#1  
Old 02-21-2003, 06:30 AM
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Sometimes I'd Rather Be Wrong


Wasn't sure if this should go in the Pit or here...

As many of you already know, I fly small planes. For me, this is an expensive hobby, but it does keep me off the streets and out of the bars. I'm based at a small local airport which serves a variety of flying machines.

Well, every airport has a couple of guys who push the envelope. And maybe that's a good thing if you're a test pilot. Not so good if you're an instructor or flying charter.

Anyhow, this one character who's a senior instructor and a charter pilot has been a fixture for several years. I've been saying (along with other folks) for quite awhile that one day his arrogance would exceed his skills and he'd get himself killed. This was usually followed by an expressed desire that he be alone in the airplane when it happened. Mind you, this guy was good from a technical standpoint. Maybe even great. It was his judgement that caused concern, his willingness to take risks.

Well, last Sunday it finally happened.

And he wasn't alone.

For those of you who may not know (after all, some of you are from outside the US), the Eastern US experienced quite a storm over that weekend. For two days - Sunday and Monday - none of the major airlines were flying anywhere on the East coast. Despite this, Mr. Charter Pilot took off in a small twin with a commercial-pilot-in-training for a co-pilot and, as passengers, a woman and her four children. They took off for an airport in eastern Kentucky, just shy of the Cumberland Gap and the Appalacian mountains. Granted, the Appalacians aren't the Rockies - but they are mountains and to be respected. And while the area was not in the heart of the blizzard it was on the southern edge of the massive weather system.

On final approach into the airport they came in much too low. The airplane collided with trees which sheared off the wings and part of the tail, and apparently beat up what was left the plane - one of the children was ejected. The remainder of the fuselage impacted the side of a tall foothill/small mountain.

The lady passenger was some tough gal - despite a broken pelvis she apparently dragged herself and her three remaining children out of the burning wreck. Mr. Charter Pilot and co-pilot were dead on arrival, as was the young boy who had fallen out just prior to the crash.

It took a couple hours for emergency crews to get some all terrain vehicles up the side of the hill, given the weather and the landscape. Some of the wreckage was still burning. They took the survivors down the mountain, along with the little boy they found hanging from a tree nearby. They deemed the situation too hazardous to spend the time extricating the pilots, who were apparently quite dead (I did not ask for details) so they left them up there until the weather cleared on Tuesday.

Mother and three surviving children are expected to recover fully.

The pilots arrived back in Indiana later in the week. The co-pilot's funeral is today. The chief pilot's will be tomorrow.

Sad, isn't it?

Just a couple things bother me:

If the airlines aren't flying, neither should small charter aircraft which simply do not have the weather tolerance of a big jet.

There's no excuse for flying that low on final approach. Especially since he'd flown to that airport several times before. On an instrument approach (which he was on) there's supposed to be a minimum 500 foot buffer between the airplane and obstacles, frequently even more than that. Even a student pilot is expected to hold altitude within 100 feet. As a commercial pilot he should have done much better. Given his skill - which was above average - he should have been spot-on the proper altitude. Alright, there is one "excuse" - if he'd been carrying a load of ice. Another plane went down on the other side of the Cumberland Gap that same night due to ice build-up, so maybe that was it. Except - he shouldn't have been flying in such weather to begin with.

He should have told the lady she would just have to get home a day or two late. If United, American, Delta, Southwest, Northwest, ATA, et al aren't flying east - why they hell should they? Surely getting home a couple days late is perferable to broken bones and a dead child.

What do I think happened? I think the weather was worse than he expected - the clouds lower than would allow for a safe approach to the airport. Back home he'd been known to come in low. That's dangerous enough at your home field where you are very famillar with local landscape and obstacles. At a different field, with vertical terrain nearby, that's nearly suicidal. Maybe he had shaved a few feet off the minimums before and gotten away with it - this time, he kept going lower, hoping to see the runway.

He was a smart guy - I'm sure there was a horrified interlude between the time the trees did a cheese-slicer number on the airplane and the final impact. Although this gentleman was not my favorite person I did not wish any harm on him. I wouldn't wish that sort of fate on anyone.

