Trick question: What do you call a government agency that takes years to complete a program that already has contributed to a 53% reduction in accidents, while spending millions of dollars and countless personnel hours on a program that safety data indicates is unnecessary? Answer: You call it the FAA.
The program that data shows isn't needed, according to the AOPA/EAA exemption petition, is the third-class medical requirement for pilots who fly day/VFR for recreation. The successful program, which the FAA hasn't yet fully implemented, involves a network of weather cameras in Alaska. Back in 1995, after conducting a safety study of Alaska's aviation environment, the NTSB recommended that the FAA consider the benefits of having remote color video weather- observing systems. Four years after receiving the NTSB's recommendation, in 1999, the FAA began the Alaskan Aviation Camera Program. Thirteen years later, as of 2012, cameras had been installed at 185 locations. The total is supposed to grow to 221 locations by 2014.
Automated surface observation systems can only go so far in converting signals from sensors into accurate descriptions of what a pilot is going to encounter. Images fill in what may be missing and are the next best thing to an on-scene human observer. If you want to see what Alaska weather camera images look like, visit the FAA at http://akweathercams.faa.gov.
In a formal report issued last year on the effectiveness of its Alaska camera program, the FAA noted that in 2011, there were 0.13 weather-related accidents per 100,000 operations, compared with 0.28 accidents per 100,000 operations before 2008. That's a 53% decrease. In addition, the FAA said that unnecessary flight hours due to having unreliable weather information decreased by 64%, saving fuel costs and other expenses. It also reported that a survey of Part 135 operators showed strong support for the camera program. One operator commented, "The aviation weather cameras form the core of our weather-related decisions…The information provided by the cameras is critical to our decision to dispatch, delay, postpone or cancel a flight."
In a safety recommendation issued in August, the NTSB calls on the FAA to start a weather camera program in Hawaii and in mountain passes in the continental United States identified as being high risk for aviation. It said the images should be available to the public, so pilots can access them at any time. It also wants the images to be available for display at flight service stations, so that briefers can refer to them and describe what they're seeing when giving a pilot a preflight briefing or in-flight update.
Included in the safety recommendation were several examples of weather accidents in Hawaii and on the mainland. Mainland accidents included: the crash of a Cessna 182T near a mountain pass in Park County, Colo., in which four people were killed; the crash of a Cessna 208B into mountainous terrain near Oak Glen, Calif., in which two people died; and, the crash of a Beechcraft F33A into the western side of Mt. San Jacinto in California, which resulted in two deaths.
The inference to be drawn is that these accidents might have been avoided had the pilots been able to access images showing the severity of the weather that awaited them. The pilots flew into various adverse weather phenomena including fog, rain squalls and areas of heavy clouds. This is especially true of accidents on Hawaii which, the NTSB noted, is prone to varied and rapidly changing conditions.
A Piper PA-32-300 crashed into the southeast side of a ridge and caught fire while approaching the Honolulu International Airport. The pilot, who owned the airplane, was operating the flight under Part 91 and didn't hold an instrument rating. Both he and his passenger were killed. The flight originated from Lanai Airport on the island of Lanai. Instrument conditions existed in the area around the accident site. The pilot had been receiving VFR flight following, and he hadn't filed a flight plan.
A group of hikers provided statements to investigators. One hiker reported that it was "very cloudy, [with] poor visibility." He heard the airplane crash into a ridge about 50 yards from where he was. Visibility was so bad that he couldn't see the airplane. Another hiker reported that the ridge was obscured by clouds, and he heard the engine "running the whole time." Another hiker stated that she heard an airplane flying low and briefly saw it pass by before it disappeared in the cloud layer.
The direct route of flight from Lanai to Honolulu is about 63 nm. The pilot was on the Kona arrival to the Honolulu Airport. It's a procedure for VFR arrivals that calls for going to the KoKo Head VORTAC, then to the Waialae Golf Course, and then to a freeway to enter the left base of the traffic pattern for runway 22L.
A review of radar data disclosed that when the pilot radioed the approach controller that he was abeam the KoKo Head VORTAC, the target actually was located about five miles east-southeast of the VORTAC. Several minutes later, when the pilot reported he was at the golf course, the target was about 0.5 miles off the shoreline and about 2.5 miles east of the golf course. As the radar track reached land, the altitude remained at 1,700 feet until nearing the rising terrain, where the last recorded altitude was 1,800 feet.
A safety board investigator interviewed the controller who was handling the airplane at the time of the accident. The controller said that the pilot was well- known to controllers, and that they all recognized the airplane's registration number and the pilot's voice. She recalled one previous incident where she had to correct the pilot's course when he didn't follow a clearance. His reputation was that he'd navigate as he saw fit, rather than complying with procedures.
At the time of the accident, the airplane was the only one under her control. The pilot had already been cleared into Class B airspace. She instructed the pilot to maintain 2,000 feet until passing abeam KoKo Head in order to ensure continued radar coverage. As the pilot approached the area of the golf course, he radioed that he was proceeding directly, but radar showed the airplane was heading in the wrong direction.
The controller said she believed he was possibly trying to avoid clouds, and she wasn't concerned about the heading. The controller said she did become concerned about the airplane's course when the pilot's subsequently reported position didn't match what she saw on radar.
The controller assumed that the pilot was operating in VFR conditions. The controller instructed the pilot to "turn southbound now," as the flight path was still heading toward the mountains. She wasn't sure if the airplane could climb fast enough to avoid the terrain, but thought it was best for him to turn away from the mountains toward lower terrain.
The NTSB determined that the probable cause of the accident was the pilot's continued visual flight into IMC at an altitude insufficient to ensure adequate terrain clearance.
A Cessna 172M crashed into terrain near Pahala, Hawaii. The commercial pilot and his two passengers were killed. The Part 135 air tour flight departed Kailua-Kona in VFR conditions. The flight was supposed to last two hours and 30 minutes. The planned altitude was 2,000 feet.
The pilot opened his VFR flight plan with ATC. The airplane was in radar contact only part of the time. It was seen by the pilot of another aircraft in an area where lava from a volcano was entering the ocean. When the airplane didn't return to Kailua-Kona at its scheduled time, a search began. The search was expanded and additional assets were brought in the next day. The airplane wasn't found until five days later, in a rainforest on the southeastern side of the Mauna Loa volcano. The airplane was at an elevation of 4,500 feet approximately nine nautical miles inland from the coast. The terrain was moderately sloped, rugged volcanic rock.
A weather study performed by an NTSB meteorologist indicated that the flight around the island would have been VFR with two low-level cloud layers. Cloud tops were generally about 7,500 feet during the morning, and developing to greater than 14,000 feet by early afternoon. The accident site was near the western edge of the cloud layer. Patchy rain or drizzle was likely in the accident area around the time of the accident.
A witness who was about a mile away from the accident site reported that the weather was very foggy, misting and rainy. A helicopter pilot had lowered the witness into the forest about an hour before the crash. The pilot then made two trips with building material and supplies. He terminated his last planned trip because of deteriorating weather, which included clouds, mist and volcanic haze.
The NTSB determined that the probable cause of this accident was the pilot's continued VFR flight into IMC and his failure to remain clear of rising terrain, while deviating from his planned route of flight. Contributing to the accident were clouds and mountainous terrain that made safe navigation difficult.
Peter Katz is editor and publisher of NTSB Reporter, an independent monthly update on aircraft accident investigations and other news concerning the National Transportation Safety Board. To subscribe, write to: NTSB Reporter, Subscription Dept., P.O. Box 831, White Plains, N.Y. 10602-0831.