A while back, on the Insider’s page of this website, I mentioned a sad story about a pilot who flew a perfectly good airplane into the ground. I never told the full story, so here it is.
Quite a few years ago, there was a pilot, flying solo cross-country with a destination of Fulton County Airport, here in Atlanta. This pilot was fairly experienced and had an instrument rating, meaning he was well-qualified to fly in bad weather.
This pilot’s experience was a good thing, because on the day when this story begins and ends, the weather in Atlanta was bad. It was foggy with a very low cloud ceiling. At the time the pilot made his first approach to landing at Fulton County, the reported visibility at the airport was close to minimums.
At the Minimum
If you are not familiar with the term “minimums,” it means the lowest possible visibility that one can fly in and still see the runway in time to make a safe landing. If the visibility drops below minimums, you are not legal, according to federal regulations to continue your approach. It also means the lowest, or minimum altitude you are allowed to fly on an instrument approach without seeing the runway or the runway’s lights. If you fly to the legal minimum altitude on your approach and cannot not see the runway, you are required, by law, to discontinue the approach and go around.
Even if it were legal to fly below minimums and land, it would be crazy to try–in most circumstances– because you can’t land safely if you can’t see the ground.
How it Started
The pilot in our story began the approach to Fulton County because the visibility was greater than the legal minimum, but when he reached the lowest point on his approach where he had to see the runway to continue to a landing, he couldn’t see the runway. The fog was too thick. He stopped the approach and made a go-around, following the missed approach procedure for Runway 8.
The visibility was still reported to be above the legal minimum, so he tried another approach. Again, he didn’t see the runway at the lowest point on his approach and had to go around. Even though the reported visibility was good enough to land, he couldn’t land there.
With the weather too bad to land at Fulton County Airport, he asked Atlanta Approach Control for vectors to an approach at Dekalb-Peachtree Airport (PDK) on the other side of the city. The visibility was reported to be better there. Atlanta Approach guided him to PDK and cleared him for the approach to the runway.
Once again, even though the weather was reported good enough to land, when he reached the lowest point on his approach to PDK, he couldn’t see anything and had to go around. He asked for radar vectors to try again. Again, he got the same bad result and had to discontinue the approach.
Out of Ideas
Frustrated, the pilot asked the approach controller about the weather back at Fulton County and was told it was about the same as earlier. He asked about the weather at Dobbins Air Reserve Base, also in the Atlanta area, and was told the weather was also bad there. Running out of ideas, he asked Atlanta Approach for vectors back to Fulton County for another try.
Let me stop the story for a moment to ask you a question. Here we have a pilot that has flown a cross-country flight of some length to Atlanta and then spends quite a bit more time flying approach after approach to various runways at the destination. If you were this pilot, what would be your top concern at this point?
Back to the story. The pilot takes radar vectors back to the approach into Fulton County Airport and once again, does not see the runway. He goes around and asks for vectors to yet another approach. This would be his last attempt.
Into Runway 8
If today, you were to fly an approach in good weather to Runway 8 at Fulton County Airport, you would fly over some commercial buildings and warehouses. Approaching the runway, you would notice a line of hills off to your left. Below, you would see a 6-lane highway, then a ravine with a creek in it. Just before you flew over the airport’s fence and landed on Runway 8, you would cross over a four-lane road that is often full of cars and big tractor-trailer trucks.
Rescue crews found the wreckage of the pilot’s airplane between the highway and the busy four-lane road, near the creek, right under the approach path to Runway 8 at Fulton County Airport. The airplane’s fuel tanks were empty.
What the Pilot Considered
We know this pilot was concerned his fuel was running low, because he talked about it with Atlanta Approach. He asked about the weather at airports away from Atlanta. The weather was the same all over the northern half of the state: foggy.
Earlier, I said it’s not legal to fly to a landing when the weather is below minimums and you cannot see the runway at the lowest legal point on your approach. Balance that against knowing you are about to run out of fuel, crash, and die if you do not land. What would you do?
The Moral of the Story
First and foremost, always do what you have to do to stay safe. When it comes to talking on the radio, don’t get so wrapped up with talking on the radio—or so wrapped up in anything–that you forget to take care of your airplane, yourself, and your passengers.
Second, in an emergency, the rules allow you to do whatever it takes to maintain safety, even going so far as to ignore any rule that stands between you and safety. If you are in the hurt locker, as the pilot in this story was, get on the radio, declare an emergency and then get your airplane on the ground as safely as possible; or, in a way that will do the least amount of harm.
When the pilot noticed his fuel was running low, and realized he could not fly to a place where the weather was better, I wish this pilot had declared an emergency on the radio and disregarded the legal minimum for the approach. I wish he had “busted minimums” and followed his navigation instruments all the way down to the runway.
Even if he went below minimums and only saw the runway at the very last second before touchdown, he might have been able to pull the nose of the aircraft up in time to make a landing. Even if he saw the runway too late and made a hard enough landing to collapse the landing gear, he might have lived. Even, if he missed the runway entirely and landed in the grass next to the runway, or crash landed anywhere inside the airport fence, he could have had the airport fire department at his airplane within seconds.
Second Guessing is Easy
I know it’s easy to second-guess a pilot’s actions while I sit here comfortably at my desk. I wasn’t there fighting the fight. But, you and I can look back and learn something from this tragedy that will make us safer when we fly.