Plane & Pilot
Sunday, June 1, 2008

Do You Have An Accident Personality?

Making sense of accident risks

accident personalityAre you a pilot who turns down the radio’s volume and does a straight-in at an uncontrolled airport when there are four other aircraft neatly spaced in the traffic pattern? Do you think your lungs are so good that you can cruise at 15,500 feet MSL without supplemental oxygen? Are you convinced that you’re experienced enough to avoid using checklists? If so, you may be displaying some of the characteristics that aviation psychology researchers suggest can increase the chances of an accident.
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accident personalityThe NTSB tells the story of a low-time pilot who should have had a much better appreciation for his lack of experience and, therefore, capabilities. The private pilot had logged 91 hours total time with nine hours in a Cessna 182T. He took off from Sikeston Memorial Airport in Sikeston, Miss., on a night/VFR flight to the Spirit of St. Louis Airport in Chesterfield, Miss., with three passengers on board. The pilot radioed the tower that he was 11 miles south and was inbound. The flight was cleared to land on runway 26R. The wind was calm, visibility was five miles in mist and there were a few clouds at 7,500 feet. The airplane never touched down on the runway. Instead, the pilot radioed the tower to advise that he was going around. The controller cleared the pilot to make right traffic to runway 26R. The pilot confirmed, which was the last transmission. The airplane struck trees, crashed and burned. All four occupants were killed.

The NTSB reported that the pilot didn’t maintain airspeed and allowed the airplane to stall during the go-around. The NTSB’s report on the accident included an e-mail written by the pilot’s instructor to the management of the flight school at which the pilot had been taking lessons. It said, in part, “He was very anxious to solo, a little too anxious in my opinion. I told him that I would solo him when I felt he was safe, and [he] seemed a bit frustrated that there may be a chance that I may delay his solo. This attitude worried me because I feel that a student pilot should trust his instructor’s judgment. Throughout the rest of the training, [he] began showing complacency in the airplane. I would stress to him the importance of using checklists, yet he wouldn’t use them unless I made him.” The instructor continued, “I’m worried about his complacent attitude toward flying and am expressing my concern for his safety [after he takes his] checkride.”

More difficult to understand is why accident risk also spikes at the high end of the
hourly spectrum.

In another case, a private pilot who didn’t have an instrument rating or a sign-off to fly complex aircraft took off in a Piper PA28R-200 “Arrow” on a night flight from Longmont, Colo., to Las Vegas, Nev., with three passengers. She had 144 hours with six in type. She filed a VFR flight plan with a cruise altitude of 15,500 feet MSL and 140 knots airspeed. In the flight plan, the pilot said the airplane had eight hours of fuel, and the flight would take four hours. In fact, the airplane could carry 50 gallons and had a normal burn rate of 12 gph. With a reserve of 45 minutes, usable fuel would last about 3 hours and 15 minutes.

The airplane crashed while the pilot was attempting a forced landing near La Sal, Utah, and all four occupants were killed. Radar data showed that the airplane had been cruising at altitudes of up to 16,000 feet MSL. The airplane wasn’t pressurized, and there was no supplemental oxygen on board. The pilot was in contact with ATC for flight following and made numerous navigational errors that were corrected by ATC. Some of her headings were off by up to 70 degrees. The pilot’s flight instructor, who was an FAA safety counselor, told investigators that the pilot “always seemed to be in a hurry.” A friend who had previously flown with her in the accident airplane reported that she had trouble finding the master switch. The NTSB said the probable cause of the accident was fuel starvation, the pilot not following fuel-management procedures and lack of adequate preflight planning and preparation. Hypoxia was also a factor.

In both of these cases, the NTSB found evidence that others had observed behaviors of the pilots that were indicative of deficiencies in the way they approached piloting. Continued research may yield methods for helping pilots identify personal safety issues on their own so they can take corrective action that will prevent accidents.

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