Needless to say, the mood at the airport has been quite subdued. He was the chief flight instructor. He has other students that must now find other instructors. It would not be surprising if some choose to quit flying. A new instructor will have to be found for his ground school class - which is not particularly hard, just disruptive. In addition to a widow, he leaves behind a mistress, also an airport employee, and a young girl. She has been too distraught to work. She may not come back to that job, we just don't know. Can't say I approve of the extra-marital relationship, but the girl did care for him and her pain and grief are genuine. Don't know his wife, but she's quite worked up too, of course, and has the additional aggravation of local reporters calling on her. What sort of jackass goes up to a new widow and says "How do you feel about your husband being dead?" She feels abosolutely shitty, of course, what sort of idiot even has to ask?

The co-pilot leaves behind a wife and three children. Also plagued by reporters although they seemed to have been a bit more successful at fending them off.

I've been in the flying game long enough to know the risks. There ARE risks, no matter how careful you are. What aggravates me most is this didn't have to happen. This guy is well known for his boldness - if he had said "not today - not safe" NO ONE would have questioned his verdict.

Ego. Damn ego. That's what I think it was. The arrogance of thinking there was nothing he couldn't handle.

No, he wasn't one of my friends, but his absence has left a hole at the airport. It wasn't more than two weeks ago the two of us were cajoling cold balky airplane engines to start on a winter morning. I sure I wasn't one of his favorite people, either, but we did have respect for each other. He was there just about all the time, and even before this when he wasn't around folks would comment on his absence.

So - is this a Pit thread, or a MPSIMS thread? Because I don't feel like ranting over this, I'm just... sad. Sad for the family that lost a child. Sad for the family that lost a father. Sad that someone with potential is no longer on this earth. Something went wrong, probably due to a stupid mistake, and three people died.

I really wish I'd been wrong about him.
  #2  
Old 02-21-2003, 11:11 AM
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Well, that really sucks. Very sad all around.
  #3  
Old 02-21-2003, 11:16 AM
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A very sad story, Broomstick. My heart goes out to you.
  #4  
Old 02-21-2003, 11:25 AM
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"...a woman and her four children."

Getting to that part on passengers in your story just made me physically cringe. Thanks for sharing Broomstick. We'll take your very well written story to heart. Tis sad indeed.
  #5  
Old 02-21-2003, 12:23 PM
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Very sad, Broomstick, that is heart-wrenching.
  #6  
Old 02-21-2003, 03:34 PM
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Re: Sometimes I'd Rather Be Wrong


Quote:
Originally posted by Broomstick
In addition to a widow, he leaves behind a mistress, also an airport employee, and a young girl.
Sad story. I wish you'd been wrong about him too. Thinking of the widow, did she know about the mistress? Does she need to know about the mistress now? Not so sure I'd post something like this in a public form. One never knows who's reading these things.
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Old 02-21-2003, 03:46 PM
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Years ago I dated a pilot. He told me there's a saying among aviators: "There are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots."

What a sad, horrible thing for everyone. He paid the ultimate price for his stupidity and worse, made others pay the price too.

So sorry, Broomstick.
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Old 02-21-2003, 03:48 PM
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Hmmm, yes, one always wonders just what the wife knows....

A rumor has emerged that she had filed for divorce... but that is unconfirmed. However, the affair was NOT a secret down at the airport and, believe me, my mention of it was FAR more discreet that what normally flies around. Which is not an excuse, but more an explanation of why I felt OK with mentioning it. I mean, he and the mistress had shared a hotel room together on at least one occassion during a group trip involving about 28 other regulars from the airport and had made no effort to hide that. Other things, too, which I don't feel comfortable repeating in public.

Me - I wouldn't mention it to the widow whether she knew or not. In fact, I mostly don't bring that up, although other folks sure have. Except for here. Because it's part of the grief and suffering.

Sure, some of the locals could be reading - but they'd already know, more than likely. Maybe I should have kept quiet about it, but if the parties involved weren't shy about it why should I be?

