We’ve all been there: A personal or professional commitment encourages us to cut a corner or launch when otherwise we might not. The corner could be a mechanical deficiency with the aircraft, failing to obtain a weather briefing or taking off with minimal fuel. The pressure of schedules and commitments tempts us to do things like make a zero-zero instrument takeoff, shoot an approach in conditions below published minimums or stretch our fuel to the breaking point in the face of headwinds and the time it will take to make an en route fuel stop.
It’s called “gethomeitis,” a hopefully temporary affliction suffered by pilots and others in which we ignore various warning signs, behaviors or adverse conditions in favor of trying to meet a schedule. It’s a self-inflicted condition, one which often can be fatal.
Recognizing the disease and its effects marks the beginning of recovery. Often, merely waiting a few hours for the symptoms to subside is the cure. Other times, it takes longer. But the cure always involves choosing a reasonable alternative, one allowing us to meet our obligations and fly another day.
On January 4, 2010, at 1054 Eastern standard time, a Cessna 172S Skyhawk was substantially damaged when it impacted the Penobscot River, near Greenbush, Maine. The experienced commercial pilot was killed. The flight originated from Bangor, Maine (BGR), at about 1018, destined for Goose Bay Airport (CYYR), Newfoundland, Canada.
Instrument conditions prevailed and an IFR flight plan was filed.
The flight was one leg of a trip intended to ultimately deliver the airplane to a customer in Russia. The airplane was flown uneventfully from Kansas to BGR, where an additional fuel tank was installed and the airplane was issued a special airworthiness certificate. The tank installer computed weight and balance for the ferry flight, which included a maximum gross takeoff weight of 3315 pounds, 30 percent greater than the 2550-pound weight for which an unmodified airplane is certificated. The special airworthiness certificate operating limitations included, “15. Avoid moderate to severe turbulence.”
At 1040, the flight reported climbing out of 6000 feet msl for 9000 feet. A few seconds later, the pilot requested to stop the climb at 7000 feet, which was approved. Subsequently, the pilot requested 6000 feet, saying “…I’m down to fifty feet a minute; I’d like to level off at six (until we get some speed back),” followed by “(I’m) a bit heavy.” The controller approved 6000 feet.
Shortly, ATC noted it appeared the pilot was having difficulty holding altitude and that the minimum “IFR altitude” in the area was 3700 feet. The pilot reported encountering “…some severe turbulence” and “control difficulties.” The controller then asked the pilot if he would like to return to BGR and the pilot replied “affirmative.”
The pilot contacted the Bangor Tracon at 1053 and was told to expect a visual approach. He acknowledged the clearance, stating “…we’re in extreme turbulence with ninety-over-ninety-degree banks.” At 1054:40, the controller advised the pilot of an alternative airport but no further communications were received. The last radar target was recorded about ¼ mile northwest of the accident site, at 1054:39, with an associated altitude of 1200 feet.
Several witnesses at BGR subsequently reported the pilot was anxious to return home to the United Kingdom. His daughter was having surgery and his wife had been in a minor automobile accident.
According to Lockheed Martin, the pilot telephoned about 0840 and filed an IFR flight plan. After filing the flight plan, the pilot remarked to the FSS briefer that he had been stuck at BGR for a week. The briefer then confirmed the pilot had Airmets Sierra, Zulu and Tango for the route of flight. Of those Airmets, Tango was in effect for moderate turbulence below 11,000 feet. Zulu was in effect for moderate ice below 13,000 feet with the freezing level ranging between the surface and 2500 feet.
Observed weather at BGR at 1053 included wind from 310 degrees at eight knots, gusting to 17 knots; visibility 10 miles, an overcast ceiling at 2600 feet and temperature of three degrees Celsius. A subsequent observation reported snow began at 1059, with visibility of three miles.
The airplane came to rest upright. During recovery operations, the wreckage was cut into several pieces. Accordingly, flight control cable continuity could not be completely confirmed. The flaps were retracted and the flap actuator was in the retracted position. The cabin-mounted ferry tank was breached in two places and exhibited hydraulic deformation. The tank’s mounting straps remained intact, but due to deformation of it and the airframe, the tank became dislodged. The ferry tank fuel line was plumbed into the airplane system between the fuel selector and the fuel strainer. No anomalies were noted to the fuel system.
Review of the airplane’s type certificate data sheet revealed, in part, “…(3) Forward and aft center of gravity limits may not be exceeded,” and “…Flight characteristics and performance at the increased weights have not been evaluated.” No additional guidance on CG at increased weights was obtained.
According to a representative from the airplane manufacturer, extrapolation of the CG envelope in the make and model airplane’s pilot operating handbook revealed the accident airplane may have been loaded near the very aft end of the envelope, but still within limits. Regardless, the manufacturer never tested CG at such an increased weight.
The NTSB determined the probable cause(s) of this accident to include: “The pilot’s improper decision to attempt a transoceanic flight in turbulent, icing conditions, with an overweight airplane that was not approved for moderate turbulence and not equipped with deicing systems. Contributing to the accident was the pilot’s personal pressure to return home.”
There’s a lot going on here. Few of us would even contemplate launching a “normal” 172 in such conditions, much less one with such reduced performance. And even if we removed the overweight condition from the equation, we’re still faced with icing and turbulence, along with low IFR.
The only real cure for gethomeitis is to recognize the disease for what it is and take steps to eliminate the adverse conditions confronting us. The wisest decision is to wait for better conditions. Or buy an airline ticket.