I was planning a flight in a Cessna 172 to maintain night flight currency. Another pilot, who also held a commercial certificate and claimed 900 hours total time (to my 377) agreed to split the cost of the rental and we would each do three landings.
I got a standard weather briefing and filed a VFR flight plan. I asked my companion if he wanted to make the flight out or the flight back. He said he hadnt flown in a while and just wanted to get familiar with the airplane.
I said I would be PIC for the flight to a nearby airport, and he could be PIC on the trip back if he so desired. He didnt respond.
We took off from Naval Air Station North Island in San Diego at about 1910 and made the standard Blue Crane departure. I tuned the Pogi VOR and identified the station, and crossed almost directly over the Blue Crane. I contacted the tower and informed them I was Blue Crane outbound and was given a frequency change.
I climbed to 1,500 feet while tuning in the ATIS at Brown Field on the #2 comm. As I did that, my companion unexpectedly began retuning the #1 comm. I asked him what he was doing and he said, Its easier with the top radio.
For some reason, we had now lost our comms. I tried retuning the radio to Brown Tower, but got negative results. What did you do to the radio? I asked. He replied, I dont know. I just pushed one of those buttons.
My companion became quiet and would not help troubleshoot the radios. Because I had not yet established radio contact with Brown Tower, I flew a left-hand orbit outside the Class D airspace. I was scanning for traffic and trying to figure out the radios when my companion said, Ill take it while you figure it out. I let him have the flight controls.
After a few orbits of the golf course, I got the #2 radio back up and contacted Brown Tower, receiving pattern entry and communication instructions.I chastised my companion, saying Do not touch anything! Im doing the flight out, remember? You can fly it back.
I took hold of the flight controls and stated, I have the controls. My companion replied, No, Ive got em. I deduced he was embarrassed from the verbal chastising and wanted an opportunity to redeem himself, so I allowed him to fly.
You know how to get there, youve been there before right? I asked. He did not reply. I told him to head 120 and told him a generally southeast heading would take him right to the airport. I turned my attention to my kneeboard and chart and looked out the side window for a few minutes.
Brown Tower surprised me by broadcasting a question to us. Are you guys going to continue on that way, or are you coming in?
I asked my companion what the controller was talking about, and he said he didnt know. I contacted the tower and asked for a repeat. The controller asked if we had the field in sight. When I asked my companion, he said he did not, and I transmitted it to the tower.
The tower asked us to ident, and we were told we were six miles northwest. I looked at the compass to see we were heading 030.
Look at your heading. Youre going 030, I said. He replied, That compass is wrong. I exclaimed, Yeah right – turn to 120 now. He replied, Dude, I am going 120. Im telling you, that compass is screwed up.
Our argument over the heading was interrupted by the tower. Are you guys going to come in?
After my companion did not reply, I radioed, Were just checking something out. Stand by.
Thoroughly frustrated with the situation, I marshaled the controls (with my companion remaining on them) to a heading of 130 degrees and told him to hold the heading.
He held 130 degrees for about 20 seconds, and then began turning back to his original heading of 030 degrees, saying Im telling you, the airport is over here.
I think he was aiming at a dark spot up ahead, which I knew was the vicinity of Otay Mountain. I raised my voice and shouted to him that I had the controls, and he relinquished the airplane.
I turned to 270 degrees in an attempt to try to get back to the Blue Crane and initiate another approach to Brown Field. I kept the dark mountainous high ground to my right flank and the well-lit, populated area of National City and Chula Vista to my left.
My greatest concern became entering Class B airspace without a clearance. I began to encounter a light mist passing over the windshield and hoped it was not the outer fringe of an approaching ceiling. In order to avoid violating VFR minimums or accidentally entering Class B airspace, I opted to make a turn to the north, as the ceiling there was considerably higher.
The ambient light from the city made seeing the ceiling a bit easier, but I wanted to remain near the mountainous terrain to avoid the San Diego Class B airspace and final approach path.
It seemed to me the compass and DG were functioning satisfactorily, but I was slightly apprehensive about placing my full trust in them because of my companions insistence that something was wrong and his greater flying experience.
I did not want to give any credence to his claims, but I also had difficulty believing he would lie to me.
Together we finally figured out where we were, and I concluded we were very close to the Class B airspace, the floor of which went to the surface just west of our position.
I opted to make an aggressive right turn to avoid violating this airspace and ended up in a 45-degree angle of bank. After turning approximately 100 of the 180 degrees necessary to reverse course, I entered instrument conditions.
I reduced the bank angle briefly to that of a standard rate turn and then leveled the wings. I felt that maintaining a standard rate turn would lead us into the mountain because of its large diameter. I could see the moon through a thin layer and opted to climb on top. Brown Tower called and offered help, and as I was replying I flew into dense IMC.
A few seconds passed. Brown Tower failed to respond, I realized that I was closing with the terrain somewhere to my front. I opted to initiate a best angle climb.
