United flight meets Clear-Air Turbulence over Montana

On Monday, United flight 1676 from Denver to Billings, Montana encountered a pocket of clear-air turbulence that rocked the plane so hard at least five people required hospitalization.

Joe Frank, 20, a passenger on board, told The Denver Post that everything was fine, then in an instant, the plane dropped violently, accompanied by a loud “bang”.

The turbulence lasted for what probably seemed like an eternity to the passengers, but was likely only 30 seconds or less. It was so transient that it doesn’t show up on the Flightaware track log, which reports data at one minute intervals. But regardless of how fast it was over, it must have been severe.

Passengers reported to television station KTVQ in Billings that one woman hit the ceiling so hard it cracked the panel above her head.

The phenomenon of clear-air turbulence is the main reason I always have my seat-belt buckled when I’m in my seat, regardless of what the “fasten seat-belt sign” is indicating. The atmosphere is too complex and dynamic, especially near the tropopause where most airliners cruise, and clear-air turbulence can be caused by any number of atmospheric variables.

Apparently, this week the atmosphere above most of the country is very turbulent, as shown by the current Turbulence AIRMET:

21814 turb airmet


That map, showing the possibility of turbulence from the surface up to 40,000 feet for most of the northern half of the country is confirmed by stacks of pilot reports (PIREPS) listing incidents of (mostly) moderate turbulence. If you are traveling and want to see if your flight might encounter turbulence (or many other weather phenomena), see the NOAA Aviation Weather Center. If you’re traveling this week, I’d recommend you buckle in at all times, it’s probably going to be rather bumpy at some point.

I wish a speedy recovery to all those injured on the flight yesterday.


Holiday Weekend Round-up

Today was President’s Day in the USA, when we all celebrate everything all of our Presidents have done for us by….well, anyway, lots of people get the day off of work so everybody decides to go skiing and the ski resorts are extremely overcrowded. That’s what happens on this day.

The holiday weekend here in the Northeast USA was another cold, snowy one, just after another major snowstorm that came through late last week. The mountains of snow piled up will take at least until June to fully melt, they are that high.

But it has been a bad weekend for aviation. First, in domestic general aviation, after January 2014 was among the safest months in general aviation, this weekend alone saw four fatal accidents which resulted in 7 deaths in the United States.

Cessna 210L (above, similar to the accident airplane) near Birmingham, AL

On Friday night, after 10pm EST, contact was lost with a Cessna 210 (registration N732EJ) flying near Birmingham, Alabama. The plane was found the next day in a very rural area, and the two occupants had not survived the crash. Only very sparse information is available, including that the plane was flying under IFR conditions. A front was moving through Birmingham at about the same time the aircraft was in the area. KBHM released a series of SPECI METAR updates, including one at 10:36pm EST calling winds 310 degrees at 7 knots, 5 mile visibility, broken cloud layers at 600 and 1400 feet, and overcast at 2300 feet. Rain had just ended at the airport. Some reports mention the possibility that the high winds may have been a factor in the crash. While the surface winds weren’t yet that high, I suppose it is possible that the winds were higher at around 3000 feet, and that wind shear or strong turbulence could have led to an upset and loss of control of the aircraft in the night IMC.

Beechcraft 35-33 Debonair near Telluride, CO

The Sunday crash of a Beech Debonair, similar to the one shown above, is very perplexing. It crashed just after takeoff, about a mile west of the airport, and killed the three occupants. The plane departed with three pilots on board, two commercial and one military, on a short IFR flight to Cortez, Colorado. The weather at the time was reported as winds 080 degrees at 5 knots, 2 miles visibility in light snow, and clouds overcast at 1200 feet. These conditions were improving, and the next METAR (1.5 hr later) listed ceilings at 7000-8000 feet and no snow. This airport is at a very high elevation (9,070 feet MSL), so the first speculative thought is to consider the performance capabilities of the airplane, likely close to max gross weight with three adults on board. The airport is in a narrow valley between peaks rising 5,000 feet on either side. Often, airplane crashes are not the result of any one thing, but a sequence of events. Steep terrain, low visibility in snow, and decreased performance due to high altitude has been shown countless times before to be a dangerous recipe.

