Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Stamp Out CFIT

Truth is, not everybody learns from their mistakes

It was mid-1977, and I had been assigned a story on the first production model of a new twin. The demo pilot had flown halfway across the United States to demonstrate what the airplane could do and allow me a chance to fly it for a few hours.

We launched from Long Beach, Calif. I investigated stalls, cruise, single-engine performance and all the other parameters, flew an air-to-air photo session and then landed back at Long Beach. We shook hands, and he loaded his wife aboard and launched for San Diego.

Late that evening, I learned he hadn’t made it. He had hit a hill down by San Diego. The NTSB determined that the airplane was operating normally in cruise flight and, apparently, flew straight into the side of a gentle rise. We’ll never know the exact circumstances of the accident, but the problem is all too common. It’s called CFIT (controlled flight into terrain), and the FAA suggests it accounts for about one of every six general aviation fatalities.

I’m sad to admit that I’ve lost five friends in similar accidents involving everything from Caravans to Skylanes. Most of those pilots were competent, instrument-rated aviators with thousands of hours of experience. Some were professionals (one was an airline captain) who had been flying for 20 years. One was a CFIIM.

I’m also embarrassed to admit that I understand the CFIT accident reasonably well, because I’ve almost fallen victim to it twice. Both times, I flew myself into a corner trying to stay out of in-flight icing—my mistake, no one else’s. That’s a reason, not an excuse.

The first time was in a Piper Aerostar 700 headed east across the continent. A member of the Saudi royal family had purchased the airplane, and it was scheduled to be used for a number of world speed record attempts. My job was to pick up the airplane in Napa, Calif., and deliver it to Lakeland, Fla. This was well before the advent of GPS, so my trip was with conventional VORs.

Icing is almost unheard of in California, but on this day, it was forecast to be waiting in the clouds above 7,000 feet. The previous day, I had flown down from Napa, and I departed Corona, Calif., filed for 15,000 feet, and then ran head-on into severe icing at 7,000 feet. I advised ATC I didn’t want to do that any more, suggested that I’d drop down to VFR underneath and then initiated a descent. I played dodgem with the clouds for the next 10 minutes, trying to stay as high as possible without turning the Piper into a Popsicle. It looked as if I were out in the middle of Banning Pass when it finally looked safe to climb higher. I advised L.A. Center of my intentions; they said they had lost me on radar but approved my climb. Going through 9,000 feet, I entered the clouds again for a short time, and then popped out to find I was headed for a solid rock wall.

I slammed the Aerostar into a hard left climbing turn, held my breath and waited for the impact. Fortunately, there was none. I was obviously too far to the right in the pass and had almost collided with Mt. San Jacinto, a 10,000-foot peak that guards the western hills outside Palm Springs.

Supposedly, we all learn from our mistakes. Apparently, that’s not true for everyone. My second brush with CFIT was westbound in a Turbo Arrow over Greenland during an early summer return from France. The flight from Reykjavik to Narsarsuaq had gone well, until I passed the eastern Greenland coast at 12,000 feet and started across the ice cap. Almost immediately, I ran into light rime icing. I knew the top of the cap was at about 8,000 feet, so I first tried up. No luck, ice accretion only increased. There was no choice but to descend.

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