It was a rainy Thursday afternoon and I was eating lunch with my family when my phone rang. My wife and I had just been discussing how miserable the weather was, so it was only natural that about 30 minutes later I was soaking wet and sitting in one of our Aerostars getting ready to take off for Ohio. I didn’t have much information about who I would be flying, or why, but I knew that I was going to pick someone up to fly them home; something about a missing airplane. So off I went into the muck. My biggest concern at that point being whether or not my clothes would ever dry out.
I arrived uneventfully and walked happily into the FBO, but found myself quickly in a very different atmosphere. It turned out I had two passengers to pick up, a husband and wife, and they had arrived at the FBO before me. As I walked in the door, the wife received a phone call. The person on the phone told her that search teams had found her father’s airplane crashed in the woods and that he was dead. I learned the rest of the details quickly and it was hard to stomach.
She was travelling home that day to be with family until they were able to locate her father. She was pregnant with her first baby and was in her third trimester. The baby was to be her dad’s first grandchild. He’d owned a Lake Amphibian for years and had stayed at home to work while his wife was out of town. He was last seen leaving work on Tuesday of that week and was reported missing on Thursday by his co-workers. Airport security footage showed him pulling the airplane out and taking off at 20:48 (after sunset) on Tuesday night.
After a few minutes we loaded the Aerostar and took off. It was the saddest flight I’ve ever done. Understandably, my passanger sobbed on and off from the time she got off the phone until we landed a couple of hours later. The weather seemed appropriate as we flew along through the rain and were greeted at our destination by a grief stricken family and a few reporters.
I said a sad goodbye and left, but I couldn’t help but think about their situation. It really hit close to home with me as it was easy to draw parallels between my family and theirs: she was very close in age to me and pregnant with her first child. My wife and I were new parents. Her dad had owned his airplane for about the same length of time that my dad has owned his Bonanza. Additionally, it isn’t uncommon for my parents to go a couple days without being able to reach each other because they both travel.
But what happened..?
In the time since the accident, the NTSB has published their findings and unfortunately, it makes the situation sadder. It was completely avoidable.
Airport security cameras showed that after removing the airplane from the hangar, the pilot did not complete a preflight inspection or even a walkaround of any kind. He simply climbed in and left. The investigators were unable to find any traces or odor of fuel in the wreckage, nor any mechanical abnormalities with the airplane. In fact, according to the report, the engine was put on a test stand and ran perfectly. It would seem that the pilot simply never checked the fuel quantity and took off. The airport cameras captured the take off and a bright flash about 30 seconds after the aircraft departed.
Here is an excerpt from the report:
The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident as follows: The pilot’s attempted 180-degree return to the runway immediately after takeoff in dark night conditions, which resulted in collision with trees and terrain. Also causal was the pilot’s inadequate preflight inspection, which resulted in a takeoff with little-to-no fuel on board the airplane.
Interestingly, the report also details their ability to use logbook information and fuel receipts to show the airplane was taken on a long cross country on its last flight and likely not fueled again.
Another thing which stuck out in my mind upon learning the details of the crash was how important it is to let someone know when you’re going flying. Having another person know roughly when a flight is leaving, where it’s going and and when to expect it back could potentially save the lives of the people on board. In the case of this accident, the pilot didn’t alert anyone that he was going flying and therefore, no one realized he was missing for 2 days.
From reading the NTSB report I don’t get the impression that he survived the crash, but I can’t help thinking about the possibility that he, or others in similar circumstances, could survive a crash and then die from their injuries because no one knew to look for them. When I flew charter, we weren’t legally allowed to take off VFR without letting someone at the company know the details of the flight. I’ve adopted this as my personal policy as well. One text message could be the difference between being rescued or not.
Finally, every pilot should ensure that a proper walk around is completed! It’s easy to assume everything is okay with an airplane, especially one that no one else has access too. In addition to a thorough preflight, I like to walk all the way around the airplane and visual check fuel caps, doors, chocks, ropes, etc., immediately before getting in to ensure that everything is ready. I know a couple of pilots who have taken off with various panels and compartments open simply because they got distracted during their walk around and never closed them. (A good policy is to never walk away and leave something open). Perhaps even more mind boggling is that he apparently didn’t look at the fuel gauges after start up and before take off. I also have to wonder how much fuel he had remaining upon completion of the previous flight.
“Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect” is likely a familiar quote to just about every pilot. It is often written on a poster with a picture of an old timey bi-plane hanging out of a tree, but I think that it is absolutely on point. Carelessness in the preflight and neglecting basic pilot responsibilities (in this case fuel planning) cost this father his life and his opportunity to meet his first grandchild.
I know this article is a real downer, but it’s supposed to be. Its tragic that accidents take place which are completely avoidable. Obviously this case was beyond the normal realm of carelessness and neglect, but, we as pilots need to be extremely careful not to get so comfortable with an airplane that we stop doing the things which are so basic and important to safety. One of my professors in school used to say “aviation is fun, but it plays for keeps,” which is an effective way to remind myself how important it is to do it right.
*Out of respect to the family, I have not included any specific names, tail numbers or airports in this article.