Actually, that I am a little peeved about - given the age differences the mistress was at a distinct disadvantage experience-wise. To my eye he was using her and would eventually hurt her badly - I just didn't expect it to be quite this. Nonetheless, folks around here know why she's taking funeral leave when she wasn't a relative. The widow, of course, will have the public sympathy and be center stage. The best the mistress gets is some space and silence.
  #9  
Old 02-21-2003, 07:03 PM
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Good grief!

Being that I'm in Lexington, KY, of course I'd heard of this accident. It was in the papers and on the local news stations. But usually that's the only side of any story that I know. This is an odd feeling.

The boy that was killed was one of a set of triplets. The other kids are out of the hospital now, I believe, though the mother is still recovering.
  #10  
Old 02-22-2003, 02:25 AM
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Did the mother realize the risk when she decided to fly with her four children? Dear god, I mean, that was one hell of a bad storm.
  #11  
Old 02-22-2003, 05:07 AM
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That sucks Broomstick. How horrible for everybody! It's awful when you say something nasty about somebody and then it happens. I've done that too. Of course it wasn't your fault, but it does make you feel horrible. I'm sorry you have to go through this.
  #12  
Old 02-22-2003, 05:32 AM
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The mother and her children had made the same trip in the same plane with the same pilot before... Presumably, she trusted him. You have to remember, the chief pilot in this accident WAS a skillful pilot. If he had been continually reckless and heedless the system would have yanked his license. The vast majority of the time he wasn't a problem, but like someone who only ocassionally drives too fast, that wasn't good enough this time.

As for the storm... to MY mind, if the airlines aren't flying due to weather I shouldn't be either - and neither should small planes in general. But the pilot is the final authority. A non-pilot doesn't have the knowledge base from which to determine when it is safe and when it isn't, which makes it easier for the pilot to say "Oh, I can handle it, really I can" when he can't. And it becomes hard for the passenger to say "Wait a minute, this isn't a good idea". Remember, there was another pilot on board, a man who had much more ability to evaluate the situation, who also felt it was safe to go on this flight. So please do not fault the woman in this case.

Want to know what aviation weather reports look like? Like this:

KGYY 220350Z 00000KT 4SM BR SCT250 M01/M02 A2978 RMK LAST

I can look at that and see that at Gary Regional Airport on February 22 at 0350 GMT the winds were dead calm, visibility was 4 miles with mist, and there was a scattered layer of clouds at 2500 feet above the ground. There also some business about the type of weather equipment and the comment that this was the last report of the day. This is just an example, and only one of many types of cryptic, coded weather reports and forecasts. Could the average person see that?

As for what that all means... it means I might practice my take-offs and landings, but I personally wouldn't leave the vicinity of the airport. Even though the airplanes I fly are equipped to handle flying through clouds, I do not have the training to do so safely. Four miles visibility is very near the legal limits for a pilot without an instrument rating. Which occassionally causes confusion - pilots such as myself will say "I'm not flying because of the weather" but other pilots at the same airport, using the same airplanes, will readily fly under such conditions and, in fact, it is safe for them to do so.

See, that's one reason aviation is so heavily regulated. The average person doesn't have the experience or knowledge to know what is safe and what is not. The average person can't look at an airplane and know whether it properly equipped for instrument flight, or how much of a crosswind it is capable of handling. The average person can't evaluate the pilot's skills, or how they stand in relation to the weather.

Also remember that they didn't take off in Kentucky - they took off in Indiana. The winds were gusty enough that I chose not to fly that day, but the Cessna 421 they were using was more than adequate for the conditions here that evening. So they took off, were soon in the clouds. The woman would see only gray outside, she would have no way to know how bad things were getting out there.

This happens ... I read a report yesterday that the pilot for Senator Paul Wellstone's final trip had considered cancelling the trip, then changed his mind (unfortunately). About 6 years ago I was based at a different airport where a business jet crashed on take-off - hey, when the winds are strong enough to blow the weather equipment off the control tower and they were contemplating shutting down O'Hare a mere 8 miles away it seemed obvious to me it was a bad day for flying, but the pilot insisted he could handle it. He couldn't.

