain. In contrast, TAWS automatically monitors the terrain and give a loud aural warning--such as "PULL UP"--if you get too close to terrain. There's no need to turn anything on or to monitor a particular page for TAWS to work. It's always working quietly in the background, ready to announce a potential problem--which is the way any good system should work.

Traffic Advisory Systems (TAS) are available in both cockpits. These use an active system which transmits a signal that triggers the transponders of nearby aircraft and plots their location on a display. TAS is far superior to TIS, which relies on being within the coverage area of certain specially equipped radar sites. TIS is slowly being decommissioned over then next 3-4 years.

Summary 
What more can we say? It's an incredibly capable aircraft with a well thought out list of features that simplify flying and enhance your overall safety. If you're considering buying a fast airplane, this one should be on your short list of planes to investigate. If you're seriously considering buying one email us and well get you in touch with the right people. 


Stupid Pilot Tricks
Pilot to perform community service
In a follow-up to a story we reported in our June, 2005 issue, a 48 year old Corning, CA pilot who buzzed so close to Santa Cruz area beaches that "sunbathers grabbed their children and dove to the sand" (according to the Santa Cruz Sentinel) was sentenced last month to 240 hours of community service and one year of probation. He had faced a maximum of six months in jail or a $1000 fine. 

He also no longer has the burden of trying to stay current, as the FAA permanently revoked his license last July--though he's allowed to reapply for a license after a year. Originally we reported that the plane was registered to a man in Pomona in southern California, but a prescient FAA official had cautioned not to assume that the plane owner was the errant pilot. Apparently he wasn't. Newspaper reports indicated that the convicted pilot had purchased the plane in January, but had not registered it when the incident occurred four months later in May. 

How low was this guy? According to a pilot witness, the wheels of the Cessna nearly touched the waves as he made several passes between people on the sand and swimmers in the water. Had he gotten much lower, he might have been listed in the NTSB files as yet another "maneuvering" accident, their category for pilots who have an accident while flying too low to the ground. He might have also become a candidate for the Darwin award. Either way, the incident serves to remind us that there are still a few pilots out there who just don't think about the consequences of their actions. Case Closed (we hope).


Cell Phone Weather Service
Five years ago, John Chambers, CEO of Cisco was giving presentations saying that someday long distance will be free. While it hasn't happened yet, the rapid growth of internet phone services is indeed bringing down the cost of long distance.

Weather in your mobile phoneSo it's with total seriousness that we offer a similar prediction--in cockpit aviation weather will someday be free (if you don't count future user fees which the FAA continues to propose for general aviation). Traffic Information System (TIS) is going away to eventually be replaced by Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B), which was piloted in the FAA's Capstone project in Alaska and is now available in many locations along the East Coast. And apparently some weather information is already available for free on ADS-B.

The most prevalent solutions today for in-cockpit weather is a XM Satellite Weather subscription for Avidyne and G1000 Glass Cockpit and Garmin 396 handheld GPS users. The basic service is $29.95 per month and a full service is $49.95 per month. 

Another alternative is weather over a cell phone, such as that available through WXServer, which can be found at www.avwx.net  I haven't tried it yet--since my cellphone isn't one of the fancier ones that can handle the graphics, however I am intrigued by the service--and the price!

All of the most important, basic weather features are available. NEXRAD radar shows you where precipitation is located (or at least where it was located 8-10 minutes earlier as the data was being collected), satellite imagery, METARS and TAFs. And the price is right. A full year subscription is about $60! There's also an offer for CFI's to get free service for a year (which may be enough to induce me to upgrade my cellphone). As for the legality of using your cell phone in the cockpit, I candidly don't know the current status, so I'll leave it up to you and your lawyer to decide. Suffice it to say that this looks like a great solution for getting weather occasionally on the ground, and it might work well in a pinch from the air. We'd be interested in hearing from anyone who has used this system. Email us with your experience and we'll put it in a future newsletter.  


Visalia, CA Plane Crash kills 4 People
But the Real Story is that the Fire Department didn't Respond When Called!
We don't mean to trivialize any crash, especially one in which everyone is killed. But what is truly extraordinary about this story is that the Visalia Fire Department apparently did not respond--at all--when notified of the crash. Here's what we know.

