VEC­TORS TO ZMB

THE EMER­GENCY WAS REAL, BUT THE RUNWAY WAS ONLY A MEM­ORY

Flying - - Training & Technique - By Peter Gar­ri­son

The C35 Bo­nanza, N5946C, was cruis­ing at 6,500 feet when there was a sud­den loud bang from the en­gine com­part­ment, fol­lowed by a smell of oil. The IO-470 sput­tered and lost power.

The 3,300-hour com­mer­cial pilot, 59, who was tak­ing his sin­gle pas­sen­ger on an air-taxi flight from cen­tral Long Is­land to a des­ti­na­tion in New Jer­sey, ini­tially, and ap­pro­pri­ately, re­acted by pulling up to slow the air­plane and gain a cou­ple hun­dred feet of alti­tude.

The en­gine fail­ure took place at ap­prox­i­mately 0738:40 lo­cal time, a few sec­onds after the JFK De­par­ture con­troller who had cleared 46C into the New York Class B handed the flight off to La Guardia De­par­ture. At that mo­ment, the Bo­nanza’s head­ing was 282 de­grees, and it was mak­ing a 142-knot ground­speed against a head­wind of 20 to 25 knots.

About 80 sec­onds after the en­gine fail­ure, at 0739:58, the con­troller gave 46C a right turn to 360. At that point, the Bo­nanza had lost 1,000 feet in alti­tude and its ground­speed had slowed to 62 knots, cir­cum­stances that, oddly, did not elicit com­ment from the con­troller. The pilot only now revealed his sit­u­a­tion: “OK, 46C, I’m hav­ing a lit­tle bit of a prob­lem. It’s, ah, I may have to turn to Farm­ing­dale. Well, give me a sec­ond, if I may ...”

The con­troller twice urged the pilot to “keep me in the loop [and] let me know what’s go­ing on [and] any as­sis­tance you need.” At 0740:31, the pilot, with­out declar­ing an emer­gency, said, “I’m gonna have to take it down at the clos­est spot.”

The con­troller im­me­di­ately reeled off a list of pos­si­bil­i­ties: La Guardia, Kennedy, Westch­ester, Repub­lic Air­port at Farm­ing­dale (FRG).

“OK,” the pilot replied, “Farm­ing­dale is the clos­est air­port, 9 miles. OK, yeah, I’m not go­ing to make Farm­ing­dale.” As he said this, the pilot be­gan a left turn to­ward FRG, then about 140 de­grees from his po­si­tion. He was now at 3,500 feet.

His es­ti­mate that he could not make FRG was cor­rect. Ac­cord­ing to the C35 POH, the air­plane would glide 1.7 nm per 1,000 feet of alti­tude — a glide ra­tio of 10-to-1 — at its best glide speed of 105 kias and with the wind­milling prop at the min­i­mum rpm set­ting. We do not know what, if any­thing, the pilot did about the prop pitch, but his speed, which var­ied be­tween 80 and 90 knots over the ground even after he had turned south­east­ward and put the wind a lit­tle be­hind him, was too low for op­ti­mal per­for­mance. At any rate, he could no longer ex­pect to glide more than 6 nm.

Then came a life­line. “There is a strip about your 10 o’clock and 5 miles,” the con­troller said. “Beth­page Air­port.”

The pilot grasped at it. “Give me this air­port,” he said. “I’m not see­ing it.”

“There’s a strip right about at your 12 o’clock and 3 miles . ... The strip is a closed air­port, ah, I just know there is a runway there, about 11 o’clock and about a mile and a half now.”

The Bo­nanza was at 1,400 feet msl. The pilot searched for the runway, but saw only build­ings.

The con­troller con­tin­ued to vec­tor the pilot while of­fer­ing al­ter­na­tives: a park­way right be­low him, FRG’S big runway still 5 miles dis­tant.

“Yeah, no way on that. Let’s see, uh, tell me this strip again if you would. I’m sorry.”

“There’s a strip about 1 o’clock and less than a mile,” the con­troller re­peated. “It’s a closed air­port;

The pilot never found the Beth­page runway. He tried to land on railroad tracks, but luck was not with him. His right wing struck a bar­rier.

I have no in­for­ma­tion about it, un­for­tu­nately.”

