Bold Pilots: Know Your Limitations

“There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.”  This was the instructor’s opening line of the Cockpit Resource Management class I was attending as part of my annual Air Force flying requirements.  For me, it’s impossible to grow accustomed to hearing the flying horror stories involving pilots putting themselves in dangerous situations and not surviving the outcome.

I think we all picture ourselves as the pinnacle of aviation prowess, the very poster child of what it is to be a pilot.  It’s good to have a healthy dose of confidence when becoming a licensed aviator, but there needs to be an equally healthy view of reality mixed in.

I’d like to tell you about two flying accidents that have been on my mind lately.  The first mishap occurred on November 26, 2011.  A private pilot with 207 hours of flight time (including time logged as a student) took off from Marion Regional Airport (KMZZ) in Indiana bound for DuPage Airport (KDPA) in Illinois.  The pilot was taking his two daughters and their friend back to college after Thanksgiving weekend.  They were making the trip in a Cirrus SR-20.  The pilot was not Instrument rated and the weather, although IFR conditions prevailed at the time of departure, was forecast for VFR conditions at DuPage.

Upon arrival at KDPA the pilot found the weather had not improved.  He flew into IMC relying heavily upon the few hours of instrument training he told ATC he had received.  Following several frantic radio transmissions and requests for help in making a decision as to where to land, the pilot finally chose to seek VFR conditions and headed off in no specific direction.  Shortly after his last contact with ATC he and his passengers died when their Cirrus impacted the ground.  Statements from witnesses on the ground lead one to believe the pilot experienced spatial disorientation while in the weather, which resulted in the crash.  (Read the NTSB report here.)

The next story involves a student pilot who blatantly disregarded FAA regulations and the restrictions placed on him because he wanted to go see his girlfriend.  This young pilot, a 21-year-old student with a whopping 26 hours of flight time chose to take off at night in high wind conditions and probable IMC and traveled outside his 25-mile limitation imposed by the FAA.  I failed to mention he planned to do this in an aircraft he had purchased the day before his fatal flight.

This young man’s newly bought aircraft was found 35 miles east of his departure airfield in a national forest.  Local witnesses said that heavy rains and wind prevailed at the time of the crash.  Accident investigators noted that the size and shape of the crash site indicated the aircraft impacted from a nearly pure vertical descent.

The boy’s girlfriend said she had flown with him on a few occasions (big no-no for unlicensed pilots!) and that he could fly “with or without a GPS”.  When she had tried to talk him out of flying out to visit her in the wind and rain that night, his response to her was, “I’m a pilot!”  (Read the full story here.)

This brings me to my point.  As pilots, we can’t let ourselves believe we are invincible.  There will always be a situation out there that can kick our butts.  A good pilot will recognize that situation and avoid it.  For those of us without instrument ratings, those situations will include flight into IMC whether or not there is icing or convective activity in the clouds.  A more experienced pilot with proper ratings may want to steer clear of shooting an approach to minimums if he or she isn’t current on instrument flying.  We should all be cognizant of our limitations such as fatigue or proficiency, and never let our emotions get in the way of our decision-making.

The pilot in the first story thought his few hours of instrument training were enough to allow him to operate the way he wanted to operate.  Instead, he ended up killing himself, his daughters and his daughters’ friend.  Our Casanova in the second story thought he was a pilot that could do whatever he wanted just because he owned an aircraft even though he didn’t have a pilot’s license – we saw how that turned out for him.

There are no old, bold pilots.  We each need to have a healthy fear for the dangers we face when we fly, and we need to understand the risks each and every time the wheels leave the ground.  They won’t be the same on every flight.  Know your limitations, both personal and regulatory, and do not exceed them.  Fly safely, and you will be better able to fly often!