Rans S-10 Sakota northeast of Houston, TX

A small homebuilt aircraft, similar to the one shown above, apparently suffered an in-flight breakup that killed its pilot. There is virtually no information available, except that witnesses heard a “loud bang” and that the airplane appeared to tumble out of the sky. The aircraft is one intended to perform aerobatics, so it’s possible that during a maneuver the load limits of the plane were exceeded, causing a structural failure.

Sonex aircraft in Wellington, FL

Another crash of a small homebuilt aircraft, similar to the one shown above, happened on Monday afternoon in south Florida. The airplane came to rest just off the end of the runway in a small lake, and the pilot did not survive the crash. Reports indicate the pilot may have been an extremely experienced American Airlines pilot, usually flying the 777. A witness thought the plane was experiencing engine trouble, as he heard several louds pops, like fireworks, before the plane went down. Another witness claimed the pilot was performing a “loop,” which was followed by the engine trouble and crash. In any case, it is disheartening to read of the loss of such an experienced pilot.

Elsewhere in the world

These crashes caused the untimely deaths of 7 people this weekend, and I send my deepest condolences to their friends and families. The above descriptions are in no way meant to place blame or judge the actions of the pilots, only to assemble any facts I can gather and to begin to try to make sense out of the accidents to better equip myself and pilots everywhere.

Elsewhere in the world, this weekend also saw the peaceful hijacking of a 767 on its way from Ethiopia to Rome. The co-pilot locked the captain out of the flight deck and flew the plane to Geneva, Switzerland to seek political asylum. More on this story later.

Thoughts on Distracted Driving

I really dislike driving cars. I know this is usually a blog about flying, but being a pilot has focused my dislike of driving to levels I didn’t know existed. Over on his blog, the NTSB Chairman posted about the problem of “Distracted Driving” and an interesting observation about so-called “hands-free devices.” According to several scientific studies, hands-free devices increase our ability to keep our hands on the wheel but do nothing about the equally (if not more) dangerous aspect of cognitive distraction (“not paying attention”).

For example, a few years ago we investigated an accident where the top of a bus carrying high school students was sheared off because the driver drove under a bridge with inadequate clearance. The driver was involved in a heated conversation with his sister using a hands-free phone. Investigators asked if he noticed the signs before the bridge that indicated that the bridge was too low for his vehicle. He not only missed seeing the signs, but he did not even notice the bridge until after he sheared off the top of the bus, injuring several students!

Driving a vehicle is usually a fairly easy task, except in the worst weather conditions, and we do it so much that it becomes routine, repetitive, almost mindless. I’m sure many of you couldn’t name many specific details about your drive home from work today. But despite this routine, driving a car is a very complex task. It’s never actually that repetitive or routine. Maybe the roads we take are the same, or the time of day you’re driving on them, but you’re probably not sharing those roads with the exact same group of drivers at any one time. The speeding, slowing, honking, doddling, belching mass of humanity on our roads is a variable that requires every bit of our attention to keep our own cars from hitting any of theirs.

What scares me is the number of drivers I see that are blatantly on their phones. I don’t even mean hands-free devices–they’re just driving the car with one hand and holding the phone to their face with the other. This means that the “human variable” of driving is much more dangerous–mindless zombies that aren’t capable of paying attention–and I treat them that way, often giving a nearby car a wide berth if I know the driver is on the phone. In New Jersey, as in many places, it is illegal to operate a handheld phone while driving, so there are other issues to consider, such as increased enforcement. But even without enforcement, we all have to understand that, handheld or hands-free, talking on the phone and driving a car are incompatible activities. It’s like driving in dense fog: your reactions will be delayed and even physical senses like peripheral vision will be impaired because your immediate attention is busy trying to understand and respond to the conversation.

