Editor's Log

April 2006 Issue




Editor's Log: 04/06

Risk? What Risk?
Two local accidents on the same day involving singles got my attention in late February. The first occurred early in the morning as a series of snow squalls moved through the area. A Cessna 172 crashed while circling after its second GPS approach, killing two and injuring one. Late that same night, a Columbia 400 crashed at a different airport, killing the pilot and his three passengers. Early indications were that the Columbia went down while attempting an ILS.

Several members of an online discussion group in which I participate took these pilots to task for even attempting to fly in poor winter weather. A newspaper report of the second crash noted the weather included “heavy fog,” prompting one participant to label such behavior “Darwinian.”

Hindsight being 20/20, it’s easy to make that argument. But, thinking about it, I soon realized that I might have been out in that weather, also, if I’d had a good reason. In fact, even though the weather was low, reportedly it was at or above minimums for the two approaches. Based on the two planes’ departure points, they should have been easy flights with options. For example, there were plenty of nearby airports with better facilities available for diversion, and both aircraft should have had more than enough fuel to return to their departure points.

I’ve certainly shot an ILS to minimums more than a few times: 200 feet and a half mile can easily qualify as “heavy fog” to a newspaper reporter. And I’ve flown through a few snow showers on departure, en route and while arriving. So, maybe the pilots’ decisions to attempt the flights and the approaches wasn’t “Darwinian” after all, but merely part of a calculated risk.

One theme seems to run through these two accidents: Both flights involved a real or perceived need to meet schedules. As a result, both pilots were probably proceeding under substantial pressure from passengers or associates to land at the airports in question and complete their missions. As I wrote to the discussion group, “There’s rarely a problem with the idea of taking a look at a specific airport’s weather by shooting the approach; the danger comes when the pressure to land leads us to cut corners.” I added, “My bottom line is that I can’t necessarily fault the pilots until all the facts are in.

In any event, a well-trained pilot flying IFR by the rules in a well-maintained airplane is a relatively safe operation. Yes, it’s (slightly) riskier than sitting at home watching Fox News, but it’s not inherently unsafe. There are degrees of risk, and there are ways to minimize risk in even the worst weather.”

And that pretty much sums up what we try to do here at Aviation Safety: Help you become that well-trained pilot who plays by the rules but who knows that flying—whether in a Skyhawk, a Columbia or a King Air—is riskier than not flying.

Everything we do every day carries an element of risk; the key is whether we recognize the risk and take steps to minimize it.


-Jeb Burnside