On August 30, an SR22T crashed in the Atlantic Ocean after its pilot become unresponsive. The airplane had been cruising at FL210, then descended to 13,000, according to FlightAware.com, before it went Nordo.
Less than a week later, on September 5, the pilot of a TBM900 cruising at FL280 told ATC he had an unspecified problem and needed a lower altitude. After the airplane descended to FL250 and turned slightly left for further descent, ATC lost radio contact. The airplane continued across Cuba and crashed off Jamaica. Neither aircraft has been recovered at this writing.
It’s way too early to know what happened aboard these two airplanes. The USAF launched two F-15s to shadow the TBM900; they reported seeing the pilot slumped over the controls before the windows frosted over. Similarly, two fighters intercepted the SR22 when it strayed into security airspace near Washington, D.C. Regardless of the mechanical possibilities involving these two aircraft, one factor at least in the TBM900 accident—based on his report and request—may be a pilot’s natural reluctance to admit he or she has a problem that needs to be fixed right now. “It’ll be fine” easily could be many pilots’ last thought.
There have been a few times when I definitely wanted to be on the ground, and got there quickly. Other times, I’ve made precautionary landings to get a detailed weather update, check out an engine instrument’s reading and for other reasons. Meanwhile, I’ve read more than my share of accident reports. I’ve learned the people who react to a problem by putting the aircraft on the ground as soon as possible are the ones around to talk about it later. Then again, those who react immediately to an airborne challenge may not make the accident reports to begin with.
Maybe its a macho thing, or some DNA left over from films like Top Gun and The Right Stuff. Maybe we’re just lazy. But delaying our reaction to an airborne problem sometimes doesn’t work out well. When I learn of accidents like the TBM, and perhaps the Cirrus, I always wonder if the pilot was reluctant to get the airplane on the ground: “It’ll be fine.”
It reminds me of the old saying about cooking a live frog. “If you put the frog in a pot of boiling water, it’ll jump right out. But if you put it in a pot of cold water and turn up the heat, it won’t notice how hot things are until it’s too late.” (Science tells us the frog is smarter than most pilots, though, and actually will jump out well before it’s too late. Then again, who wants to eat a boiled frog, anyway?)
As these two events remind us, don’t hesitate to declare an emergency and implement a land-right-now plan. As long as you don’t make a habit of it, the FAA likely won’t care. — Jeb Burnside