A pi­lot races weather, and weather wins


Flying - - CONTENTS - By Peter Gar­ri­son

In Novem­ber 2016, two friends, both pi­lots and air­plane own­ers, flew from their re­spec­tive homes to meet at Melfa, Vir­ginia, where one of them was build­ing a sec­ond house. They stayed overnight at Melfa, and on the next day, a Satur­day, flew to Hum­mel Field (W75), across Ch­e­sa­peake Bay, for an early din­ner. Af­ter­ward, they both re­fu­eled their air­planes — one had a Cessna 182, the other a Navion — and then took off, the 182 head­ing back to Melfa, the Navion north to Ocean County Air­port (KMJX) at Toms River, New Jer­sey.

As they flew, the two pi­lots com­mu­ni­cated on 123.45. It was a dark, clear night. The pi­lot of the 182, on reach­ing Melfa about 35 min­utes af­ter leav­ing Hum­mel, at­tempted an ap­proach but en­coun­tered wind shear suf­fi­ciently strong that he de­cided to di­vert to Sal­is­bury Re­gional Air­port (KSBY), Mary­land, where he landed with­out in­ci­dent.

Be­tween Melfa and Sal­is­bury, the 182 pi­lot twice talked with his friend in the Navion. He told him about the strong wind shear he had en­coun­tered, which the other ac­knowl­edged, and he checked in with him one more time be­fore land­ing. At that point, the Navion pi­lot re­ported that he was at Delaware Bay and all was well.

It did not re­main well for long. The scat­tered wreck­age of the Navion was found the next day in a wooded area 16 miles south of KMJX. The pi­lot had not been in com­mu­ni­ca­tion with ground facilities, and there had been no dis­tress call. ATC radar, how­ever, had recorded the Navion’s track. Ini­tially head­ing north­east, prob­a­bly along V139, it had turned east­ward, made two right 360s, then headed er­rat­i­cally east­ward again for a mile or so be­fore turn­ing 90 de­grees right, then 360 left, then 90 right and 90 right again — all this time wan­der­ing in al­ti­tude be­tween 2,000 and 200 feet be­fore a fi­nal de­scent that brought it into the trees.

The lo­ca­tion co­in­cided with a strong, sharply de­fined and fast-mov­ing cold front marked by the sud­den on­set of gusty winds. At the time of the ac­ci­dent — a few min­utes af­ter 7 p.m. — Ocean County was re­port­ing clear skies, 5-knot winds and 3 miles vis­i­bil­ity in mist. At­lantic City, south of the ac­ci­dent site, re­ported 8-knot winds then, but 24 gust­ing to 31 half an hour later. Mil­lville, New Jer­sey, where the Navion would first have en­coun­tered the edge of the cold front, re­ported a 41-knot gust some time af­ter the ac­ci­dent. Nu­mer­ous pi­lot re­ports of mod­er­ate tur­bu­lence, and a few of se­vere tur­bu­lence, were re­ceived from be­hind the front.

The Navion pi­lot, a Har­leyrid­ing 75-year-old, did not have an in­stru­ment rat­ing. He re­ported 800 hours to­tal time on his ap­pli­ca­tion for a third-class med­i­cal cer­tifi­cate in 2015. He had owned the air­plane, a 1949 A model painted in faux mil­i­tary col­ors, since 2006. A pho­to­graph of the cock­pit, in­cluded in the on­line public ac­ci­dent docket, shows a panel lit­tle changed since its man­u­fac­ture and much scarred by time, like an old and beloved pair of slip­pers. The pi­lot, his friend told ac­ci­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tors, “usu­ally did not talk to air traf­fic con­trollers (un­less he was re­quired to) or flight ser­vice, and pre­ferred to ob­tain weather in­for­ma­tion from [his] Garmin Pi­lot app.”

