September 2003 Issue

Rest of the Story

Accident pilot was warned, but how far should we go in trying to prevent a takeoff?

Your article, Heartbreak Hills [Risk Management, June], recalls a day I will never forget – but only tells half the story. I was a low time IFR/MEL pilot flying in a King Air 200 with a 6,000-hour ATP as an instructor/safety pilot. He and I were the last two people to talk with the pilot of the P210 before its departure from the Morrisville-Stowe airport.

Although I left my name with the airport and the FAA when I suspected an accident had occurred, no one would confirm the crash and I was never interviewed. Hence, the NTSB record only tells part of the story.

It is certainly true that rising terrain was a factor in the accident. However, a 40-year search of the NTSB database shows only one other fatal accident for MVL, one in which a pilot apparently disregarded ATC advice. The mountains around MVL have been in the same place for years and thousands of pilots have survived them.

We were the last arrival that afternoon at MVL, before the field was closed by weather. Because we knew in advance that we might be flying the approach down to minimums, especially with my family on board, the safety pilot was in the left seat for the flight. At the time, I had three times more hard-IFR experience than the accident pilot’s 40 hours and I didn’t view myself as competent to fly my family down to minimums on a non-precision approach in unstable, mountain air.

We approached the airport from the north and flew the NDB approach for Runway 19, backing it up with a GPS-moving map with radar and Stormscope overlay. We identified level III radar echoes about 10 miles south and west of the field, along with strikes on the Stormscope.

In our prelanding briefing, we verified that the missed approach procedure had us turning back to the north 0.3 miles north of the field. Had there been any likelihood of a missed approach taking us towards those echoes, we would have aborted. The approach was remarkable for a low icing layer and impressive downdrafts. The King Air experienced several 150-foot altitude excursions.

Because of this, we agreed to increase the MDA by 100 feet in order to give ourselves an extra margin of safety. We also committed ourselves to one approach, with a diversion to the precision approach at Burlington if we missed. We broke out at about 1,000 agl and landed in heavy precipitation. Upon landing, we cancelled by radio and told approach about the conditions we had encountered.

As we entered the terminal, we saw the Cessna pilot and his family. He had just gotten his release by telephone, evidently held up by our arrival, and was rushing his family to get out the door.

Out of his passengers’ earshot, we told him that we had just landed in a King Air, that there were some significant downdrafts and about the line of heavy precip in his departure path. He told us not to worry, that he had radar and was prepared for icing. As they taxied to the active in the pouring rain, my co-pilot and I asked each other whether we should have done more to discourage his takeoff.

The next day was blue and sunny as only Vermont can be in the summer. When we asked the airport manager whether the P210 had gotten out OK, he said that he had no further information. Only after the accident report was published did I learn that the crash occurred right where we had plotted the level III echoes and lightning strikes.

As your article suggests, rising terrain can complicate any situation, but should not by itself present undue hazard. When the ground is going up and the gusts are going down, the chances of survival become exponentially lower. The terrible events of August 19, 1999 were so driven by flawed judgment as to render the mountain an innocent bystander at best. The truly innocent bystanders were the wife, the child, and the dog.

I will always wonder at what point one pilot is morally obligated to prevent another pilot from killing himself and his passengers. Is there a point at which you tell the passengers what they are risking if they climb into that airplane? Short of hijacking the fuel truck and parking it on the active, I don’t know whether we could have prevented that tragedy.

The professional pilot was so shaken by the experience that he quit when we returned to base and swore that he would stick to charter operations that did not involve flights into uncontrolled fields in bad weather.

-Jonathan Javitt
Chevy Chase, Md.

You raise interesting points about our responsibilities to each other. We wish every pilot would take these to heart in assessing their own behaviors as well as others’.


Landing on the Diagonal
I enjoy reading Aviation Safety, and usually agree with most of your editorial comments, but your response to Russell Smith [Unicom, June] would seem to indicate that you miss the point of Taylor’s technique entirely.

Allowing the wind to blow the aircraft in a curved path – starting near the downwind side, becoming tangent to the upwind side, and even continuing to curve toward the downwind side as the rollout slows – actually places no side load on the gear at all. Indeed, countering the force of the crosswind in the crab that exists during a rollout that tracks the centerline does place a sideload on the gear.

If this concept – crabbing on the ground causing a side load – has you scratching your head, try to recall when you were following a big rig or a bus down the highway in a crosswind. The rear axle is noticeably displaced to the downwind side and the tires are scuffing sideways to counteract the force of the wind, and since the bus is not moving in the direction it is pointed, there will be a side-load. Taylor’s technique merely allows the wind to turn the aircraft, while the pilot keeps it pointed where its going to avoid any of that side-loading scuffing.