I held this aggressive climb angle until the airspeed dropped through 80 knots. It was then that we struck terrain. The total time from entrance into IMC conditions until the point of impact was approximately 30 seconds.
The aircraft flipped and came to rest on its back. Though seriously injured, I was able to find my cell phone and called 911. My companion was also seriously injured, but rescuers were able to find us and get prompt treatment for him.
I was later told my companion had crashed an airplane eight months prior and had suffered an enforcement action as a result. I had known him for several years. He seemed down before the flight, and Id hoped it would lift his spirits to be flying again. Apparently, I was wrong.
Some other lessons to consider: When forced to choose between Class B and mountainous terrain, we respectfully submit that violating the Bravo might be a better choice. Particularly on the outskirts of Bravo space, controllers will typically let you off with a few words and a stern tone of voice.
In addition, your agreement on PIC and positive transfers of aircraft control were good ideas. You shouldnt have had to tell him hands off, but perhaps thats a dangerous assumption to make.
Howd That Get There?
In the mid- to late 1990s, I spent four years as an enlisted member of the Air Force at San Antonios Lackland AFB. During that time, I began taking flying lessons at the nearby Castroville Airport. My first instructor eventually left for the Air Force himself to fly C-5s, and it was on my second flight after a six-month layoff between instructors that I had one of flyings learning experiences.
I had flown south of the airport in one of the schools C-150s for some solo stall practice, and then returned for some touch and goes on runway 15. After my second touchdown, with 20 degrees of flaps extended, I raised the flaps, pushed in the carb heat and smoothly advanced the throttle. I checked the engine instruments for the go part and the aircraft virtually leapt off the runway.
To my surprise, it began assuming a very nose-high attitude and started turning to the left of the runway. I struggled to keep the nose down, glancing nervously at the airspeed indicator, but I failed to use enough control inputs to completely arrest the left drift.
Within seconds, I found my student pilot self at 30-50 feet agl with uncomfortably low airspeed and heading for the windsock instead of the departure end of the runway. The airplane seemed to have gotten a mind of its own.
The reason became clearer as I scanned the panel and noticed the electric flap switch in the fully down position. A quick check of the flaps showed that, indeed, they were fully deployed at 40 degrees down.
Instead of the normal takeoff from a roll I was expecting, I was experiencing a full-flap go-around scenario. At least with that realization I knew what to do. I accelerated, checked for a positive rate of climb and milked the flaps up incrementally as I steered back toward the centerline. With that, I decided to call it a day and made my next landing a full stop.
Even after I parked, I heard not a word about my full-flap takeoff and unapproved left turn. Whew.
Thinking about the episode afterward, I concluded that one of two things probably happened. The flap switch in the airplane was a toggle switch. Flip it up and the flaps raise completely unless you stop them. Flip it down and they fully extend unless you tend the switch and return it to its neutral position.
The 5,000-foot runway at the time was very rough, and its possible that during the bumpy ground roll my hand jostled the flap switch somehow as I tried to retract them. A second possibility – which is definitely one I hope did not actually happen – was that I flipped the switch down instead of up when I wanted to retract the landing flaps.
Having the practice and experience necessary to make aircraft control second nature would have helped, but of course the only way to get that is to accumulate practice and experience. I fell short in this area with respect to directional control because I allowed the airplane to drift off course for fear of overcontrolling.
The value of good flight instruction is also apparent. Prior go-around practice sure helped me – especially the admonition to keep the nose down upon applying climb power when full flaps were extended.
I went on to earn my private certificate shortly afterward, and this incident reaffirmed to me the inherent danger of flight for the unprepared. Once youre up, the only acceptable way down is to make a good landing.
Some other lessons to consider: Switchology can be a real pain, particularly when you move among different kinds of airplanes. Its a good habit to get into the mindset of identifying and verifying before changing anything. In this case, identify the flap switch. Activate it properly. Verify it had the intended result.
This is one reason why some dont like touch and goes – theres too much going on too quickly. But we commend your immediate conclusion that your pickle was the same as a go-around.
Busy Signals on the Radio
Is it possible to get ATC to change its radio frequency procedures? Over the last 10 years, ATC has begun relying more on having individual controllers working different radio frequencies at the same time.
When the workload goes up, communication goes down because more people are stepping on more transmissions. The number of times you hear standby when flying IFR has gotten ridiculous and threatens safety if you need to deviate around weather, for example.
I started flying in 1965 with the USAF and flew 32 years with TWA. Currently I fly a Cessna 310 and have amassed more than 17,000 hours.
Recently I tried to get a course change to avoid thunderstorms. The controller responded with standby, and I altered my course and tried to make contact again. Again I was told to standby, but by now I needed a more dramatic course change, so deviated without changing altitude.
Finally he noticed the new heading and asked what was happening. I told him I needed a deviation to avoid weather, but he was none too happy about it. The reason for the standbys, of course, was that he was working two frequencies simultaneously.