Pilot Selfies, apples, and oranges

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The NTSB recently release a “probable cause” report on the fatal crash of a Cessna 150 in Colorado last May. The agency determined the probable cause of the accident to be:

The pilot’s loss of control and subsequent aerodynamic stall due to spatial disorientation in night instrument meteorological conditions. Contributing to the accident was the pilot’s distraction due to his cell phone use while maneuvering at low-altitude.

That last line is the first time the agency has identified cell phone use as a contributing factor to a fatal accident. They based that conclusion on footage from a GoPro camera, recorded on the penultimate flight a few minutes earlier, that showed “the pilot and various passengers…taking self-photographs with their cell phones and, during the night flight, using the camera’s flash function during the takeoff roll, initial climb, and flight in the traffic pattern.”

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Flight training: Instrument rating

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Getting my instrument rating was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. And, more importantly, it is one of my proudest achievements.

Stats

Aircraft: 1980 Mooney 231, Garmin 430W, HSI

Total flight hours before IFR training: ~100 with about 40 in type, 60 cross country

Final hours of simulated or actual IFR training: 41, almost all in the Mooney, all with an instructor

Actual IMC during training: 2 hours

Back to Basics

According to Wikipedia, cognition is the set of all mental abilities and processes related to knowledge: attention, memory, judgement, reasoning, problem solving, decision making, comprehension, production of language, etc. All of these processes are important in VFR flying, but the stakes are higher under IFR and they are off the charts in clouds (actual IMC). Consequently, you should expect IFR training to stretch the limits of your cognitive abilities and it will do so at the expense of your other abilities, such as flying the airplane.

Before you start training, practice the basics of flying to make sure they are second nature. Practice holding a heading within 10 degrees, and an altitude within 100 feet. Make a cross country flight with flight following to make sure you’re comfortable speaking with ATC, and try to absorb their vocabulary and syntax so your communications are short, precise, and informative. Communication is crucially important in IFR, so for more help, spend some time listening to a busy frequency on liveatc.net and try to imagine the airspace and the traffic inside it.

Which Instructor?

Of course, any instructor with a CFII is qualified to teach students in IFR. However, if possible, work with a seasoned instructor. The 20 year old CFI that just got their instrument teaching endorsement (the “double i”) probably doesn’t have all that much actual instrument experience. For my money, I want to learn from someone with as much actual experience as possible. I want to hear about their difficult flights and how they handled situations like thunderstorm avoidance and in-flight icing. Further, a “seasoned” instructor will better accommodate your learning style and might be able to help you overcome the challenges along the way quicker. Seek out that instructor at your flight school, and let the 20 year olds teach the VFR students.

The Tests

Honestly, I had more difficulty with the written test than the practical test. It is difficult to put into words, but I think my problem was that the written test had a lot of information that didn’t apply to the IFR flying I was doing (for instance, questions about ADF navigation). I made sure to study and take practice tests often, identifying my weak areas and not taking the written exam until I had ironed out those weaknesses. There are many self-study courses available, and I used the Sporty’s IFR course on the iPad and found it to be helpful. However, I referred to an IFR textbook (Jeppeson) when the videos and other information on the app didn’t answer my questions.

Predictably, I found myself very anxious leading up to the practical test. The oral portion of the test was straightforward, with an emphasis on understanding the details of the IFR enroute and approach charts. One other area of emphasis was in emergency procedures, and we spent a long time discussing lost communication scenarios. The actual flying was less stressful–easier than my recent lessons which had focused on partial-panel approaches. I don’t have much to say about the flying–make sure you are thorough about briefing the approaches before you fly them. Imagine flying them before you actually fly them, paying special attention that you don’t overlook minimum altitudes at intermediate points in the approach (trust me, you don’t want to bust minimums). Fly well and you will get your instrument rating on the spot and, trust me again, you will feel great. It is a huge accomplishment that only other pilots will truly understand (the general public seems perplexed by the concept of IFR).

The Flying

I got my instrument rating in mid-November, which hasn’t allowed much flying in actual clouds so far in the Northeast United States (my aircraft is not certified to fly in known-ice conditions). However, I’ve done some IFR flying, and look forward to the warmer months when my instrument rating will expand my opportunities to fly. In the meantime, I’m having scheduled maintenance performed during these cold months, and who knows, maybe I’ll get my multi-engine license…

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Airplane Crash: Turbo Commander 690C near Nashville, Tennessee

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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.

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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:
N840V-weather

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.

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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.