Unicom

September 1999 Issue




Judgment Day

JFK’s last flight revealed long chain of poor decisions

Safe flying depends on sound judgment. This was a concept that was drummed into my head when I was training to become a private pilot. I earned my pilot’s license early last year, a couple of months before John Kennedy earned his.

As far as I can tell from the news accounts, I probably have about 50 flying hours more than he did, and I do have 20 hours of training toward my instrument certification, which he apparently didn’t have. But, for the most part, we could be considered on par as pilots in terms of experience.

Given the conditions that existed for his last flight, would I have made the same flight? Absolutely not! In fact, since earning my license 15 months ago, I have canceled several flights that were not nearly as risky as what Mr. Kennedy attempted. I canceled those flights because my assessment of all of the factors influencing the proposed flights told me that it was not a good idea to fly on those days.

It is true that all pilots make mistakes, and I have certainly made my share. We all just hope our mistakes are small and far between. Consider the hand that Mr. Kennedy was dealt. Did he know that the critical end of the flight would be flown at night? Yes. Without moonlight? Yes. Over the ocean? Yes. In visibility that was poor due to haze? Yes. By a relatively inexperienced pilot? Yes. In a plane that he hadn’t flown very much? Yes. Without the benefit of instrument training? Yes. All of these “yeses” should have added up to a big “no” when it came to the question of whether or not to fly to Martha’s Vineyard that night.

It is not pilot denial to look at the factors affecting last Friday’s flight and say that Mr. Kennedy was at fault. I read aviation accident reports on a regular basis, and I sometimes find myself saying “it could have been me.” But not in this case. Any two of the factors above taken together could have been reason to cancel the flight.

The existence of seven or more adverse factors was a clarion call saying “Don’t go.” As the pilot-in-command, it was Mr. Kennedy’s solemn duty to heed that call, but tragically and sadly, he did not. And that was his serious error in judgment.

-Ken Whittemore Jr.
Via e-mail


We suspect that most readers have drawn their own conclusions about the wisdom of Kennedy’s last flight. Although the specifics of the accident remain open to rampant speculation, it’s clear that pilots should have renewed sensitivity toward the go/no-go decision. We’ll print a compilation of the best responses in the next issue.

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What Crosswind Limitation?
Just a quick note to comment on the April 6 Preliminary Report.

From the article, page 20, July 1999 issue, I quote... “The maximum demonstrated crosswind component for the Warrior is 17 knots. When asked, the pilot said he was unaware of the limitation.”

As a relatively new pilot (licensed two years ago), I learned that the maximum demonstrated crosswind component was just that, a demonstration reflecting conditions during flight testing. I was told that the specification is not a limitation, just a recording of the most crosswind conditions encountered during flight testing. Please clarify this for me.

I enjoy your publication and have been a subscriber since shortly before receiving my ticket.

-John Steiner
Via e-mail

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In Preliminary Reports in July, a particular comment regarding the crash of a Piper Warrior caught my eye. The report ends with, “The maximum demonstrated crosswind component for the Warrior is 17 knots. When asked, the pilot said he was unaware of the limitation.”

That makes sense, because it isn’t a limitation. The maximum demonstrated crosswind component is just that, the most that was demonstrated by the manufacturer during the certification process. It is not a limitation, and there is no prohibition against landing the plane with a greater crosswind component.

That said, most of us aren’t professional test pilots either, so it is important to be aware of our own limitations. Obviously, this includes our ability to handle strong crosswinds on landing.

-Michael Gibbs
Phoenix, Ariz.


Legally speaking, you’re right in saying the max demonstrated crosswind component is not a limitation in the sense that weight and balance requirements are limitations. (The NTSB used the word in its original report and we didn’t change it.) Operationally, however, it should be thought of as one, at least for the first few thousand hours until you’re as good as the test pilot who flew the demonstration flight during certification.

What the report we published didn’t include was that the pilot had only 35 hours in the Warrior and about 260 hours total time. Such a pilot would be well-advised to view the crosswind figure as an operational limitation, if not a legal one.

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GPS Comes Unbalanced in the Air
I just finished reading “The GPS Balance Sheet” [Systems Check, July]. I commend your staff on a very well-written article. I agree that GPS receivers are very complicated and difficult to operate safely in an IMC environment.

The Navy taught me to fly. I now have more civilian pilot time than military and have an instrument rating. Further, I’m a renter pilot based in sunny Phoenix.

I have the good fortune to have the new generation of Cessna piston aircraft available to fly. I rent a 1997 Cessna 172R. This airplane is equipped with a beautiful radio stack by Bendix/King including a KLN 89B IFR certified GPS receiver. However, there is no DME. This lack of a DME receiver appears to be standard for all the current Cessna single engine, piston products.

If the database card was current in the 89B (which it isn’t), I still would not file IFR using the /G equipment suffix as I’m not comfortable being able to manipulate the many different modes, commands, etc., necessary to use all the functions for which the unit is capable. ATC would expect me to be able to use all those capabilities. As an en route backup and emergency airport locator, it’s great, but, for approaches, it’s tough.

