Throughout the whole event, I learned quite a few things both about flying and about myself. Here are some of the lessons which I have taken away from the accident:
- No flight is routine: When I took off that morning I was about as relaxed as I could have been while going to fly. I was flying an airplane that I knew well, in beautiful weather, to familiar airports and even carrying passengers which I had taken on this exact trip more than a dozen times. The accident brought into startling clarity that anything can happen at any time. I had done everything right that morning (preflight, weather briefing, planning, etc) , and none of that did anything to stop the deer from jumping out onto the runway. All we can do is ensure the items we do have control over are covered and try to be prepared to deal with anything else that arises. This ties directly into my next point:
- Making sure everything is correct: When you do go fly, make sure that you have all your paperwork and personal details taken care of. I can think of a few times over the course of my flying career where something wasn’t quite right with the paperwork, or perhaps I had forgotten my wallet and I was tempted to go fly anyway. “It’s 8pm on Sunday, I’m not going to get ramp checked.” Well, I can assure you that the paperwork and questionnaires which were required to be submitted to the FAA, NTSB, and Insurance companies would have uncovered any discrepancies in my logbooks, currency, or legality. It isn’t worth the risk of flying without having everything in place just in case something happens. It isn’t just a random ramp check which can get a pilot into trouble.
- Ask for help: The story of my collision with a deer would have had a very different outcome if it weren’t for the help that I received from countless the people on the ground. If you’re ever in a situation where you could use a hand, don’t be afraid to ask for help. If I had simply turned around and landed back at Wings, I wouldn’t even have had any idea that my landing gear was missing! The people in the control tower, the maintenance guys, the approach controllers in Philly, the emergency responders, and many more people all played their part in orchestrating a successful outcome.
- Dealing with the Paperwork: I have had dealings with the FAA before, but never for an accident. I was afraid that the investigation would be a witch hunt and I would have to defend myself while someone poured over all my planning and paperwork looking for potential errors. But, my fears were totally unfounded. Although I did have to answer many phone calls, write many reports, and fill out much paperwork, the FAA, NTSB, and Insurance companies were very patient in waiting for my responses and even complimentary in how the situation played out. I really enjoyed working with all of them and appreciated their encouragement and help.
- Emotional Response: After the dust had settled and the smoke had cleared, I was left standing on the side of the runway with the passengers and my boss. I offered to fly them back to Philadelphia or continue to Pittsburgh and assured our Chief Pilot that I was feeling fine and ready to fly again. Fortunately, there wasn’t a need. Over the next week or two, I noticed a change in myself. I wasn’t fine. I have never had headaches, but shortly after I landed I developed a headache that didn’t go away for days. I had trouble focusing on anything and I had trouble finding motivation to do much but sit and stare at a wall. I wasn’t sharp and I caught myself making silly mistakes in my normally routine activities. I wasn’t depressed, or sad, it was just an unwanted mental and physiological response to the stress and shock of what happened that morning in the Baron. I didn’t feel like myself for quite some time and I even found myself a little on edge whenever I lined up for takeoff on subsequent charters for while afterward. Eventually I started to feel normal again, but it was a slow process.
- Feather the Props: I can’t tell you what a difference it makes when those props go from wind milling to feathered. It became clear to me that feathering a prop could make a huge difference in deciding the outcome of an emergency situation.
- Good training and checklists usage: This one is pretty straight forward, but it’s worth mentioning. Good training and proficiency make all the difference when the odds are against you. Make sure that you use all your resources when your back is against the wall, and that includes the checklists. Under the stress of the flight I had forgotten to close the cowl flaps and would likely have landed with them open without the aid of the Emergency Procedures Checklist. This would have resulted in unnecessary damage to the airframe.
- No need to rush: There is no denying that I had things stacked in my favor that day. I had nice weather, extra gas, daylight hours, and even the luxury of landing at my home airport. But, regardless of all those variables, there is no need to rush into anything. Ask questions, find answers and come up with a plan. Obviously not all emergencies present the pilot with the luxury of time, but use all time and resources you have to your advantage.
- Polish up those procedures: The deer accident really made me want to go out and brush up on all the emergency procedures which I hadn’t performed since my last checkride. The realization that I could need any of them at any time was really hit home after I hit that deer. Additionally, make sure you know who to call if something ever does happen.
- Know the systems: Familiarity with the systems on the airplane makes it easier to troubleshoot and solve issues on the fly and makes it easier to spot a problem in the first place. Knowing how systems work and what their normal indications should be helps make decisions regarding when to divert and where to land easier.
The irony isn’t lost on me that the last article that I wrote for this newsletter dealt with how to avoid making gear up landings and the high cost required to repair one. I never would have imagined when I wrote that article last fall that I would be writing one only a few months later detailing my own gear up landing.
The bottom line is that there is nothing a person can do to prepare for every situation which might arise throughout the course of a flight, and it’s also impossible to know which emergency you may have to deal with if a situation arises. All we can do is stack odds in our favor by making sure that we address the things within our control such as aircraft maintenance, careful flight planning, checking weather, and having personal minimums set in place to keep us from flying outside of our skill sets and comfort zones.
Additionally, ensuring that you are knowledgeable and proficient in your aircraft’s procedures will give you the best chance for success. When things start going wrong, keep calm, and ask for help. Work the problem instead of guessing or rushing into a less than desirable solution. No one wants to be caught in an emergency like a deer in a landing light!
Andrew Robinson is an airline pilot for Piedmont Airlines. He is a former 135 Charter Pilot and flight instructor who lives with his wife and 2 daughters in Pennsylvania. He instructs in Beechcraft Bonanzas.