-by Ken Ibold
Face it, pilots are an optimistic bunch. The courage demonstrated by the earliest crop of pilots who ventured skyward in flimsy contraptions held together with baling wire and twine is still around. Only now, pilots fly machines that rely on delicate electronics and heat-resistant materials.
With those sophisticated machines, however, comes a faster operating environment, the systems and capabilities that make the airplane more useful also put additional tasks on the pilots shoulders – and increase the penalties for making mistakes.
On a clear spring morning, a pilot and a friend fired up a rented Cessna T210L for a cross country trip from Tucson, Ariz., to North Las Vegas, Nev. As the pilot cruised at 10,500 feet, he contacted ATC and got flight following for the trip.
Coming into Las Vegas, the controllers gave him vectors and altitude restrictions that left him skirting the edge of Las Vegas Class B airspace. At 9:44 local time, the Cessna was about 10 miles from the field at 3,500 feet. The Approach controller asked the pilot if he had the field in sight. The pilot replied he did, and the controller told him to resume his own navigation to the field and contact the tower.
When the pilot checked in on the tower frequency at North Las Vegas, he was southeast of the field at 3,100 feet. The controller gave him a left 20-degree turn to keep him out of Class B airspace and told him to enter a left base for runway 25. He also cleared the flight to land. The controller added there was traffic holding in position on 25 that would depart before he got there. The pilot acknowledged.
The controller later recalled that there was time to get one more departure out ahead of the Centurion with only a slight modification of the Cessnas flight path. He asked the pilot to square his base to final turn to allow a little extra time for the departure.
The pilot acknowledged, then did just the opposite. He turned direct for the numbers and blew the plan.
The controller then told the pilot to fly through the final approach course and make a right 270-degree turn to reintercept final. The pilot then made his second error. His readback acknowledged that he would turn right to 270 degrees. While this instruction would have the same practical effect as a 270-degree turn to the right, it represented the first indication – in hindsight, anyway – that the pilots grasp of the situation might have been slipping.
The right turn the pilot made was nearly on the money, with the pilot completing the turn in a minute and 37 seconds. He attempted to rejoin the traffic pattern. When he rolled out, however, he appeared to be lining up with taxiway C, a taxiway with a heading of about 200 degrees that comes off of runway 25 as a high-speed runway exit.
The controller again waved off the Cessna, giving him a right turn to take him back to a right downwind. The controller called helicopter traffic in the area and mentioned to the pilot he seemed a little disoriented.
The pilot replied he had it now, possibly referring to the helicopter traffic, and reported turning right. When the flight was abeam the runway, the controller told the pilot he was abeam on a right downwind with traffic on short final. He asked if the pilot had the runway in sight. The pilot did not respond.
Fifteen seconds later, the controller again advised the traffic was at the threshold and asked if the pilot had the runway in sight. This time, the Cessna pilot said he did. He was instructed to turn base and cleared to land.
The controller issued a wind advisory of 200 at 12 knots and again advised the pilot he was cleared to land. The pilot acknowledged.
The controller said the rest of the approach appeared normal until the flight was about 1,800 feet down the 5,005-foot runway. The airplane was about 20 feet agl with more than 3,000 feet remaining when the pilot began a go-around, simultaneously broadcasting his intentions.
The tower controller instructed him to make right traffic. The pilot acknowledged.
At that point, however, the airplane attained a nose-high attitude. At about midfield, it entered a steep right bank and nosed toward the ground. The right wing struck the ground with the airplane in what witnesses said was an extreme nose-low attitude. The right wing dragged about 50 feet and the nose struck the ground. The right wing exploded into flames and the airplane came to rest on its main gear less than 100 feet from the initial impact.
Two witnesses from the nearby hangars ran to the site with fire extinguishers, but they said it was apparent as soon as they arrived that the two occupants were dead. Two portable fire extinguishers put out the fire even before emergency crews arrived.
A review of the reported winds throughout the day showed winds generally from the south-southwest at 12 to 15 knots, with gusts to 25 knots or more both before and after the accident. In fact, that afternoon a Cessna 180 landed successfully and was blown over by a crosswind gust as the pilot attempted to exit the runway at a walking pace.
In the case of the 210 accident, however, its unclear whether the pilot knew of the gusty conditions. Neither the accident report nor the air traffic control transcripts have any mention of him informing controllers he had the current ATIS information. Both the approach controller and the tower controller had given him winds but not gusts, which at the time were about 20 knots.
The airplane appeared to have been configured for a gusty crosswind landing, with flaps found retracted in the wreckage. The 210s flight manual calls for a minimum flap setting given the field length when crosswinds are strong. It stipulates an approach speed of 80 to 90 knots with the flaps up and recommends at least 80 knots in a balked landing, although that recommendation is for flaps at 20 degrees. Stalling speed with the flaps up and the gear down is 65 knots at zero bank, increasing to 74 knots at a 40 degree bank and 92 knots at a 60-degree bank.
The airplanes demonstrated crosswind component is 21 knots, but the conditions appeared to be within that parameter, even given the gusts recorded throughout the day.
Could Have Made It?
Although the conditions for either a safe landing or a successful go-around appeared to be present as far as the airplane was concerned, the pilot may have been another matter.
The NTSB accident report does not include details of the pilots experience, but it reports him as either a 779-hour pilot or a 594-hour pilot, depending on where you look. It is consistent in describing his time in type as 19 hours since his initial checkout a year before the accident.
With characteristic understatement, the NTSBs official findings were that the pilot failed to maintain control of the airplane during a go-around in a crosswind condition. But a less bureaucratic analysis finds other clues.
The pilots checkout in the airplane a year earlier took 6.4 hours. While there are many reasons this could be so, ranging from extra instrument work to doing the checkout during a business trip, theres also the most obvious: Perhaps he just didnt get it.
Flying a complex single like a turbocharged 210 is unlike flying a 172 around the pattern. It is both more capable and less forgiving. And any airplane a pilot flies only 19 hours in a year is going to be something of a stranger, particularly as you get to the edges of the flight envelope.
Optimism is a wonderful thing in aviation. It makes you believe you really can afford it. It makes you expect your next flight will be great. It opens your mind to new possibilities. But those possibilities also have a dark lining: the potential that your optimism, regardless of how well-founded, may be misplaced.