It's a problem in aviation, and I'm not entirely sure it will ever go away. It is possible to follow every regulation and still have an accident due to weather. This sort of thing tends to happen to pilots whose skills are above average - they aren't stupid or incompetant, at least not on a technical level. They are highly motivated to get the job done. Problem is, sometimes the job shouldn't be done. This runs counter our business culture's attitude towards customer service, get the job, get the job done, and make money. Imagine if the CPA says to the CEO - "sorry, you can't do that". Well, in accounting you get an Enron or Arthur Anderson disaster. Problem is, when you have an airplane accident you can lose people as well as money. So you get someone who's a spectacular stick-and-rudder guy who has a reputation for being able to get the job done when no one else can... and he makes a mistake in marginal conditions.

Regardless, I've seen customers screaming at a pilot - they don't want to hear it's unsafe where they're going, especially if it's nice where they're taking off. They don't want to hear "no" - they've paid their money, they want what they want, and by golly the customer is always right, right? Sometimes the employer gets in on this, too - there's a local charter operator in my area who is notorious for pushing pilots into unsafe flights. And he gets the "won't take no for an answer" customers because his operation is the last to stop flying every time.

Was this woman that sort of customer? I sort of doubt it - women tend not to be, especially when traveling with children. But while the "cause" of this accident seems simple - they came in too low and hit trees - there's really a multitude of factors that lead to an accident like this.

Let's look at all the places the chain of events could have been interrupted:

* The woman could have heard on the TV that there was terrible weather out east, the airlines weren't flying there, and chosen to extend her stay. This isn't an airline with a ticket and a set time for departure... charter is by definition "unscheduled". If the customer is uncomfortable waiting is certainly an option.

* The pilot could have looked at the weather and said "not safe"

* After they took off, the pilot could have (and should have, and may well have) checked and double-checked the weather en route and, if it became apparent it was not going to be safe, or would be marginally safe, turned around or landed short of the goal, but landed safely.

*The next turning point is more speculative - if they picked up a load of ice on descent they may not have had a choice about their altitude, but if he choose to come in low - which I have no way of knowing - then he could have chosen not to. If the clouds were so low that he could not have approached the runway without "busting mimimums" - again, this is speculating - then he could have elected to not attempt a landing and to fly to better weather and land there. They were, after all, near the edge of this weather system.

That's three or four places where a decision to proceed or not had to be made.

Truth is, I may be a pilot, but I don't have the knowledge or training to be able to evaluate a flight plan in low/no visibility conditions for a Cessna 421, either. I'm not famillar with what that airplane can handle, and I don't know where the line between safe and unsafe weather lies either in that situation. Well, yeah, freezing rain, tornados, hurricaines, and thunderstorms are all no-go no-brainers in my book, but that's not where the question gets difficult. It's difficult between the extremes of "abosolutely clear and calm" and "all hell is breaking loose and pouring forth from the heavens.

Sure, I've flown with other people through clouds - and I'm darn picky about who I step into an airplane with. On one of those flights - a training flight - I actually handled the controls during the flight. BUT - it was someone I trusted, who sat down and explained to me the weather conditions (which were a heck of a lot less extreme than in this case), and we certainly did not have any passengers on board. Which is another rule - you do not mix training flights and charter flights. It's not fair to the passengers.

Want a free tip? If the airlines aren't flying stay on the ground. If there is ice, freezing rain, or heavy snow - don't fly in a small charter craft. Small aircraft ARE safe... when flown within their limits. They can safely handle clouds, rains, and so forth - up to a point. They can't handle weather as severe as the big jets. It's mostly a matter of physics, not safety equipment. So don't blame the machine for the mistake of the human.

We don't blame cars for being dangerous when it's the people inside who drive too fast or drive in a dangerous manner. Likewise, it's not that small aircraft are dangerous in and of themselves, the problem is people push the machine beyond its limits. And they push themselves beyond their own limits.
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Old 02-22-2003, 05:46 AM
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Quote:
Originally posted by dwyr
Being that I'm in Lexington, KY, of course I'd heard of this accident. It was in the papers and on the local news stations. But usually that's the only side of any story that I know. This is an odd feeling.
[MUSIC]...it's a small world after all... it's a small world after all...[/MUSIC]

I drive through your area several times a year to visit my in-laws just over the Tennessee line. Flown in the area, too.

