Two guys I never knew once flew for my first airline. One was a training captain, the other a freshly minted first officer. They were best of friends for as long as anyone could remember, so it was natural that the training captain would successfully lobby to get his best friend hired.
It also didn’t surprise anybody when he managed to get assigned to the Initial Operating Experience (IOE) portion of his best friend’s training.
Naturally the best friend breezed through IOE. He had his best buddy there to guide him through all its intricacies. Their last flight of IOE was a night one, scheduled to end with a landing into Columbus, Ohio (KCMH). The approach seemed to be uneventful. High and fast when cleared low to begin the approach, they brought power levers to flight idle, configured the ship, and let the autopilot and gravity bring them “down the chute.”
The two chatted excitedly about where they would celebrate the first officer’s rite of passage. You could hear the fun in their voices on the cockpit voice recorder. Gear and flaps were lowered on schedule while different watering holes and restaurants were bandied about. Meanwhile neither pilot had a hand on the power levers.
The stall warning horn and the sound of the stick shaker startled them both. Their voices jump from glee to panic. The next sound heard was a commuter turboprop and 23 people slamming nose first into the Earth.
In a macabre tribute to that crash, the FAA at one point memorialized it on the KCMH ILS/LOC RWY 28R approach plate with two waypoints: GOTSLO (“got slow”) and UNOIT (“you know it”), the alleged crash site.
The captain on that fatal flight, an ATP-level flight instructor, forgot that his primary role was to be a flight instructor, not a friend. That cost lives. It’s rare that an instructor’s inaction results in a fatal crash.
These reports from NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System reinforce the old adage, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
“Cruising at 2,500 feet, my instructor pulled the power to idle, applied carburetor heat and told me that I had just lost engine power. I then decided to head for a nearby airport. I made a radio call and entered the pattern on a 45° downwind at pattern altitude for Runway 28.” The pilot then continued to configure the aircraft for a landing.
“It was looking like it was going to be close for making the touchdown point. On short final I decided to add some power just to be sure I was going to make the runway. At about half throttle the main wheels came in contact with the deep snow on the ground and then the nosewheel came down. The nosewheel folded over when it hit a snowmobile track, which resulted in a propeller strike. I skidded to a stop about 100 feet short of the runway.”
The pilot concluded: “The main contributing factor for not making the runway was that I did not add full throttle and added throttle too late.”
But where was his flight instructor? What was he watching that he missed the trend that ended up in an off-airport landing? CFIs are trained to spot trends. We’re also trained to step in and stop a trend from becoming a mishap.
Based on the first-person narrative and prevalence of the use of “I” in this report, it appears that the CFI had zero input in the flight’s outcome. Allowing an airworthy aircraft to land short of the runway is inexcusable.
These two NASA reporters ended up with mud on their aircraft — and their faces:
“I was conducting a VFR training flight. At 6,000 feet MSL, I gave the student a simulated engine failure. At approximately 200 feet over an open field, with the landing assured, I asked the student to recover the aircraft. Upon applying full power, the engine began sputtering and ran very rough, and was not developing full power.”
The flight instructor then took control of the aircraft and applied carb heat. The engine failed to recover. Already at only 50 feet AGL and with the engine at 50% power at best, the instructor set up for a soft field landing.
“I performed a soft field landing, but the aircraft immediately bogged down on the soft mud and came to a stop.”
Lessons learned by the instructor: “Ensure that carburetor heat is on and occasionally clear the engine by momentarily increasing the rpm during the simulated engine-out, best-glide portion of the procedure.”
Carburetor ice can form in a wide range of outside air temperatures and relative humidities. While the word “icing” typically brings to mind blustery winds and frigid conditions, carb ice can develop when outside temperatures are as high as 100° Fahrenheit with 50% relative humidity. The risk doesn’t subside until the humidity falls below roughly 25% and/or the outside air temperature drops well below freezing.
In other words, carb ice can form at pretty much any time, in any phase of flight. Icing is most likely to occur when temperatures fall between 50° and 70° Fahrenheit and the relative humidity is greater than 60%. It’s the CFI’s job to know that and to make sure the student knows that, too. In other words, the student needs to know to apply carb heat immediately after simulated engine failure.
As another CFI wrote in a NASA report: “While I was instructing a student in simulated forced landings, the student went through an engine secure checklist. At some point during the descent, the student turned off the fuel selector without verbalizing his actions.”
At approximately 500 feet AGL, the student initiated a go-around and the engine quit. The instructor took control and successfully made a forced landing on a dirt road.
In his NASA report, the CFI wrote that the unscheduled landing could have been prevented by ensuring that students verbalize and touch, but don’t actually move, the fuel selector, mixture and magnetos to off. Better yet, if the flight instructor had watched both where the aircraft was going and what the student was doing, the landing might have been avoided.
A great instructor once taught me “always acknowledge the alarm.” In this NASA report neither the pilot candidate nor his examiner followed that advice during a practical exam:
“At roughly 1,900 feet over the airport, a simulated engine failure was initiated by the examiner. I immediately pulled the carburetor heat on, pitched for best glide and started a right turn to land on Runway 36. While circling to land, I went through the engine troubleshooting procedures and made a simulated emergency call over the CTAF.
“At this point we were on final. The aircraft was high, so I put in full flaps and initiated a forward slip to lose altitude. The aircraft landed long with the gear up. As soon as I realized that the gear was not down, I secured the engine. At no point during the maneuver did I hear any indication from the examiner that the gear was not down or that I should initiate a go-around.
“A number of actions on my part could have prevented this incident. The most obvious and sure method of prevention would have been to put the gear down immediately after the simulated engine failure. This would have solved the problem at its root.”
The pilot concluded that other contributing factors were failure to complete the GUMPS check on final, failure to maintain adequate altitude in the maneuver and stress associated with the practical exam.
But where was the examiner? Why didn’t he take control, recover and abort the landing? Wresting control would have provided a better teaching moment than landing gear up.
I once had an IOE captain yank control of a turboprop away from me on half mile, short final. He thought my crosswind technique was unsafe. There wasn’t any time for him to guide me through a correction, so he grabbed his yoke, called the aircraft his and fixed the problem.
Was my pride hurt? Sure. No one wants to be called out for doing a poor job. Plus I thought I might have failed my Initial Operating Experience as a result. But I hadn’t. Nor had any passengers been injured or the plane damaged.
Most importantly, he showed me the proper crosswind technique for that airplane. I spent my next two days off perfecting crosswind landings. I became a better pilot because of his direct, decisive action.
There isn’t an oath or a code of ethics CFIs have to abide by when we become flight instructors. But there is a clear understanding that we take people’s lives into our hands whether it’s during flight instruction or during practical exams.
I cannot overstate the importance of knowing when to step in. A harsh word or a grabbed yoke by any of those flight instructors might have produced a different, less costly outcome.