People sometimes ask me if I’m ever scared of flying, and I usually respond that no I am not scared of flying, but I am scared of driving. At least in an airplane the problems are usually my own–both to cause and to deal with–and I can train and study to make better decisions and to fly better in an emergency. But in a car, with all the millions of human variables out there, who knows when one of them will not be paying attention at the wrong time. There’s nothing I can do about that but redouble my own attentiveness and to implore you all to consider setting a personal rule to not talk on the phone while driving.

A Trip to the South: Final Leg Home

The last in a series of posts describing my trip to bring a Mooney to South Carolina for a pre-buy inspection. See the previous installment here. Last time, my Dad completed the pre-buy inspection in South Carolina, and we made the decision to stay overnight in Raleigh, North Carolina. We landed that evening at KRDU.

The next morning I woke up before dawn, and instinctively checked the weather on my phone. A strong cold front was racing across western Pennsylvania, with a dramatic shift in wind direction and an increase in wind speed to 30+ knots. The terminal area forecasts for New Jersey put the frontal passage at around noon, and I knew we would be racing it on our way back. We needed to leave…now.

My Aunt and Uncle, who had graciously let me stay at their beautiful home on very short notice, dropped me off at the airport.

My flight instructor, having stayed with his relative in the area, was dropped off about 10 minutes later. We took another look at the weather, that cold front was moving fast. “I think we can thread the needle,” he said. “It’s gonna be windy, but we can make it back.”
“Okay I’ll preflight, you file.” I replied, walking out the door to the ramp. I laughed when I saw what we were parked next to:
The Cessna Citation X would have gotten us back a bit faster, but might have burned a bit more fuel.

I finished the preflight, my instructor climbed in, and I fired up the engine. A few minutes later he was calling Raleigh Clearance-Delivery and copying our IFR clearance back to Trenton-Robbinsville.

Three minutes later, after a run-up on the ramp area, we were cleared for takeoff. I poured on the coals and 20 seconds later we were in the air. We were cleared up to 7000 feet, and at altitude I could clearly make out the weather features we were racing home, with a sharp line of cirrus clouds curving to the north on our left. The flight really showed how great a Mooney can be. A very favorable tailwind gave us a max ground speed at 207 knots, while burning 10.9 gallons of fuel per hour. Under 90 minutes later I was going through the in-range descent checklist, and starting to bring back the power.

About 30 miles out we listened to Trenton ATIS, and inexplicably they were reporting “winds calm.” I knew this had to be false, all of the forecasts were calling for gusty NW winds. We checked another nearby airport: winds 260 at 18 gusting to 28–that’s a little more like it. They were also reporting wind shear. I knew it was going to be a challenging approach.

ATC cleared us to descend, and as soon as we were below 3000 feet we hit some continuous light chop. I kept pulling the power back, and at 2000 feet the turbulence increased to the moderate range. I entered the downwind leg of the pattern to Runway 29 at Robbinsville, and put the gear down. With all that extra drag the plane was really getting pushed around by the turbulence. I focused on correcting the large deviations, while relaxing on the stick enough to let the plane ride out most of the chop. I turned Base leg, did a GUMP check, took a breath and turned final. The turbulence increased as we got lower and slower. I elected to keep 10 kts extra speed on final, and didn’t extend the flaps all the way–typically a recipe to float a Mooney all the way down the runway, but not in this kind of wind. I wrestled the airplane down to ground effect, including through a moment of what I think was wind shear that made the plane feel like the bottom dropped out. A last gust pushed me off centerline but I kicked in right rudder and left aileron and eased the airplane on the ground. It really is true that you have to fly the airplane all the way to touchdown. With a big sigh of relief I pulled off the runway and taxied back to the parking spot, still covered with snow and ice. I realized I was sweating profusely, but it was a huge boost of confidence to land the airplane in those conditions, on the first try. It made me feel like I’ll be pretty good at this pilot thing.

