Going Up, Going Down

In a wild four-minute ride, the pilot couldnt get the airplane established on instruments


Theres a classic childrens story in which a little train says I think I can, I think I can – and lo and behold, it can. The power of mind over body is ably summed up in the tale, as it is in cliches such as when theres a will, theres a way.

But whos fooling whom?

Sure, there are times when you can suck it up and get through whatever it is you have to get through. Who hasnt had to work through a deadline or clear a fallen tree before dawn or pull an all-nighter through college? Sometimes you just have to do it.

But for every time you manage to endure the agony, there are countless times when you punt. With your exhaustion swaddling you like a Los Angeles smog, you wearily shrug and mutter to yourself in resignation, The heck with it.

Unfortunately, there are times when you have passed the point of no return, when turning back and going to bed isnt an option. When youre trying to drive your tee shot over the water and theres no mulligan. Flying is like that.

Pilots who launch into ice or fly near thunderstorms – and you know who you are – justify their actions by saying theyre just going to take a look, and theyll turn around if they dont like what they see. Fair enough in some kinds of weather flying, but it doesnt always work that way.

The owner of a Cessna 210 flew from his home field in Linden, N.J. to the Hanover County Airport in Ashland, Va., to attend a seminar. After the 1-hour flight, he landed at 6:15 p.m. and was met by some friends.

Following the seminar, the pilot was riding back to the airport shortly after 11 p.m. and called the FSS for a weather briefing from his cell phone. The reception during the call was poor, and the pilot terminated the call after only about a minute.

He called again at about 11:30 and asked for a standard weather briefing. He was told of 1,000-foot ceilings, about seven miles visibility, and rain in the departure area. Conditions were forecast to improve toward his destination 250 miles to the north.

Just before midnight, he called again and filed an IFR flight plan back to Linden, with the route primarily defined by victor airways. The briefer and the pilot discussed the route a bit, spurred in part by the pilot having described his airplane as /G, that is, equipped with an IFR-certified GPS. Together, the two of them decided to amend the route as direct Linden.

Just under 15 minutes later, the pilot radioed Richmond Approach and requested his IFR clearance. He was given new routing, again defined primarily by victor airways. The pilot read the clearance back incorrectly, then got it right.

A few minutes later, his runup complete, the pilot called again for his IFR release. The controller released him at 22 minutes after midnight, but the pilot did not respond to the release. The controller called again and repeated the release, which was acknowledged by the pilot.

Meanwhile, the weather had been deteriorating since his weather briefing. The ceiling had dropped to about 700 feet, with visibility about five miles in mist and rain.

The pilot checked in with Richmond Departure as he was climbing out of 1,400 feet for 5,000. He was cleared to join victor 16, the first leg on his route home and acknowledged, Direct TAPPA, joining victor 16, maintaining five.

But something was wrong. Almost immediately, the controller noticed he was deviating from his flight plan. Barely was the pilots acknowledgment out of his mouth when the controller radioed, November 94Y, verify youre in a turn toward TAPPA.

Ah, currently, Im at, ah …, replied the pilot. In the background, an increase in noise was coming through the radio. Analysts couldnt be sure whether it was the engine heading for overspeed or the rush of wind. Thirty seconds later another transmission came over the radio with similar background noise, but no voice.

At 12:27:24, the controller radioed, 94Y, it appears youre southbound. Why dont you make a turn, heading of 060 and join victor 16. There was no reply.

At 12:27:40, the controller called, November 94Y, Richmond.

Yes, 94Y.

94Y, it appears youre, ah, circling around the airport. Why dont you go ahead and turn 060 and join victor 16 on that heading.

The pilot replied, 060, joining victor 16, 94Y.

That was the last transmission the pilot made.

Several witnesses heard the crash, including one who had lived near the airport for many years. He said he heard the takeoff and it was very loud. He heard the engine noise diminish as the airplane headed away from the airport to the east, then it got louder, increasing, then rise and fall three times before the sound of impact.

The airplane had taken off on runway 34 and had to turn slightly to the right after takeoff to join the victor airway. Radar data showed the airplane climbing in a right turn away from the airport. It continued in the turn until it was heading 190, almost exactly opposite of what it should have been flying.

When the airplane was about a mile south of the airport, it began turning right again, and climbed to its highest altitude of 4,300 feet. The airplane held that altitude for about 10 seconds, then it began a descending right turn. The final radar returns showed the rate of descent at the end exceeded 18,000 feet per minute.

The impact was severe enough that the propeller hub was buried eight feet into the ground. The debris path showed that, although the airplane did not come straight down, it was close. The engine and fuselage were found inside a crater only eight feet wide.

How He Got There
The 210 was a 1964 model that was not equipped with an autopilot. It had about 2,550 hours total time and was equipped with an Apollo SL-50 GPS. The GPS had been installed less than two years earlier and certified for en route and terminal IFR.

The pilots story, however, was not so simple.

He had taken his original private pilot test in December 1997 and failed it. He retook his check ride four days later and passed it.

The pilot then went for his instrument rating. He took his initial instrument checkride in March 1999 and failed it. Nearly six months passed before he retook the test, passing the segments he failed on ATC clearances and instrument approach procedures. He gave his total flight time as 232 hours.

When he checked out in the 210 a year later, he listed his total flight time as 270 hours. The pilot was estimated to have flown at least 24 hours in the next four months, for a total of about 300 hours at the time of the accident.

The pilots logbooks could not be found, so investigators were not able to determine his currency and experience in instrument conditions or at night.

Tests showed the vacuum gyros and the turn coordinator were rotating at the time of the crash.

Spatial Disorientation
In retrospect, there were several indications that the pilot may not have been on top of his game before the flight even began.

The NTSB report does not go into detail about the pilots lifestyle. We dont know if he worked a full day before flying to the seminar, but if he had he may have been tired indeed by the time the flight home rolled around.

Just a few indications of fatigue include the numerous missed radio calls and the incorrect readback of his amended clearance. While one or two such mistakes are certainly excusable for anyone – especially a low-time instrument pilot – the transcripts of the radio calls appear to show someone who was either fatigued and inattentive or somewhat overwhelmed.

Without having access to the pilots logbooks or other recent history, its impossible to know just how qualified the pilot was to undertake this flight. A night takeoff into almost immediate instrument conditions can induce several different illusions that are difficult to handle even if youre expecting them.

Spatial disorientation as a result of one of these illusions is a very real possibility, especially given the night IMC conditions. FAA research has shown that it takes experienced instrument pilots as long as 35 seconds to go fully on the gauges once they lose visual references. The accident pilot climbed to 4,300 feet and then crashed in less than four minutes in the clouds, apparently without ever having truly transitioned to instrument flight.

The pilot had been instrument-rated for 10 months, during which he flew 70 hours. That may have been enough flying to convince the pilot he could handle anything, but without a record of how those hours were spent were left guessing whether it was a reasonable risk or a foolish flight.

Every pilot likes to think he can. Sometimes, however, he winds up wrong.

Also With This Article
Click here to view “Illusions in Flight.”


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