An Accident Waiting to Happen. Again.

Posted by in Aviation, Safety

Air Facts contributor John Zimmerman recently wrote about watching a pilot massively overload an aircraft and then proceed to takeoff from a short runway on a hot day, barely avoiding disaster.

He then asks how we should respond when an aviator is witnessed performing a Stupid Pilot Trick. Do we confront them? Call the FAA? Shrug and walk away? What is our responsibility, and when are we morally obligated to get involved?

It’s a difficult question to answer, especially for those of us who are not confrontational by nature. It’s something I’ve been struggling with lately, as Zimmerman’s article brought to mind a mind-blowing encounter I had with a Darwin Award candidate while conducing some commercial checkride prep with a student at a local non-towered airport this week.

Peter and I were working on high-performance landings and power-off 180 degree accuracy approaches when we witnessed a vintage Skyhawk enter the pattern on a 45 degree final. He proceeded toward the runway at low altitude, clearly out of glide distance of the runway while over a densely populated residential area. He then landed and taxied to the fuel pit without so much as a single radio call. Even the exterior lights on his aircraft were off.

At first this might not sound like a supremely egregious violation of good piloting practice and common sense. The lack of radio communication could be explained by any number of possible scenarios.

Maybe the pilot was transmitting on the wrong frequency. We’ve all keyed in the wrong digits on at least on occasion, right? Perhaps he had an electrical system or radio failure, or a bad push-to-talk switch. The wrong radio could have been selected on the audio panel. The pilot’s headset could be faulty.

Let’s also remember that aircraft at non-towered airports aren’t legally required to have a radio, let alone use one. In other words, the aircraft’s actions could be explained by information I didn’t have at my disposal.

Unfortunately, none of those things were true. The pilot wasn’t a random visitor to this airport. After we landed, I immediately recognized the N-number and paint scheme on the aircraft: this guy had been in a mid-air collision at that very same airport six years ago!

A bad way to end a flight

I remember it well. It was a very busy weekend day after an extended spate of stormy weather. In other words, everyone and their mother was at the airport that day to go flying. The pattern had been buzzing with traffic. On that memorable day, our silent hero had made the same non-standard pattern entry at the same low altitude, and did so with no communication despite the fact that his airplane has a fully functioning radio.

As if this isn’t enough, the pilot in question is also an instructor and I personally heard one of his students testify that he teaches them not to use the radio. His logic? “It’s better to focus on flying the airplane”.

Anyway, according to multiple witnesses on the ground, he’d overtaken another airplane from below and behind and the two airplanes had collided on short final. There were no injuries, and miraculously enough, damage to one airplane was minor while the other came away literally unscathed except for a dent on the horizontal stabilizer.

You’d think it virtually impossible for a mid-air to be survivable, but it does happen. The final approach collisions typically have one aircraft descending on top of another since they’re both aligned with the runway. The relative speed — and therefore, energy — of the collision is about as low as possible for two airplanes in flight.

These accidents don’t always have happy endings; the 2007 P-51 midair at Oshkosh one such example. Even then, one of the two Mustang pilots survived without injury. But there are also many instances of non-injury mid-airs. There was one between a Gulfstream jet and a King Air while on approach to Van Nuys Airport in October, 2000. Last July, two aircraft collided in cruise flight in Alaska without injury to any occupants in either plane.

Anyway, flash forward to today. Peter and I are taxiing back to the runway after our landing and as we roll past the fuel pump, I feel myself getting more and more angry. Not so much about what happened in the past, but that the pilot of that airplane learned absolutely nothing from his experience. He still has a radio and refuses to use it. He still makes non-standard entries and sneaks in below other traffic without yielding.

It astounds me to know that even a mid-air collision was unable to convince this guy of the errors of his ways. NTSB accident statistics clearly demonstrate that see-and-avoid cannot guarantee traffic avoidance. Your odds are best when you use all the tools available to you, and that includes standard traffic procedures, radio usage, aircraft lights, etc.

The moral of the story is that there are other people like him out there. What is our responsibility when we encounter one? If they kill themselves, fine. As they say, it’s a free country. But what about the folks they take with them? The students they teach bad habits to? The awful reputation they give to general aviation? The chaos they create even when nobody gets hurt?

Aside from talking to the pilot (and I’m fairly certain that wouldn’t do much good), there’s little I can do in this situation aside from using it as an teachable example for my student.

Except for the vague and variable definition of “careless and reckless operation”, the pilot did not violate any regulation I can think of. Radios are not required. Standard pattern entries and published TPAs are recommendations. We never got close enough to cause a near-collision situation. But mark my words, this guy is going to cause serious damage someday, even if it’s only second-hand through the poor technique he’s passed along to students.

He is, without a doubt, an accident waiting to happen. Again and again.