On January 13, 2006, a Twin Comanche crashed just 400 feet short of runway 30 while landing at the Visalia, CA airport. Tragically, all four people on board, a Visalia couple and their two grandchildren, all died. The crash occurred after 6:30PM, which was after dark. 

A witness either heard or saw the crash and immediately went to the Visalia Fire Department Station 3--less than a mile from the crash--where he reported it in person to the fireman on duty. Apparently the fireman took no action, which is the subject of an investigation by the city.


Visalia Fire Station #3 (from City of Visalia website)

The crash victims' family became worried and reported to the airport manager at about 9:45 PM that the plane was overdue. The manager began a ground search and located the aircraft at 10:15PM, nearly four hours after it crashed. 

The Visalia Times-Delta, reported that the results of the city's investigation may never be known. Deputy city manager Leslie Caviglia was quoted as saying  "It's all confidential. It's a personnel matter, so that [sic] is highly unlikely that [information] will be released." 

Quoting further from the February 7 article:
"City human resources manager Janice Avila echoed Caviglia and said that action taken from the findings will not be released, or any other action taken by the city after the report is released.

"We will not disclose any of our actions to the public," Avila said. "We are treating this like any other personnel investigation."

Avila said once the city makes a recommendation for action, a statement will be released to the public.

"We will disclose an 'appropriate action has been taken' statement," Avila said.

Avila said the city doesn't have to say what it means by the statement.

"In a personnel investigation or action, we will protect the rights of the employee first," Avila said. "My responsibility is that the city follows employment-related laws. We will do that very carefully and balance the public's need for information."

Opinion
Perhaps an ultra-conservative approach to interpreting applicable law dictates that information about this incident not be released to the public. Or perhaps it's a convenient way to avoid having to reveal embarrassing information about how a city service failed to meet it's most basic obligations. Regardless, we feel that the citizens of Visalia deserve to know more about this incident. As pilots, we want to know that if we get into trouble, public service agencies are there to help. City residents undoubtedly want to be assured of the same thing. 

In this case, it appears that there's been at least one breach of the public trust when the fire department failed to respond to a plane crash. But we don't know that for sure--and never will if more information from the city investigation isn't shared with the public. Bill Clinton was right on target when he said. "Don't you newspeople ever learn? It isn't the mistake that kills you. It's the cover-up." The city government of Visalia should come clean and reveal all findings on this mistake that occurred. If they ultimately choose to withhold information about their findings, there'll be no way to determine whether they're making an even greater breach of public trust.  


Gilroy Crash - Cessna 172
Night, Clouds and Inexperience--A Deadly Mix
Frequent readers of this newsletter know that Night or Weather or both account for 2/3rds of the fatal accidents in the S.F. Bay area. Unfortunately, one brand new, Central Valley pilot was probably unaware of this. In a well publicized crash that occurred just before Christmas, a Clovis, CA pilot, his wife and two children died in a plane crash within two miles from the South County airport from which they had departed. Tragically, this pilot had only had his license for three weeks. Tragic, because any experienced pilot could have told him in less than ten minutes what he needed to know to avert this accident.

According to the NTSB report: 
On December 21, 2005, at 2055 Pacific standard time, a Cessna 172 impacted terrain following a loss of control near Gilroy, California. The non-instrument rated private pilot and three passengers were fatally injured. The airplane was destroyed. Night instrument meteorological conditions prevailed and a flight plan was not filed for the cross-country flight, which departed San Martin, California, around 2035. The flight was destined for Fresno, California.

The report says that instrument meteorological conditions prevailed, but that inadequately describes the conditions. Shortly after the accident, I reviewed METARS for San Jose and Salinas airports, and while I no longer have the data, I recall that conditions were scattered clouds at a few thousand feet. Looking at that data alone, an inexperienced pilot might conclude that it would be safe to conduct the flight. The NTSB report quotes Watsonville airport's ASOS as having 5 mile visibility and mist with clouds at 200 feet overcast. Not only was this IFR, but it was low IFR. However, that report might not be particularly relevant if it reflected a stratus layer along the coast.

