Tools for Taking Off

Before taking off, we need to ensure the aircraft were using is up to the task.


I recently read an online comment from a wizened aviator to the effect that weather, by itself, has rarely if ever been responsible for an aviation accident. On the other hand, failure of the airplanes crew to correctly fly the airplane in that weather will mean a bad day for everyone aboard just about every time. Since the airplane is an inanimate object capable only of responding within its limitations to what its crew commands, the comment is exactly on-target. One of our challenges as pilots is to bring the required judgment, skill and experience along in the airplane.

Of course, the average general aviation airplane is a marvel of reliability and capability. Even when considering an older design, the advances in technology since its introduction make trivial the task of equipping it with the latest in automated systems, allowing its crew to benefit from detailed information and situational awareness only dreamed of a generation ago.

Too often, however, those advances tend to convince pilots an airplane equipped with the latest and greatest gadgets is more capable than it might otherwise be. In an incremental sense, theyre right. Unfortunately, the revolution in avionics and automated systems doesnt translate into a revolution in overall capability.

One result is overconfidence in the equipment. A pilots overconfidence-whether in equipment or skill-can bring about an overall failure to understand and comply with operating limitations ranging from weather, to range and to payload.

Ultimately, the airplane is just a tool, one suited to many tasks. How we employ that tool-and whether the tool is appropriate for the task-will determine the flights outcome every time.


On February 22, 2006, at 0950 Eastern time, a Cessna 172R was destroyed during collision with terrain while maneuvering for landing after an instrument approach to the Freeway Airport (W00) in Mitchellville, Md. The airline transport pilot (ATP) and the private pilot were fatally injured. A passenger was seriously injured. Instrument conditions prevailed. The flight originated not far away, at the Warrenton-Fauquier County Airport (formerly W66; now KHWY) in Warrenton, Va.

The mornings mission was to pick up a passenger at W00 and continue on to Atlantic City, N.J. The weather wasnt good. At 0941, the weather reported at Andrews Air Force Base, nine miles southwest of W00, included an overcast layer at 500 feet and visibility of two miles in snow and fog. A minute later, weather at the Baltimore-Washington International Airport (BWI), 14 miles to the north, included broken clouds at 500 feet, an overcast layer at 900 feet and -mile visibility in snow and fog.

The flight used the RNAV (GPS) Runway 36 approach at W00, for which the minimum descent altitude was 700 feet msl. Since W00s field elevation is 168 feet msl, the field was at or below minimums. Witnesses at W00 said the clouds were “on top of the trees” and visibility was about mile due to snow and fog.

At about 0930, a pilot announced over the Unicom frequency five miles south of the airport, inbound on the approach. The airplane overflew the airport and the pilot asked if the runway lights were illuminated. The airport manager answered that the lights were on, but recommended diverting to BWI for landing because the “visibility was only mile in heavy snow.” The pilot did not respond.

Radar data indicate the airplane flew over the airport at about 500 feet msl, then performed a missed approach, and completed a five-mile, right-hand circuit before returning for a second attempt on the same approach. While maneuvering for the second approach, the pilot reported clouds “were broken at 600 to 700 but we couldnt see the runway.”

During the second approach, witnesses observed the airplane over the south end of the runway, between 200 and 300 feet agl. It flew the length of the runway at low altitude, then turned west, circling to the right in a “dramatic” and “nose-high attitude.” The airplane overflew the runway headed south and turned west away from the airport as engine power increased and the flaps were retracted. The airplane entered a steep left bank back towards the airport and “nose-dived” out of view. Seconds later, the sounds of impact were heard.


The ATP reported 2900 hours at his last medical certification application; the non-instrument-rated private pilot had logged about 180 hours. The Skyhawk was a 2001 model. No pre-impact malfunctions of the airframe, airplane systems, engine or avionics were noted. Control cable continuity was established to all flight control surfaces from the cockpit area. The flaps were found in approximately the 10-degree setting.

Investigators performed weight and balance calculations revealing the airplane weighed 2604 pounds at takeoff, 147 pounds above the maximum gross takeoff weight (MGTOW) of 2457 pounds. Calculations based on nominal fuel consumption rates indicate the airplane weighed about 2526 pounds at the time of the crash, 69 pounds above MGTOW. The passenger who was to board the airplane at W00 weighed approximately 175 pounds.

Probable Cause

The National Transportation Safety Board determined the probable cause of this accident to include the “pilots improper in-flight planning/decision to attempt a landing in weather conditions below landing minimums, and his failure to maintain airspeed while maneuvering. Factors in the accident were the fog and snow.” To which Id add using the wrong tool.

I cant find a lot of fault with the idea of being out in that weather. It doesnt appear icing was an issue, just low ceilings and visibility. The 172 usually performs well and does a decent job in that environment. But it clearly wasnt the best choice for this mission, forced as it was to take off and fly overgross, with plans to add even more weight. Many of us have operated overgross, and done it in a 172, but I doubt we were in a snowstorm, making circling approaches close to the ground.

Theres an old saying: When your only tool is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. Choosing an airplane with different capabilities-a higher useful load and anti-ice capabilities come to mind-likely would have helped prevent this accident. Doing so might have meant a greater margin above stall when turning steeply close to the ground.


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