Still not convinced what scuffing tires have to do with anything?

Consider that during no-wind conditions – whether in the rollout or even merely during taxi – any turn of any sort places a side load on the gear, since this is the transferral of the turning force from the side-scuffing tires to the mass of the airframe, which is necessary to accelerate it a direction other than straight ahead. This scuffing can be heard in anything from bicycles on up, beginning with just a scratching sound and increasing to a screech as the rate of turn and/or speed increases. Keeping the side loading low is why we avoid fast turns during taxi.

Regarding your comment about being unseen in the pattern: It is not really necessary to get all that far off the extended centerline—perhaps 150-200 feet at the most—and this only need be done within the last half mile. Perhaps a pilot who can’t make a 10-20 degree shallow turn on short final is also not likely to be very successful in kicking out a crab or in dipping a wing to land on one wheel as required by the more-often-discussed techniques you prefer.

In fact, the need for those skills is lessened by Taylor’s technique, since a nudge on the rudder keeps the aircraft pointed in the direction of travel during the flare and touchdown as it travels its curved path. This eliminates both the need for critical timing if you kick, and also the danger of dragging a wingtip if you dip. And, yes, I said curving during the flare. Depending on the wind and the width of the runway, it’s not always essential to spot-land on the downwind corner. Obviously, narrow runways are limiting. The 20 foot wide patch where I learned to fly would be of little use with this technique.

-Mike Wilkens
Via e-mail

You say in paragraph two that there is no side load because the airplane is turning, then say a few graphs later that any turn produces a side load. Be that as it may, we stand by our contention that a curved path on the ground at landing roll speeds puts undue stress on the gear. We have a great deal of respect for Taylor’s work, but we still believe that if you need to land diagonally because of crosswinds, you’re most likely better off going elsewhere where the runway alignment is more favorable. Try as we might, we just can’t see that this technique brings any real benefits to the table.


Where on Downwind?
I was landing at Groton, Conn., this weekend and they told me to fly a right downwind for runway 23. New York approach had me on a slam dunk, so when I reported “downfield midfield” as requested I qualifed it as being high. Despite this the tower said “Not in sight.” There was a moderate-heavy traffic load and in 20 seconds he asked my position and I answered “extended right downwind 23.” I’m not sure he grasped this but finally it got worked out.

My question, was there better terminology than “extended downwind”? Maybe I should have said I was well beyond the approach end of 23 or something to let him know I was already well past the numbers. Any suggestions?

-Andrew Doorey
Via e-mail

Sometimes in the interest of the brevity that seems to be mistaken for professionalism, you can get too minimalist. It seems like your phraseology was acceptable, with the suggestion that you could have added altitude and position relative to the runway when the controller advised you were not in sight. “Extended downwind” is acceptable to indicate you’re on downwind nearing or past the point where you might normally turn base.

If you’re really worried about it, go on eBay and buy a surplus tower light gun. Give him a blast and ask if he can see you now. Of course, you’ll need a bigger airplane.


Have it Your Way
I wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed the article on personalizing the FARs, by which I mean “Fat and Happy” [Airmanship, July]. It isn’t always convenient to follow the letter of the regulations, and more articles on how to break them and (hopefully) get away with it would be a great service.

Have you considered writing a similar article covering 91.17? As the author recommended, I don’t make a habit of breaking the regs, but shouldn’t flying four hours after a single beer be an “acceptable risk”?

Seriously though, I have a real problem with the premise that just because some pilots go out and do incredibly stupid things we should accept it as “a fact of life.” The moment you choose to fly an aircraft outside of the documented performance window you are choosing to become a test pilot and, in the case of overloading, a structural engineer.

How do you decide just how much overweight is too much? If 1 percent is OK, why not 5 percent, or even 25 percent. What worked yesterday (cool and calm) may not work today (hot and gusty), when the increased groundspeed on landing results in brake failure before the plane comes to a complete stop.

You can be pretty sure that you pushed it too far when metal gets bent, but don’t count on the insurance company to help straighten it out again because the willful violation of 91.9 will likely relieve them of any repair costs.

-Ronald Garrison
Via e-mail

While we encourage adherence to the regs, we also have to accept the fact that the real world exists. If you flew 30 miles for breakfast on a clear VFR day and then it dawned on you your transponder certification expired yesterday, would you fly the airplane back home? We submit that most pilots would.