Something Doesn’t Add Up

FlightAware Photo
Photo Courtesy of FlightAware.com


It’s easy to hate Justin Beiber. He’s 19 years old, wealthier than most people could ever imagine, famous the world over. It’s easy to hate him, especially when the source of all that fame and money is music that is just so…bleh.

But even more so, because he is privileged enough to decide to go to the Super Bowl, charter the Gulfstream G-IV shown above, and proceed to smoke enough marijuana that the pilots, according to reports, donned the supplemental oxygen masks for fear of failing a drug test. And according to reports, he and his entourage–including his father–we’re dismissive of the pilots and verbally abusive towards the flight attendants. And then after they land, the plane is searched by law enforcement officials at Teterboro (I bet the pilots alerted ATC prior to landing). Some of the occupants are kept for questioning. They detect a strong smell of marijuana on the plane, but no marijuana is found, everyone is released and there are no further consequences. Something doesn’t add up.

Full disclosure, I don’t like marijuana and I worry about its effects on society, but I also think the current minimum sentence laws in America are far too harsh and unjustly target minority populations. This case is a perfect example, but it’s actually not the part that angers me the most. Whatever your thoughts on the physical and social effects of marijuana use, it’s the sort of behavior and sheer disregard for the people tasked with their successful, safe passage in a jet flying 500 mph at 25,000 feet, that is so intolerable.

Mr. Beiber, I know what it’s like to be 19 (even though I don’t know what it’s like to be rich and famous), and I know you probably think your recent activities are sending exactly the message you want to send. But try to remember that you are somehow a role model for millions of young people that aren’t as privileged as you, who would surely suffer much greater consequences for actions similar to yours. And, finally, next time you decide to be dismissive of the pilots you’re paying to fly you in a jet to wherever you’re going, try to remember how difficult a job they already have. You might not need much focus and skill to do your job, but I assure you us pilots do.

Airplane Crash: Turbo Commander 690C near Nashville, Tennessee


I’ve always had a fondness for the big twin Commanders, so to see this post from the NTSB on my Twitter feed yesterday was rather saddening, especially just a few months after the tragic crash of another Turbo Commander. Like that previous crash, this one was unfortunately newsworthy, and even more unfortunately, fatal.

Aero Commander 680, similar to the accident airplane

Aero Commander 680, similar to the accident airplane

The airplane, a Gulfstream Aero Commander 690C , left Great Bend, Kansas at 2045Z (3:45pm EST) and flew east for 1.5hrs at 23,000 feet. This was followed by a normal descent over the next 20 minutes to 3000 feet just west of Nashville, TN. The track log shows the plane intercept the approach course via a procedure turn on the RNAV Runway 02 approach into John C. Tune Municipal Airport, KJWN. The plane descends and slows as if on a normal approach to 700 feet (this is what is reported on Flightaware.com so it may be inaccurate). A missed approach is apparently initiated, and the airplane climbs back to 3000 feet, maneuvering to the west and then to the south, setting up for another approach. As the plane makes the turn to intercept the approach course again, it starts to descend, gradually, intercepting the glideslope to the runway. All of these things are normal, the flight is going as planned. But within a few minutes, the airplane crashes into a narrow strip of land next to a YMCA complex, with a debris field of some 150 yards. It was about 10 miles south of the airport.


N840V flight track map

What happened in those few minutes and what could have been done to prevent it? This sounds like a loss-of-control while in the clouds, considering the short debris field and at least one eyewitness account:

We were at Kroger, so we didn’t actually physically see it hit the ground, but we did see it come out of the clouds and spiral.

I generally don’t trust non-pilot accounts of the way airplanes fly or sound, but using the word “spiral” is probably not just a generalization on the witness’ part.