The report indicates that the pilot bought fuel just before 8PM, which was well after dark. It continues:
After departing San Martin, the pilot attempted to contact the San Jose control tower to request flight following. San Jose was unable to make radar contact with the airplane and suggested NorCal TRACON. The pilot contacted NorCal TRACON, and they in turn radar identified the airplane. As the airplane proceeded east from the departure airport, the pilot reported that he was having trouble maintaining outside visual contact and controlling the airplane and wanted help getting back to the airport. The TRACON controllers attempted to assist the pilot back to the departure airport; however, the radar data depicted the airplane entering a series of turns before they lost radar contact at an altitude of 2,500 feet mean sea level (msl).

Clearly this pilot realized he was in trouble and asked for help, but it was too late. While 3 hours of night flight training and 3 hours of hood time are sufficient to pass the private certificate, they are totally inadequate for dealing with dark night flight and clouds. Either alone can kill an inexperienced pilot. Both are even worse. That's why I tell all of my clients to never let themselves enter a cloud unless they are instrument rated and on an IFR flight plan.

Had I had ten minutes with the pilot, I would have first cautioned him about his route. It appears that he flew a direct route from South County to Fresno, which almost immediately took him into mountainous terrain. The crash site was along the foothills just east of the airport. In the best of circumstances, this area is totally black at night. So on a cloudless, moonless night, the pilot might have trouble keeping the wings level since there would be no visual references after he crossed into the mountains. He wouldn't have seen a horizon, and he would have needed to keep the plane level solely by reference to the instruments. While private pilots are legally allowed to do this, they are largely unqualified to do so, and worse, may not be aware of that.

My suggestion would have been to follow a road. Whether it was 152 or Highway 101, he would continually have had outside references (car lights on the roads), he would have been able to safely fly at a lower altitude and if things really got bad in a worst case scenario, he could land on the road. Flying directly over the mountains at night is nuts, particularly when you have the option to follow a road or wait until morning. And you always have the option to wait until morning!

Compounding the difficulties was a weather report that was ambiguous. To an inexperience pilot, scattered clouds might suggest that maybe the flight could be easily completed VFR. An experienced local pilot would know that clouds generally pile up against the mountains. All it takes is a little wind and some moist air. As the air blows into the mountain, it rises. As it cools, the air reaches saturation, condenses and a cloud is formed. So while the airports in valleys are reporting scattered clouds, the hillsides may be totally obscured in clouds! Undoubtedly no one took this pilot aside to let him know that he needed to do something more than look at a METAR for valley airports 20 miles away. 

Can Pilot Training Be Improved?
The pilot's CFI appeared in a local television news story. He appeared devastated and spoke of how the crash victim was an excellent pilot. He probably was. I bet he could do steep turns without losing or gaining 100 feet, and could do slow flight to the same standard. His stalls and landings were probably excellent. No surprise there. That's the primary focus of the pilot training curriculum, and pilots know how to do these things well.

More than 80% of accidents are attributed to pilot error, and most of these are a result of faulty judgment. Yet judgment and decision making are generally not a significant part of most pilot training syllabi. They should be.

If you're an experienced pilot or CFI, take a less experienced pilot under your wing and share your experiences with them. If you're a local pilot hanging out at the airport and you see another pilot contemplating doing something questionable, engage them in a conversation. Find out if they're aware of the risks. Suggest alternatives and offer to help in any way you can.

If you're in a new locale, ask the local pilots for advice. Even experienced pilots can benefit from the knowledge a local pilot has about their area. Do everything you can to identify all risks and then take steps to eliminate or mitigate the risks. Then go fly your plan, confident in the knowledge that you've done everything you possibly could to make it a safe and fun trip.


Upcoming Events

February 11, 2006    10:30AM Tuskegee Airman Speaking, Hiller Museum, San Carlos Airport
Tickets are $9/adults and $6/seniors. Discounted coupons are available in the lobby of RHV airport.

March 18-19, 2006    California Capitol Airshow featuring Blue Angels, Sacramento Mather field

April 4-10, 2006    Sun-n-Fun Convention/Airshow, Lakeland, FL 


Pilot Safety News
© 2006 by Max Trescott
Master CFI & FAA Aviation Safety Counselor
Please contact me with your feedback or if I can be of service to you.
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