Self-Induced Pressure

Personal airplanes are great ways to travel, but we need to think ahead and have a solid-gold Plan B.


Whenever we use a personal airplane for travel, we impose on ourselves pressure to complete the flight. The same is true of driving a car, weeding a garden or writing a magazine article: There is at least one thing we want to accomplish by engaging in an activity. The pressure may be subtle, and most of the time it doesnt affect the flights outcome, but its there.

But pressure often is not the least bit subtle. On one extreme, maybe weve simply told someone were going to fly over someones house at such and such a time. If were late, or dont make the flight at all, we might be accused of wimping out, or perhaps of not being a good enough pilot to find the house. Then theres the pressure of trying to use a personal airplane on an airline-like schedule. Were in ABC and really need to be in XYZ, but theres (choose one or all: thunderstorms, icing, low ceilings, mountains) between us and the destination. Maybe weve got the spouse, the kids and all the Christmas presents that fit in the airplane, and other family members expect us at Grandmas house for the holiday. Maybe weve got an important business meeting, and our absence-or tardiness-will make or break our career.

By choosing to use a personal airplane for transportation, we must accept some basic facts. First, our skill set, equipment or certifications might not be up to the task. The most common example is IFR conditions for which we dont have an instrument rating. Another example might be a a night flight with passengers for which were not current.

The second thing we must accept is things may not go according to plan. If this is a must-be-there kind of trip, we need a backup plan. Such a plan can be as simple as a ticket on Southwest or a rental car. Another option-and our favorite-is to adjust our schedule to work around the problem. Are there thunderstorms along the route tonight? Leave early in the morning. What about low ceilings forecast for the departure airport in the morning? Maybe we should leave tonight and at least get part of the way?

The point is using a personal airplane for transportation requires some flexibility and understanding all may not go as well as we want, despite our best efforts. We always need a backup plan, especially as the trip grows in importance. Heres a great example of why.


On January 23, 2009, at about 0655 Mountain time, a Cessna 205 impacted a hill shortly after departing the Flagstaff Pulliam Airport (FLG) in Flagstaff, Ariz. Both private pilots aboard were fatally injured and the airplane was substantially damaged. The cross-country business flight had a planned destination of Yuma, Ariz.

Instrument conditions prevailed; no flight plan was filed. The left-seated pilot did not hold an instrument rating but the right-seater did. The two pilots had flown together before and teamed up on several different work-related projects. The flight was to attend an important business meeting.

A law enforcement officer making a traffic stop near the accident site was transmitting on his radio as the accident airplane passed overhead. The audio recording was sent to the NTSB for examination. Based on the recording, the NTSB estimated engine rpm was about 2000 and the airplane was traveling at about 130 knots. The two never arrived.


The first officer of a Horizon Air flight, while waiting for a clearance, observed the airplane depart to the south. Around 0700, his flight departed to the north, entering clouds at around 1000 feet agl. He noted the cloud layer and visibility seemed to be lower to the south.

Earlier, the left-seater called flight service at 0611 that morning. The briefer stated “VFR flight not recommended.” Flagstaffs current conditions included 1300 feet broken, 1800 overcast and visibility 10 miles. The airport elevation is 7014 feet msl.

The accident site was a hill about 700 feet west of Interstate I-17 and about 10 miles south of Flagstaff. The debris stretched over 200 feet from the first impact point on a bearing of 280 degrees. The main wreckage was at about 6850 feet msl. All major components were accounted for at the accident site. Despite impact damage, the engine did not exhibit any pre-impact anomalies preventing normal operation. Manual crankshaft rotation was achieved at the propeller flange. Thumb compression was established in all cylinders except the number 6 cylinder, which sustained impact damage. The propeller blades exhibited evidence of rotating at impact.

Probable Cause

The National Transportation Safety Board determined the probable cause(s) of this accident to include: “The pilots loss of situational awareness and failure to maintain clearance from hilly terrain while flying in an area of a low cloud ceiling. Contributing to the accident was the pilots decision to continue flight due to a self-induced pressure.” In other words, the 205s pilots flew into a hill trying to scud-run their way to Yuma, a distance of 209 nm, most of which can fairly be described as rugged terrain.

Both pilots had more than 1500 hours of experience. The right-seater had an instrument rating, though his wife subsequently told investigators, “he rarely flew instruments, as he did not like to conduct such operations.” The NTSB records dont make it clear why this was the case-maybe the airplane wasnt well-equipped for IFR operations. But the weather clearly demanded either filing and flying IFR, or making other arrangements. The record also doesnt make clear the timing of that mornings meeting. For example, could the two have left earlier in the day and driven?

While its easy to note filing and flying the trip IFR likely would have produced a different outcome, a more reasonable choice would have been to leave the day before, especially for what the NTSB indicates was such an important meeting.

Its not the least bit unreasonable or risky to use a personal airplane for regular transportation. We do it all the time, and-although we use our instrument rating-we cant remember the last time we had to completely scrub a trip for weather.

Even the airlines occasionally fail to complete a flight, and they have better equipment, regular training, lots of ground-based support and an instrument rating. When trying to travel by personal airplane, we must acknowledge and accept the fact there are factors beyond our control demanding a backup plan. Sometimes, Plan B might be to simply stay home.


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