We would also like to point out that the regs make it clear you should follow the limitations in your POH, despite the fact that most POHs are filled with inaccuracies.

Certainly flying overweight is an order of magnitude more significant than an expired transponder check, but it illustrates the point that risk management is an ever-varying shade of gray. Do we endorse fat takeoffs? No. But you also have to accept the reality that people do take off overweight. Sometimes it’s five pounds, sometimes it’s absurd.

The important thing to realize – and the reason we broached the topic in the first place – is that the risk you assume when you take off heavy goes deeper than whether you’ll outclimb the apartment building across the street from the end of the runway. In the words of Sun Tzu, “If you know yourself and your enemy, you need not fear the outcome of a thousand battles.”


VFR Go/No-Go
I would like to respond to the letter “Not Recommended by Whom?” [Unicom, July], in which an experienced VFR pilot questioned Brian Johnson’s recommendation that a Flight Service Station briefer’s warning “VFR flight is not recommended” (VNR) be an automatic VFR no-go.

To decide which side of the debate to join pilots must understand exactly what VNR means and when it is given.

The AIM and the Flight Service Station Manual (FAA Order 7110.10) provide that a VNR warning be given when “sky conditions or visibilities are present or forecast, surface or aloft, that in the briefer’s judgment would make flight under visual flight rules doubtful.” That’s pretty vague, and while a briefer’s judgment about what the weather is doing or is likely to do is often pretty good, most briefers are not pilots.

The Pilot/Controllers Glossary, which is part of the AIM and the FSS Manual, provides that a VNR warning is to be given “when the current and/or forecast conditions are at or below VFR minimums.” Thus, taken together, the criteria that trigger a VNR warning include current or forecast weather at or below 1,000 foot ceilings or three miles of visibility, unless the briefer has other information that leads her to believe that, despite the absence of reports of IMC conditions, IMC is still likely.

An old and blown forecast that is in the process of going down the tubes would be a good example of other information suggesting IMC when none is reported.

Accordingly, VNR is merely a warning that some IMC likely is, or is forecast to be, out there. It might be a single, isolated area on an otherwise clear day, or mountain obscuration over a deep open valley, or a condition that is in the process of improving, or one that is anticipated to develop. Or it might be widespread IMC.

What is more important to understand is that the absence of a VNR warning only guarantees that current and forecast conditions call for ceilings of more that 1,000 feet, and visibility of more than 3 miles. While some pilots, in some airplanes, on some missions might be comfortable puttering around 500 feet above the surface and 500 feet below the clouds in 3.01 miles of visibility, other pilots might consider widespread MVFR ceilings or visibility to be unflyable under VFR for all but very local operations in slow aircraft.

A pilot has to look at all the weather, at himself, at the aircraft and at the proposed mission before deciding to go. While a VNR warning may not be an automatic no-go, the absence of a VNR warning is definitely not an automatic go.

-Daniel Gibbons
Maplewood, N.J.


Missing Technique
Uhhh, some questions about the story “Missing Approach” [Instrument Check, July].

Mr. Norton never mentioned whether the SDF was transmitting a signal and/or whether it was ID’ing properly. (The implication seems to be that it did neither, since the approach was “missing” and since he mentions the King Air pilot’s radar track did not match any approach.)

If the SDF was not transmitting a signal nor identing properly, then the fault of this accident clearly rests with the pilot. What nav aid was the pilot following in his descent? I don’t understand why this critical information was omitted.

If the SDF was still transmitting, and transmitting a valid ID, then the fault is clearly with Pulaski County.

I can see starting a “phantom” approach to the IAF (the NDB in this case), but if I couldn’t get an ident on the SDF and especially if my CDI wasn’t moving, I’m not going to shoot the approach, let alone descend. Transmitters or receivers fail any time. My attitude is that all approaches are bogus until all the indications say otherwise.

-Mike Palmer
Via e-mail

The SDF was not transmitting a signal of any kind. Clearly you are quite correct that identifying navaids is a necessary practice, and not to do so was a grave error on the accident pilot’s part. Still, we have to reserve a small modicum of blame for a bureaucracy that put the pilot on the approach in the first place, especially given the length of time involved.


Get the Soap Out
I enjoy Aviation Safety, but have to ask, does a phrase like “screw the pooch” as used in “Bet Ya Can’t” [Risk Management, July] really belong in a professional aviation magazine (or anywhere else for that matter)?

-Mike Holshouser
Via e-mail

Bill Kight replies: It was good enough for Gus Grissom.