Weathering Heights

Pilot shakes off his own storm warnings and climbs into the only trouble around


Pilots are a self-sufficient lot. The pilot in command has ultimate authority for the safety of the flight, and there are few pilots who can resist the slight smirk that comes with ultimate authority.

A skilled pilot has confidence in his or her ability to fly the airplane, certainly, but also to make the judgment calls that ensure the flight ends safely. But as experience increases, sometimes the judgment gets harder.

An interesting thing happens with a lot of pilots. As their skill improves, so does their equipment. A young pilot may think a set of wings, an engine and a fuselage just dandy. But as the logbook grows, so does the desire for more capability. For a pilot who likes to travel, that can mean sophisticated avionics, pressurization, a second engine, maybe even the move to turbine power.

Increased skill, especially when combined with a more capable aircraft, turns flying into a business instead of a sport. At some point, such a pilot flying such a plane has an inertia that almost guarantees that a trip will be made as scheduled.

In light planes, unfortunately, that certainty can lead the pilot to assume things that sound decision-making cannot support.

The pilot of a Twin Commander was planning a flight from Boca Raton, Fla., to Lawrenceville, Ga., just north of Atlanta, on a January afternoon. The last remnants of a stationary front were hanging around south Florida, but a high pressure region dominated the route of flight.

During the pilots weather briefing, the briefer predicted a good flight.

Most of [the rain] is south of Boca in the Fort Lauderdale area. There are a few showers, one or two isolated moderate to heavier showers just out to the west of Boca. But once you get headed northbound theyre really no longer a factor, the briefer reported. Coming out of Boca, Palm Beach reporting ceilings 2,300 broken, 11,000 overcast, 10 miles.

In all, the briefer said, Looks like a real nice day for you.

The pilot was based at Boca Raton, where isolated moderate to heavy rain and thunderstorms are common. Circumnavigation is generally easy via radar vectors or on-board weather detection equipment. The NTSB report said the airplane carried weather detection, but did not say whether it was radar or a lightning detector.

With his two passengers on board, the pilot taxied the airplane to runway 5 at the uncontrolled field.

Meanwhile, a Cessna Caravan was in contact with Palm Beach Approach for VFR flight following into Boca Raton. Controllers offered the Caravan the VOR approach, which was a southbound approach off of the Palm Beach VOR. The Caravans on-board radar was painting a band of severe weather running north/south and just to the west of the approach course. The pilot of the eastbound Caravan declined the approach and headed south to go around the weather.

The Caravan called Boca Unicom as the Twin Commander was taxiing out. The Unicom operator did not answer, but the pilot of the Twin Commander did. He reported that the view from the ground was that the weather to the north was pretty bad, with low ceilings and heavy rain, but much better to the east, south and southwest. The Twin Commander pilot said the ceilings appeared to be about 2,000 feet and four miles visibility.

As the Caravan made the approach, the Cessna pilot noted that the weather was just as the pilot on the ground had estimated. He landed uneventfully.

While the Caravan was coming in, the pilot of the Twin Commander called Palm Beach Approach to pick up his IFR clearance.

Are you going to be able to go northbound when you come off there? the controller asked him.

Yeah. Well be right in the soup immediately, however, the pilot replied.

[unintelligible] you can do that?

Yes, sir, I can, came the pilots response.

All right … when entering uncontrolled airspace fly heading 310 maintain 2,000. Youre released back to Unicom. Call me on 125.2 when airborne. Clearance is void in 10 minutes, the controller said.

Inexplicably, in light of the weather view the pilot had just given to the Caravan pilot, the Twin Commander departed runway 5 and turned to the northwest. He was cleared to climb to 5,000 feet.

At the same time, a Beech Bonanza was about eight miles north of the airport on the VOR approach to Boca. An American Eagle had just departed Palm Beach and was headed toward Miami. The controller called the Twin Commander and pointed out the American Eagle Saab 340 at 2 oclock and seven miles, southwest bound. The Twin Commander pilot reported he was in IMC.

On the flight deck of the American Eagle plane, the weather radar painted a cell about 15 miles in diameter northwest of the Boca airport. The turboprop deviated slightly to the west and the pilot noted no other significant radar returns in the area.

Thirty seconds later, the controller noticed the Twin Commander was turning left to the southwest. He keyed his mike again.

[Twin Commander], what is your heading?

Niner mike is in trouble, came the chilling reply.

Radar showed the Twin Commander lost altitude rapidly, then disappeared from the scopes at 3:34 p.m. There was no further radio contact with the Twin Commander.

The controller immediately canceled the approach clearance of the Bonanza and turned the airplane to the east and out over the ocean. Then the reality struck.

I think I had one go in northwest of Boca, a Commander. Could you fly over there and look if I get you down to one thousand five hundred? the controller asked the pilot of the Bonanza.

The Bonanza pilot agreed and the controller gave him vectors to the west. A couple of minutes later he reported he was out of the clouds but that visibility was only about three-quarters of a mile. The controller called off the effort and offered the Bonanza another shot at the VOR approach to Boca or a detour to the nearby Lantana airport to land and wait out the storm cell.

Is there an awful lot of weather there and how low is it? the Bonanza pilot asked.

[unintelligible] do not know. It was bad enough to put that one in the ground, the controller responded, recommending the pilot land.

The Bonanza pilot elected to make a visual approach to Lantana. At no time did the Strike Finder aboard the Bonanza register lightning.

Weather radar data showed a large convective cell west of Boca Raton between 3:30 and 3:36 p.m., shifting to the north between 3:36 and 3:41. The WSR-88D radar measured the cells at Level 2 and Level 5. The flight path of the Twin Commander took it within four miles of the center of the Level 5 cell.

The Twin Commander crashed in a palm tree nursery west of Delray Beach. The three occupants were killed when the plane was shredded by the collision. Investigators could find no evidence of an in-flight mechanical failure.

The 62-year-old pilot had a commercial license with more than 1,600 hours. He had flown 843 hours in the Twin Commander, including 72 in the previous 90 days and 41 in the previous 30 days. He had about 270 hours of instrument time, of which more than 40 percent was actual. He had a recent BFR in the plane, had participated in the Wings program and had taken other recurrent training in the airplane.

The pilots record and the transcript of his communications with the weather briefer and controllers show that he took a professional approach to flying. His radio transmissions were precise and efficient in the extreme, with no wasted verbiage.

How such a pilot falls victim to the weather is puzzling on first glance. This is the kind of pilot younger and less experienced aviators aspire to be.

A closer look, however, may detect the chinks in the armor.

His businesslike approach certainly shows him well rehearsed in the ways of flying, but he may have been lulled into complacency by the capability of his airplane and his years of uneventful flying.

The fact that he warned the Caravan of the weather yet didnt quibble when assigned to fly at it demonstrates his confidence in his ability and his machine – confidence that, in this case, was misplaced.

-by Ken Ibold


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