The airport owner up here is originally from your neighborhood.

We're a lot closer than you think... especially in an airplane that cruises at about 250 mph.

I'm sure there will be more fall-out from the accident. The NTSB is still investigating, and will be for some time. They'll attempt to reconstruct the airplane, determine if there were mechanical problems, check the pilots for toxicology, investigate the weather and if anyone else was having problems (actually, they were - as I said, another plane went down that same night), check to see all the rules for a charter flight were followed, and so forth.

And then there are the lawsuits... there are always lawsuits.

Which troubles me from a selfish viewpoint - if there are too many lawsuits, or the awards are large enough, the airport goes under. For me, that means the inconvience of finding another place to fly. But for the 50 or so folks employed there... it means losing their job. With the pilot dead, the lawyers will go after the airport owner, the airplane owner, and the man's employer - all of whom happen to be the same person. And, oh yes, I'm sure the man's estate will be sued - which essentially mean they'll go after the widow, too. Of both pilots

>sigh<
  #14  
Old 02-23-2003, 06:36 AM
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Well, here I am again and maybe this will be the last time I feel a need to vent about this.

The Indiana funerals are done as of yesterday. The co-pilot is buried. The chief pilot is on his way back to his native India. How sad for his parents, to have to make such a long journey - halfway around the world - to bring their son home in a box.

There's quite a social life at the airport on the weekend. Even pilots who are flying, pilots who aren't (for whatever reason) flying, former pilots... It's a place to get together and talk about a mutual passion.

Needless to say, very somber yesterday. Folks showing up in suits and ties instead of blue jeans and old shirts. Even the girl working the front desk, a sweetie who is always in a good mood, was subdued. It was also her 18th birthday. A few of us got her a card, a balloon, and a box of chocolates. No reason to forget her birthday, and it did relieve some of the sadness to have something happy to talk about.

A few more things have come to light, among them the news that the airplane was off-course and a 1,000 feet too low. This, for an airport that has a very specific approach due to the rising hills around it. At night, in low clouds, there would be no chance for them to see the hills. This does bring up a possibility of instrument problems... yet they had two altimeters on board. Dual failure is possible but extremely rare. If a pilot is paying attention an altimeter failure can be detected. Was there some sort of distraction? Something else going wrong? Or just fatal lack of attention? Just who was flying the plane at that point? (They usually determine this from a characteristic pattern of injuries suffered by the person with their hands on the main control wheel, but in this circumstance they bodies may have been too mangled and burned to make that obvious) The co-pilot was not qualified to land that airplane, he should not have touched the controls at all with a paying passenger in the back. Maybe he did, maybe he didn't. We might never know that, either.

I suppose we'll have endless questions until the final NTSB report comes in - typically months to even a year - and even then there are some things we'll never know.

I was at the dentist a couple weeks ago. He's also a regular at airport, and I was kidding him about my x-rays - "I don't care what you take pictures of, as long as you never have to use them to identify me." Huh. This dentist probably works on the teeth of 3/4 of the airport. Have to wonder if he had to overnight copies of x-rays for both these guys to Kentucky last week. Hard enough to do that for any patient, I suppose, but it can't be easier when you know the guys socially as well as in the dentist's chair.

I really feel the passengers were betrayed. We pilots take on the risks of flight, we know what we're risking every time we go full throttle for take-off. But for our passengers... they usually don't know. Our bargain with them is to do everything possible to return them safely to earth, to avoid danger with them aboard, to err on the side of caution. It hurts terribly when a pilot dies alone in an airplane - any death hurts - but it is so much worse when a passenger is injured or killed. We're supposed to catch the flaw in the plane, the flaw in the weather, the flaw in ourselves and keep the passenger safe from all of them

I hope the survivors in Kentucky all make a full recovery.
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