Compared to a GPS receiver, the operation of VOR/LOC/GS/DME/ADF/Marker Beacon receivers for en route and approach procedures is, to me, simple and straightforward. In an IMC environment, I want simple.

GPS accuracy is very good. Hopefully the manufacturers will come up with a user-friendly design.

-Phil Batton
Goodyear, Ariz.


Learning to use the GPS in an en route mode is relatively easy, and that way you can file /G and get the DME information required to fly conventional approaches. If the approach features are intimidating, don’t use them until you’re more comfortable with the unit. But the en route portions shouldn’t be hard to master.

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Business Fliers: Take a Copilot
I read with great interest Ron Levy’s article “Corporate Air” [Risk Management, July]. For many years I owned a foundry in northeast Wisconsin and regularly flew a rented Baron with several of my employees on board. On each trip, I contracted a qualified pilot to fly as my copilot even though I annually attended simulation training at Simcom.

In most cases, the copilot was a pilot employee of the FBO from which I rented the Baron and who also routinely flew the same aircraft. Not only did I feel that this arrangement was safer for myself and my passengers, it also provided an opportunity to have my flying skills critiqued, which further improved my flying. There were many times when there was a definite fatigue factor on the return trip and having a qualified copilot in heavy weather proved invaluable.

On one occasion, after working most of the day I needed to fly the Baron from Appleton, Wis., to St. Cloud, Minn., to pick up my daughter from college. On the return trip the ATIS was reporting 100-foot ceilings and ¼-mile visibility in heavy snow. My copilot for the trip was the FBO’s chief pilot.

Below 3,000 feet we encountered moderate turbulence that lasted all the way down. We initiated the approach, with the copilot ready to call for a missed approach. Before we reached the middle marker he acquired the runway and we were able to land.

Were it not for our coordination on the approach, it would have been a futile attempt. Furthermore, if I had been on my own I wouldn’t have even attempted the approach.

In my current business I no longer need to fly my employees to customer locations, but you can bet that if the need ever arises again there will be a qualified copilot on board.

-Walter Nocito
Appleton, Wis.

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Is Company Owner a High Risk Pilot?
We are a small corporation that operates an old Aztec and a refurbished 690B-10 for Part 91 business and pleasure of both clients and employees. We have five employees and the president-owner is the pilot, having over 8,000 hours without any bad history. Owner-Pilot goes to Flight Safety each year and gets his Pro-Pilot Card.

Employees often go by aircraft for business and pleasure. Annual total hours about 250.

This pilot recalls many “tugs at the apron” temptations of the types enumerated by Ron Levy. A very good article. Do you know of other small corporations that operate an aircraft under Part 91 without a full-time paid pilot? We are having a rift with our Worker’s Compensation Insurance Underwriter. They want to rate our owner-pilot as a full-time, fully paid pilot at a 3.8% rate and want to throw us into the JUA pool for high risk worker’s comp.

How do other operators handle pilot-owners? Are we that unsafe? Maybe you have already addressed such an insurance concern in some of your articles, but I’ve not seen anything.

-George Haas Jr.
Melrose, Fla.


Worker’s Comp is such a quagmire that we can’t really answer your question, so we’ll pull an Ann Landers and ask readers what strategies they’ve used in dealing with the problem. We’ll update you with the best responses.

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Insurance Discounts for Readers?
As a low time pilot, I count on Aviation Safety to fill in the gaps missed by my instructors. I believe you do a particularly good job. Learning Experiences is one of my favorite columns.

Mr. J. Breitinger’s letter [Unicom, July] and M.S. Brenlove’s article “Safety in Numbers” [Reality Check, June] prompted me to finally write and ask this question: Do you have any statistical data to support the assumption that, on average, your readers have fewer accidents than non-readers of equal experience?

Even if the magazine itself had no positive impact on the reader, and that hardly seems possible, the mere fact that we as a group appear to take safety more seriously than non-readers would seem to skew the data your way. Think we could get an insurance discount for subscribing?

-Glynn Hair
Greenville, Miss.


Although the data to support your extremely logical premise doesn’t exist at this point, insurers have taken note. At least one big insurance company provides a subscription to each person who buys a policy.

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Why Pop the Doors?
I frequently read where the occupants are instructed to open their doors before impact.

Doesn’t opening the doors compromise the integrity of the cabin, decreasing the chances of survival?

You hear stories of getting trapped in case of fire, and I realize that the threat of fire is a big psychological motivator. However, what is the real-world experience? When I read of crashes where the occupants died in a subsequent fire, the crash was probably enough to incapacitate them and they wouldn’t have escaped whether the doors were open or not.

-Steve Mann
Via e-mail


The value of popping the doors is that the crash can deform the cabin to the point that the doors would be wedged shut. Regardless of fire, it’s easier to get out through the door than by kicking out a window, especially if injured. And we’ve heard of a number of cases in which the passengers got out before the fire started. The structural integrity is not changed much by opening the doors.