The weather at the time, and for much of the day, wasn’t great:

Notice that all day Nashville International Airport (KBNA, 10 miles east of KJWN), was reporting rather light NNE winds at 5-10 kts, but the visibility was in the marginal range (3-5 miles) and the ceiling was just 900 feet with mist (fog) due to a narrow temperature/dew point spread. But there isn’t mention of precipitation, and assuming the big Turbo Commander was well equipped, the weather conditions were low but weren’t quite “minimums” at the time.


At this point the rest can only be speculation. What caused the airplane to “spiral” out of the cloudy evening sky? Was there an engine failure? It’s possible, but with a turboprop I consider it unlikely. Although no precipitation was falling on the ground, were there icing conditions in the clouds? Perhaps. Did the pilot have too many things to juggle, single-pilot IFR in the waning hour of daylight, a 2-hour flight and one missed approach behind him, a big fast complicated but capable aircraft in front of him? Perhaps. Maybe it was a combination of those two things. Maybe it was none of these things. In time I trust the NTSB will make some sense out of this tragic accident; I can only hope it brings some further understanding about the art of flying to us pilots, as well as some measure of comfort and closure for the families of the victims. To them, I express my deepest condolences.

A Trip to the South: Part II

Continued from Part I

The speed raced past 60 knots, I pulled back on the stick and the airplane lifted off the icy, snow-covered runway to begin the flight from Trenton-Robbinsville N87 to Santee-Cooper KMNI in South Carolina. We were on an IFR flight plan with a route as follows: N87 CYN V16 RIC V157 LVL V155 CTF KMNI, filed at 4000 feet which gave us a near 25 knot headwind. While this made for a terrible groundspeed of about 125 knots, it was better than what we’d get had we climbed higher. The jet stream wasn’t our friend that day. As I mentioned before my CFI was along for the trip, and he graciously handled the radio calls while I flew the airplane and operated the GPS, a Garmin GNS480. The instrument is a bit less intuitive at first than some other units (such as the more common Garmin 430), but after a few early hiccups it started to make sense and its benefits as a more powerful flight management system became clear. We settled in for the nearly 4 hour flight, stretching the range of the airplane close to its limits, assuming a personal minimum of landing with an hour of fuel in the tanks. I picked up this habit after reading Richard Collins’ The Next Hour, but it is a common-sense rule.

The terrain below was cold and bleak, the rivers and even much of the expanse across Delaware Bay was frozen over after a few weeks of sub-freezing temps. But despite the headwind, there were virtually no bumps, and the 120 knot groundspeed in the Mooney burning 11 gallons/hr was much better than the 85 knots at the same fuel burn in a 172 or similar airplane.

I was perfectly happy, watching the ground below show gradual signs of warming as we flew south over Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. But I had this small voice in the back of my mind, constantly wondering if I had made the right decision to go. Fretting over whether we could get back that night. I tried to relax and focus on flying, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that the day wouldn’t work out as we planned. I thought about the factors involved: if my dad was going to be able to do a pre-buy inspection, it would have to be on a Sunday. We didn’t want to wait too long so as to delay buying the airplane, or waste the owner’s time waiting for us. The weather, while not perfect, looked better than it had for several weekends prior, and than it looked the following weekend. I was bringing my CFI along, so if I got stuck, it would be disruptive to more people than just myself. The weather was moving in faster than forecast, so we had only narrow windows of time to work with, and we were flying an unfamiliar airplane, which though it was loaded with all the features and equipment you could want, would be difficult to adjust to if we were caught in actual IMC. It’s funny how many things go into flying an airplane besides actually flying. It’s at least 50% mental.