While they were hav­ing din­ner, the 182 pi­lot told ac­ci­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tors, he called Flight Ser­vice. The ab­bre­vi­ated brief­ing he ob­tained did not in­clude any ad­verse weather for his trip back to Melfa, but he also in­quired, on his friend’s be­half, about the weather on the way to Ocean County. He learned that it was go­ing to “be­come bad” be­tween 1900 and 1930, and he passed the in­for­ma­tion on to his friend, sug­gest­ing that he stay over an­other night. The Navion pi­lot, al­though he had no press­ing rea­son to re­turn home, de­clined. He was not con­cerned about the front, he said, be­cause “his time en route was only one hour 20 min­utes.” He must have thought that he would reach the Ocean County area be­fore the bad weather got there. As it turned out, they ar­rived at prac­ti­cally the same time.

Ex­actly what flight con­di­tions the Navion pi­lot en­coun­tered, and how they af­fected him and his air­plane, can­not be known. The Navion had a low wing-load­ing even at its gross weight of 2,850 pounds; with just the pi­lot aboard, it could have been tossed around quite vi­o­lently in even

mod­er­ate tur­bu­lence. All of the cur­rent pi­lot re­ports of mod­er­ate and se­vere tur­bu­lence came from air­planes that were heav­ier than the Navion, and would there­fore have been less strongly af­fected by tur­bu­lence.

The ac­ci­dent took place over un­lighted ter­rain, and the pi­lot was fly­ing low, so the lights along the nearby coast­line and Gar­den State Park­way might not have been so prom­i­nent as they would have ap­peared from higher up. Vis­i­bil­ity may have been ham­pered by mist. He might have be­come dis­ori­ented. There might have been an in­ca­pac­i­tat­ing or dis­tract­ing med­i­cal event that did not show up in the au­topsy, which la­con­i­cally noted the cause of death as “mul­ti­ple in­juries.” It may or may not be rel­e­vant that he had lost his wife of 55 years eight months ear­lier. Some­thing, at any rate, caused him to be­gin fly­ing in cir­cles, climb and de­scend seem­ingly at ran­dom, and ul­ti­mately fly into the trees.

The Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board at­trib­uted the ac­ci­dent to “the pi­lot’s in­ad­e­quate pre­flight weather plan­ning and in-flight weather evaluation, which re­sulted in an en­counter with a strong cold front and the pi­lot’s sub­se­quent loss of air­plane con­trol.”

One as­pect of the sit­u­a­tion made the tim­ing of his ar­rival and that of the front par­tic­u­larly crit­i­cal: ge­og­ra­phy. His route led him into a nar­row­ing cor­ri­dor be­tween the ad­vanc­ing front and the in­hos­pitable At­lantic Ocean. The far­ther he went, the fewer his op­tions be­came.

It’s a rare pi­lot who pays no at­ten­tion to the weather at all. The area fore­cast dis­cus­sion, read­ily avail­able on­line, cor­rectly pre­dicted winds of 40 knots along the front, and might have given the pi­lot pause had he read it. On the other hand, the ter­mi­nal fore­cast for At­lantic City, 33 miles south of Ocean County, called for only 13 knots at his ex­pected time of ar­rival. It was not al­to­gether un­rea­son­able, there­fore, to take an op­ti­mistic view of the prospects for the flight.

I can sym­pa­thize with the pi­lot’s dis­like of com­mu­ni­cat­ing with avi­a­tion of­fi­cial­dom. Fly­ing for recre­ation in a beloved old air­plane can be a soli­tary delight, un­wel­com­ing to third par­ties. But if there was even a chance of bad weather ahead, should he not have bro­ken his ha­bit­ual ra­dio si­lence to find out a lit­tle more about it?

This ar­ti­cle is based on the NTSB’s re­port of this ac­ci­dent and is in­tended to bring the is­sues raised to our read­ers’ at­ten­tion. It is not in­tended to judge nor to reach any defini­tive con­clu­sions about the abil­ity or ca­pac­ity of any per­son, liv­ing or dead, or any air­craft or ac­ces­sory.

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