The pilot never found the Beth­page runway. He tried to land on railroad tracks, but luck was not with him. His right wing struck a bar­rier at the only grade cross­ing in the vicin­ity, and the air­plane flipped over and burst into flames. The pilot died from im­pact trauma and burns; the pas­sen­ger sur­vived with se­ri­ous in­juries.

The rea­son the pilot failed to find the Beth­page air­port — for­merly the home of the Grum­man Air­craft Corp. — was that it did not ex­ist, hav­ing been re­placed sev­eral years ear­lier by an in­dus­trial park.

The rea­son the con­troller vec­tored him to it was that the nonex­is­tent Beth­page runway was still de­picted on his radar screen.

It emerged from the Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion of this accident that the FAA lacked a for­mal pro­ce­dure for en­sur­ing closed air­ports were purged from the radar video maps used by controllers. None­the­less, some­one had re­moved the Beth­page runway from the radar video maps of JFK and Is­lip controllers, whose cov­er­age over­lapped La Guardia’s. The zombie air­port re­mained only on La Guardia controllers’ screens.

The NTSB iden­ti­fied other con­tribut­ing fac­tors. Of course, there was the en­gine fail­ure; the crank­shaft had bro­ken, there was a hole in the oil sump and the en­gine was in­ca­pable of pro­duc­ing power. In ad­di­tion, there was the cock­tail of drugs, in­clud­ing am­phet­a­mine at more than 12 times ther­a­peu­tic lev­els, that post-mortem tox­i­col­ogy found in the pilot’s blood and urine. The com­bi­na­tion of the drugs he was tak­ing or abus­ing and the med­i­cal con­di­tions for which they had been pre­scribed “likely sig­nif­i­cantly im­paired his psy­chomo­tor func­tion­ing and de­ci­sion-mak­ing.”

What pri­mar­ily caused the accident, the NTSB found, was not so much a de­ci­sion as the lack of one.

When the en­gine failed, the Bo­nanza was about 7 nm from the FRG runway and could have glided more than 10 nm, as­sum­ing the POH num­bers are cor­rect and the pilot had ex­e­cuted the glide in ac­cor­dance with POH in­struc­tions. Nat­u­rally, there was bound to be some de­lay while the pilot as­sessed the sit­u­a­tion and, ac­cord­ing to the sur­viv­ing pas­sen­ger, tried to restart the en­gine. This took time. Nev­er­the­less, two min­utes and 15 sec­onds elapsed be­tween the en­gine fail­ure and the pilot’s fi­nally start­ing a turn to­ward FRG.

The pilot had been op­er­at­ing an on-de­mand char­ter ser­vice out of Westhamp­ton, where the flight orig­i­nated, for a dozen years, and it’s cer­tain he was quite fa­mil­iar with FRG and knew it was a few miles be­hind him and to the left when the en­gine quit. Yet all the while he was los­ing pre­cious alti­tude, he did not take the pre­cau­tion of turn­ing to­ward it. Nor did he ex­plain his 1,000 fpm de­scent to the con­troller, nor re­port that he had en­gine trou­ble, nor ask — though he al­most cer­tainly al­ready knew the answer — for a vec­tor to the clos­est runway.

Few pilots ever ex­pe­ri­ence a to­tal en­gine fail­ure. When one does oc­cur, it is nearly al­ways the pilot’s first. Im­pec­ca­ble re­ac­tions can­not be ex­pected. Nev­er­the­less, like the prospect of be­ing hanged in a fort­night, sud­den si­lence “con­cen­trates his mind won­der­fully.” The pilot’s first ac­tion — pulling up to con­vert speed to alti­tude — was cor­rect. His sec­ond should have been to turn to­ward FRG, but he did not do so un­til he had gone so far, and lost so much alti­tude, that FRG was no longer within his reach.

The pilot might still have sal­vaged the sit­u­a­tion by land­ing on any of sev­eral golf cour­ses, or on the park­way that the con­troller pointed out to him, if only he had not been led to be­lieve — be­cause of a grotesque and cruel bu­reau­cratic over­sight — that a runway lay just ahead.

Pilots read­ing this ac­count will be re­lieved to know that the FAA now has a for­mal pro­ce­dure for purg­ing nonex­is­tent air­ports from controllers’ data­bases. You have to won­der, though: Why didn’t they think of that be­fore?

The rea­son the pilot failed to find the Beth­page air­port — for­merly the home of the Grum­man Air­craft Corp. — was that it did not ex­ist, hav­ing been re­placed sev­eral years ear­lier by an in­dus­trial park.

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