We sped southward at 4000 feet, then 5000 feet, talking to a long list of air traffic controllers–some of them the same ones as I had spoken to on my VFR flight at the end of December. Finally we approached central South Carolina, and the large Lake Marion, appeared on the horizon. We descended and cancelled IFR when we had the field in sight, setting up for a pattern approach to runway 20 (I had landed on runway 02 the month before, runway 20 ends in a drop off directly into the lake). Though the winds were strong, I made an acceptable landing and taxied up to the hangar, happy to get out and stretch (and use the restroom!). To my great surprise, my Grandfather was standing there waiting with my Dad. He lives in Charleston, about an hour away, but I hadn’t expected to see him, and he gave me a hug and a warm welcome. My Mom was also there, embracing me tightly, excited as always to see me, as was I to see her. Even my Dad’s sister was there, also from out of town, so it was a nice impromptu family reunion.

We pulled the airplane into the hangar and Dad set to work inspecting the airplane. First he pulled off the engine cowling while I opened the tail access panels. He then did an engine cylinder compression check. I had a bite to eat from the brunch mom had prepared, famished from almost four hours of flying and a small breakfast at 5am that morning.
He frowned as he ran his index finger along the seam of the engine crankcase and along the edge of one of the cylinders, noticing a small but worrisome amount of oil. The news didn’t get better, with the compressions from cylinder 4 on the low side and cylinder 3 was on the borderline of needing a replacement. He looked at me and grimaced, silently. He then went over the rest of the airplane with the precision and attention to detail that I knew would make it worthwhile to fly all the way down. He’s simply the best at this kind of thing. Whatever cost it took, or inconvenience, was worth it to have his opinion.

About 3 hours had passed and Dad was finishing up, so my CFI and I began preparing for the trip back home. A look at the weather had us both frowning. Although the forecast ceilings back in New Jersey were 4000 – 5000 feet, a line of snow showers was moving in faster than expected, and conditions could decrease to MVFR or lower. “It’s your call,” said my CFI. He offered as an option to stop in Raleigh, North Carolina for the night, as he had family there he could stay with. I mulled the details for a few minutes, and called Landmark Aviation at KRDU to check the landing/overnight fees. Finally I said “I haven’t made a night landing in almost a year, and I don’t have any actual IMC experience so far, so I don’t want to combine, possibly, both of those things tonight.” My CFI agreed immediately, adding, “and especially in an airplane neither of us own!”

We confirmed that we’d head up to Raleigh, landing at KRDU, an international airport (Class C airspace), about an hour’s flight north, and we’d fly VFR. We fueled the airplane, I said goodbye to my family, and we climbed in. Dad lingered by the airplane, and we spoke through the pilot window hatch. “Keep looking,” he said. “The airplane is in good shape in terms of airworthiness, but it will need some investment soon, maybe a top-end overhaul.”
“That’s exactly the kind of advice I flew down here for,” I said.
“And the paint is pretty ragged,” he went on. Neither of us do thank-yous or goodbyes very well. I was sad to leave so quickly, especially to leave and know I wasn’t going home that night. A feeling of homesickness started to creep in on me.
“Thanks, Dad,” I said.
“Anytime, I hope you bring more planes down here for me to look at,” he replied, walking back behind the wing and clear of the plane. I fired up the engine and we were in the air five minutes later, headed north and talking to Shaw Approach for flight following.

It was beautiful to fly in the late afternoon as the sun sank to the horizon. The approach to KRDU, my first time landing a Mooney at a towered airport, was fun and exciting, and the speed brakes helped immensely to keep the airspeed in check. The landing was smooth on the long runway 23L, and within a few minutes we were taxiing up to Landmark Aviation on a ramp full of jets. Everyone we interacted with was extremely pleasant, treating us like we belonged, and explaining the ramp fees when we asked. We decided to add 5 gallons of fuel to the plane, and they waived the overnight fee (total without fuel would have been around $40). The fuel was expensive ($7+/gal), but not unexpected, and the convenience of landing at a major airport and walk from plane to car in about 30 seconds can’t be overstated. It is simply amazing to fly yourself from place to place, especially when you get to pull up on a ramp full of jets.

The flight back to New Jersey and the most challenging landing I’ve made