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Flying brings pilots into all kinds of unexpected meteorological hazards. Normally we present you with introductory articles about these topics so you can understand what they are, where they occur, and how they work. But sometimes presenting an actual case study from NTSB reports really drives the point home. We see the hazard vividly from the perspective of those who faced this same sort of trouble. We can see actual data reconstructed from that day, challenging us to ask questions for, hopefully, a safer outcome for ourselves.
The day starts in Mansfield, Ohio by stuffing your Piper Arrow to its max gross weight. The plan is to stop for fuel at Queen City Municipal in Allentown, Pennsylvania on the way to Massachusetts. You load three other people, bags and as much fuel as weight permits—25 gallons. Meticulous flight planning shows 1.7 hours to get to KXLL, burning 9.2 gph. This leaves one hour of reserve, slightly buffering the legal minimum 45-minutes of 91.167(a)(3). And, you’ve diligently followed 91.103 as far as knowing “all available information” for the flight, including weather, runways and some backup airports should you need to stop en route.
When average Americans wake up and go to work every day, they expect to see mostly the same faces, same routine, the same stuff—like the expression “same stuff, different day” suggests. When pilots and air traffic controllers go to work, it’s often the same coworkers in the room or cockpit, but we both work with people on a daily basis that we have most likely never met. In fact, the chance that a center controller has met a pilot that they talk to on the radio is miniscule. Tower and TRACON controllers might have a somewhat higher chance.
Richfield was forecast to be overcast 2000 or better all day, so you didn’t file an alternate and didn’t carry alternate fuel. So that’s the situation: 12,700 MSL at EBOVE, no GPS, no DME. Even turn off GPS location on your iPad if you have that. (In ForeFlight, this is in settings, scroll to the bottom, and set “Enable Ownship” to “Never.”) Give yourself 45 minutes of fuel at normal cruise. No one said you were good at planning.
An approach to safety of “don’t have an accident” and “always effectively weight risks” doesn’t work because we don’t take actions we think will cause accidents. Tom Turner recently presented a Wings seminar, “Stop Teaching About Safety,” covering this. Safety’s an integral outcome, not a separate goal. Instead, he suggested approaching flying as its master and commander: The result will be safety. While being master and commander will work for all pilots, the instrument environment presents unique challenges to achieving that goal.
As you enter a bank, the attitude indicator shows it immediately, but it takes a moment for a turn to show on the turn gyro. Try it. You don’t even have to look at the instruments. Sharply roll into, say, about a 30-degree bank. Your nose is most likely still pointing in the same direction it was before the roll. Then, the plane starts to turn. This is why it’s more difficult to maintain a heading on instruments without an attitude gyro, just using the turn gyro.