A Skosh of Paranoia

Posted by in Safety

A fellow pilot and I got into a conversation recently about an AOPA accident reconstruction. A Cirrus SR-22 pilot was instructed to enter the pattern downwind at Melbourne, Florida, and then was simply cleared to land without being informed about another aircraft on a straight-in final for the same runway. By the time the Cirrus was on base, the tower tried to fix the conflict by urging the pilot to cut a hard right turn toward the runway. The result was a fatal stall/spin accident.

My friend wrote:

I can all but guarantee that controller had forgotten about the Cirrus on the straight-in when he cleared the accident aircraft to land. I don’t know of any controllers that would clear someone to land from the downwind with the intention of them following an aircraft that was on a straight-in.

Recovery should’ve been simple, have the accident aircraft just continue northbound and make a 270 to join the final for 9R, once clear of the arriving Cessna for 9L and the Cirrus for 9R. Or, a go-around.

Yelling “Cut it in tight” is quite possibly the dumbest thing you can tell a landing aircraft to do unless you’re trying to get them killed.

I agreed with him: the controller probably forgot about the Cirrus and his urgent-sounding instruction to “cut it in tight” was a poor move. AOPA concluded that the issue was a communication breakdown, and while that might be a contributing factor, it’s not the controller who is responsible for the flight. It’s the pilot.

Despite the stall/spin character of the accident, this wasn’t necessarily a stick & rudder flying problem per se. It seems to me that his error was trying to please the controller, that commanding, disembodied voice on the other side of the frequency who seemingly knows best. A better idea might have been for the pilot to simply add power and climb straight out. Or make a (more gentle) turn. Or anything else, as long as he didn’t stall the aircraft.

It’s a shame we pilots feel the compulsive need to follow the flying directions of people who don’t know how to fly. If you step back and look at it from that perspective, the folly of abdicating even the slightest bit of our PIC authority and decision-making power to another becomes evident. But for some reason, this deferral seems to be baked into our DNA, and we ignore that tendency at our peril. Skepticism and a skosh of paranoia are not always a bad thing.

In this case, the smarter move would have been to simply say “unable, I’m going to climb out to the north and circle back onto the downwind” and let ATC deal with it. I actively watch for moments like these when I’m instructing, because they present a vital learning experience for the student that might save their hide somewhere down the line long after I’ve left the cockpit.

I bet if you played this clip for a dozen pilots and ask them to identify the fatal flaw, most would either blame the controller for the poor direction or the pilot for stalling the airplane. Both made errors, no doubt about it. But if you look at it from a larger point of view, I think the issue was simply trying to comply with a controller directive when the correct action would have been to realize it was patently unsafe to do so.

This is all after-the-fact Monday-morning quarterbacking, of course. I can’t claim to know what the pilot was thinking when he cranked into that tight left turn. Perhaps he thought the other aircraft was about to hit him and turned away for that reason. Sometimes immediate action is called for.

Speaking of which, I was being coached in the aerobatic box at Borrego Springs a few years ago and while in the middle of a figure — a 45 degree up-line, no less — the guy coaching me called over the radio and said, “Traffic, turn right NOW” and I simply did it. Good thing too, because a Bonanza went right through our waivered and NOTAMed airspace, totally oblivious to what was going on just feet from his aircraft. If I’d delayed by another second I’d probably be dead.

On the other side of the coin, I was taxiing out from the ramp at São Paulo/Congonhas Airport in Brazil a couple of months ago and the ground controller gave us a taxi route which required crossing a runway, but didn’t include the runway crossing instruction in the route. That was odd, but in foreign countries it’s not uncommon for them to use slightly different words or phraseology. I asked the other pilot to confirm with the controller that we were, indeed, cleared to cross that runway. ATC replied in the affirmative. Whew!

Still, something didn’t feel right. We looked at each other, I set the parking brake, and we agreed that we weren’t going to go anywhere until we were fully convinced that the controller knew exactly where we were. Long story short, our inclinations were correct and ATC was completely confused about our location despite our specifying the exact intersection numerous times. A skosh of paranoia already accompanies most international flying, but this really put us on our toes for the rest of the trip.

You’ll hear all sorts of advice on emergent situations. Some say never rush into anything, others will tell you immediate, decisive action is invaluable. It would be lovely if there was a single “best strategy” for every situation, but like many things in the world of aviation, there are times when one of those responses can save your bacon… and just as many when it might get you killed. The real trick is knowing which is which.