Sole Man

Long cross-country flight in marginal weather puts VFR pilots skills to the ultimate test


Sidle up to any pilot you see at the airport. Ask about his or her attitude toward safety. Whether flying the latest and greatest corporate jet or propping the most tired tube-and-fabric antique, that pilot will give the same answer.

Sure, Im a safe pilot. After all, its my behind thats riding just aft of the instrument panel.

Few people like to admit that they have shortcomings as pilots. And when they do, its usually tempered with some mitigating circumstance that demonstrates that bad things only happen to the other guy.

They dont fly instruments, but theyre conservative about the weather. They dont fly often, but when they do theyre extra careful. They skimp on maintenance, but the plane is simple and theres a margin built in for safety.

Because the vast majority of pilots actually do believe theyre safety-conscious, they do concede their shortcomings sometimes. Theyll delay a takeoff until a front blows through. Theyll occasionally hire an instructor even if theyre not legally required. Theyll keep the bird in the hangar for a month because the annual is almost due.

But pilots also pay lip service to safety when they have no intention of altering their plans – at least not enough to keep them out of trouble. These are the pilots who discover that each flight is a test of courage rather than skill and luck rather than judgment.

On the last day of November, the pilot of a Cessna 182 called Flight Service shortly after 7 p.m. to get a weather briefing on a 1,000-mile flight he was planning from Milwaukee to Kissimmee, Fla. He told the briefer hed been watching the weather conditions all day and wanted to leave at 9 p.m. Counting two half-hour fuel stops and one longer one, he was planning to go 11 hours before stopping in Gainesville, Fla, about 100 miles short of his destination.

The briefer painted a pessimistic picture of the weather. An Airmet called for widespread IFR in Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky, but the Airmet was old at the time of the briefing and due to be updated in less than a hour and half. Because of the length of the flight, the briefer looked at the forecasts for airports along the route, reporting marginal VFR, ceilings of 1,500 or less, light rain and IFR conditions en route.

So, I dont know if youre content flying through that kind of stuff, the briefer said.

Im probably going to sit. Ive been waiting since yesterday (Saturday) morning, the pilot told him.

Youre leaving at kind of a peculiar time, arent you? the briefer asked.

Ah, well, Im trying to get down to Florida for a class on Monday, and Im going to be late. Ha, ha, ha, ha. So thats the way its going to be to be safe.

The movement of IFR weather into the northern portion of his route was apparently a surprise to the pilot. He said hed been waiting for ceilings to lift in the Southeast. Although they reported IFR conditions, he held out hope that the upcoming Airmet would have better news.

Are you expecting a change at that point for the better? Is there a trend that is …

I couldnt really say to tell you the truth, the briefer said, later adding, I can give you an honest opinion. Theres quite a bit of moisture in that area so I dont look for anything too spectacular.

However, a front was forecast to move through the area the next day, bringing better weather in the Southeast.

Like I said, youll want to wait until that low pressure center and all that moisture moves out of the Kentucky/Tennessee area. Might want to plan a departure in the morning hours, the briefer said.

Finally convinced, the pilot decided to call it a night and hung up.

Twelve hours later, he was back on the phone to Flight Service. The northern part of the route was expected to have ceilings of 2,500 to 3,500 feet. But the front that had been forecast to sweep the moisture out of the Southeast had turned into a stationary front. The briefer reported occasional mountain obscuration, occasional ceilings below 1,000 feet and some IFR conditions. He did, however, hold out a glimmer of hope.

Its going to take you a long time to get down there anyway. … Most of the IFR should be ending. The only thing I would suggest is get a hold of Flight Watch of Flight Service en route to make sure it does, the briefer suggested.

The briefer also noted that snow and low ceilings were blowing into the Chicago area and recommended the pilot veer to the west, where ceilings were about 3,000 feet broken.

Thats why I suggest basically the west side would be a little bit better for you. Do you want me to throw that into the routing for you so that you get the proper sequences? Thats what youre going to do then, right? the briefer asked, inferring that the pilot would be ready to file a flight plan shortly.

Yes, that sounds like a very prudent idea, the pilot responded.

At one point during the briefing, the pilot hinted at his frustration in trying to make the trip, saying hed been trying to get out for several days, including several times on Sunday. But now it appeared the forecast made him comfortable and he took off and headed south.

He flew out of Milwaukee and around Chicago VFR without filing a flight plan or talking to any air traffic controller. He landed at Louisville, Ky., refueled and departed again for his next planned fuel stop in Knoxville, Tenn., without making any radio contact with any ATC facility.

His on-course heading between Louisville and Knoxville would have been about 155 degrees. However, when he got to Knoxville he did not land. A direct route from Knoxville to Gainesville would have meant a 15-degree turn to the right. The pilot apparently made that turn, perhaps thinking that he would make up for some of the lost time by skipping a planned fuel stop. He never made it to his class in Kissimmee.

The wreckage was found about 22 miles southeast of Knoxvilles McGhee Tyson Airport at 4,300 feet on a ridge line in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that rose to 4,400 feet. The wreckage extended on a heading of 170 and the debris field indicated the airplane was in cruise flight. Investigators could find no evidence of a pre-impact mechanical failure.

The initial impact left most of the right wing and the outboard portion of the left wing lodged in trees about 40 feet above the ground. The fuselage and the engine struck the ground 125 feet farther, and the propeller and spinner tumbled 25 feet beyond that. The pilot was killed on impact.

A hiker in the area at the time reported that the mountains were obscured by heavy fog, with visibility at about 100 to 150 feet. The temperature was cold enough that ice had formed on some of the trees, and there was no wind. At nearby McGhee Tyson, the reported ceiling was 3,200 feet agl (4,200 msl) at the time of the accident.

The pilots logbook was found at the scene. It showed that he had accumulated 460 hours of flight time with no logged instrument time, and about 8 hours in the previous 90 days. Just what his recent experience was, however, is unclear because the log entries were incomplete. Some flights showed only a total flight time, with no aircraft or airport information and no details about the flights. Some showed passengers names, but none broke down the piloting type by aircraft category, conditions of flight, type of piloting time or cross country.

One can draw several conclusions about the pilot based on his log entries and his willingness to take an extended VFR trip through marginal conditions, apparently without using a flight plan, flight following or updating the weather. Not all of the conclusions are flattering, and they may or may not be accurate.

His discussions with the weather briefers, however, show that he had committed to making the trip at the earliest time that he could justify it to himself. Despite the lip service he paid to planning for safety, it is clear his priorities were elsewhere.

He was a minimalist in his record keeping and his flying technique. He put himself into a position where others could have helped him, but he didnt ask for anyones help.

Many are the solitary souls who find solace in aviation. Many of them fly a lifetime relying on no one but themselves. But some talk about safety but act as if theyre invulnerable.

Successful pilots back up their expressions of concern for safety with actions. They know when they can rely on themselves and when to call for help.

Calling yourself a safe pilot does not make you one. The only way to respond to the dynamic world of flying is by making an informed assessment of the risks and your ability to meet the challenges successfully. Pushing on blindly is not the stuff of a safety-conscious pilot.

-by Ken Ibold


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