Some flights just dont seem to go right. Your tongue turns to mush when you key the mic. You keep chasing altitude and cant quite get the trim set right. Your dyslexia acts up every time you read back a frequency.
Training and attitude help keep the bad flights away and hold the mistakes to a minimum, but recent experience – the mark of a proficient pilot – may be the single biggest determinant of how easily you can keep misfortune at bay.
Recent experience means more than just how many hours youve logged lately. To be truly proficient, you have to revisit your operating handbook from time to time to review critical speeds and procedures. Check the weight and balance occasionally, even though youve loaded the plane dozens, perhaps hundreds, of times.
The owner of a company flew some friends and relatives from the Midwest to vacation in Florida in the companys Cessna 402B. He had owned this particular plane for more than 18 years and had recently sprung for new radios, color weather radar, an IFR GPS and a sparkling paint job. Clearly this was a serious traveling machine.
Even though hed owned the cabin-class twin since 1979, the pilot stopped by the SimCom International booth at the AOPA convention in Orlando during his vacation and reserved a spot in the initial Cessna 402B simulator training course at SimComs Scottsdale, Ariz., facility three months later.
Was age catching up to the 66-year-old pilot? Did he feel like he needed the formal instruction to compensate for creeping infirmity? Maybe it just dawned on him that it certainly couldnt hurt and, besides, Scottsdale would be a nice change from Indiana come February.
After eight days of R&R, it was time to rejoin the real world and head back home. The pilot, his wife and another couple had been staying at the other couples condo near Sarasota. The pilots son and the sons girlfriend were staying with a friend in Tampa.
On the day of departure, a front was moving through north-central Florida, bringing with it 1,000-foot ceilings and thunderstorms. The pilot called his son in Tampa, 35 miles north, and they agreed to push departure back several hours to give the storms time to pass.
Finally, at about 2:45, the pilot got an IFR clearance for the short hop. He loaded his three passengers and their luggage, verified that the tanks had been topped off, and set off to pick up the other two passengers for the trip back home.
Almost immediately he was given cleared to intercept the localizer for runway 36R in Tampa and given vectors. A small error that may later have been critical is that he acknowledged in his readback that he was cleared for runway 36. Had he forgotten there were parallel runways?
Six minutes later, the controller asked the pilot to verify that he was lined up on the localizer, and the pilot said he was. It looks like kinda the left side to me, the controller replied.
Ive got them both dialed in there. Both showing, uh, showing right on the center, the pilot answered.
The controller turned the pilot 30 degrees right to intercept the right-side localizer.
The pilot overshot the localizer and descended early, prompting the controller to issue instructions to climb and a left turn back toward the localizer. Less than four minutes later, the flight had been turned over to the tower and the pilot reported the airport in sight, but was high and descended quickly toward the field.
As the pilot descended, it took a moment for the tower controller to make visual contact. When he did, he almost immediately issued a warning: Cessna 293, no gear. Go around, go around!
The pilot acknowledged, but by then the die was cast.
Cessna 293, it appears that, uh, you did, uh, hit the runway. Saw some sparks there. You going, uh, to be all right there?
Everything seems to be working, 293, the pilot replied.
OK, you want to circle around and attempt to land again or come back around and let me look at your gear?
Yeah, let me circle around.
OK, make, uh, can you make, uh, well, it looks like youre making left traffic. OK, can you make right traffic?
In fact, the pilot was not making left traffic. When the airplane touched down, 3,500 feet down the 8,300-foot runway, it left an antenna and 66 feet of propeller strike marks on the concrete. The left propeller had been more severely damaged than the right one, and the plane began yawing to the left. As the pilot pitched up to go around, the NTSB determined that the airspeed fell below Vmc and the airplane rolled over and crashed on the north side of the airport.
The pilot and two passengers died in the crash and fire that followed. One passenger escaped with serious injuries.
Several other factors may have contributed to the accident. Investigators determined the airplane, on its way to pick up two passengers and luggage, was already nearly 300 pounds overweight, with the center of gravity more than 3 inches aft of the allowable limit. In post-accident testing, the engines and turbo chargers did not appear to have suffered significant damage from the prop strike.
The pilots son, who also flew the 402, said he had calculated the weight and balance using a computer program, but had used the empty weight of the airplane as 4,195 pounds. The airplanes records, however, showed the actual empty weight as 4509 pounds. At the time of the accident, the aircraft also contained more than 400 pounds of luggage.
Airplanes, like people, tend to gain weight with age. In this respect, the longevity of the pilots ownership may have worked to his detriment. When calculating weight and balance – if in fact it was calculated – the pilot may have plugged in a number vaguely remembered from long ago as the empty weight, without going back and refreshing his memory from time to time.
Although the airplane was illegally loaded, it obviously flew, taking off from Sarasota with 120 pounds more fuel. More troublesome was the pilots improper execution of emergency procedures.
The unstabilized approach led him to descend rapidly toward the runway. When the gear problem was noticed, he was unable to arrest the descent in time to spare the aircraft. When a blade touches the runway, for whatever reason, proper technique calls for putting the airplane on the ground.
A go around with a damaged propeller is a crap shoot of the wildest sort, whereas a slide down the runway is a known, survivable commodity.
Its hard to tell a pilot who has logged 1,700 hours in the same bird to grind the belly on the runway, but at least that way there can be another flight, on another day, where the approach is perfect and the gear does come down.
Sometimes the mistakes are only momentary, which means that when youre having a day where things just arent working out right, the steps you forget may be the ones that can save your life.
-by Ken Ibold