What follows is a posting I made to an aviation-related mailing list on February 16, 2000, in reaction to one of the most horrifying things I’ve ever seen. I’ve never forgotten that day, but I did forget that this text existed until I stumbled on it today. I’m archiving it here so that it won’t get lost. I should also disclose that I’ve edited it slightly for grammar, and in once place for clarity. It was a bit rough.
I watched someone die yesterday. Somehow, it’s different from hearing about a jetliner loaded with passengers plunging into the ocean. It’s somehow much more personal when it happens before your eyes, like the difference between a TV show and reality.
Downwind Restaurant is a great little lunch and dinner spot located on the Peachtree-DeKalb airport in Atlanta. The deck offers a commanding view of the airport, and I’ve spent many a lunchtime there, eating unhealthy but delicious greaseburgers and watching the students bounce Cessnas on their spring-steel landing gear.
Yesterday, as I sipped iced tea on the deck, I noticed a Piper Warrior in the pattern, making touch-and-goes. He was doing fairly well–one bounce, two at the most–and seemed to have the plane well in hand.
Suddenly, after one of his approaches, I saw the aircraft start to roll to the left. At first, I thought he’d been given a quick turn by ATC*, but I’d never seen them do that so close in. He was at perhaps 30 or 40 feet and just stabilizing in the climbout. Then the left wing continued to drop, and the nose came down slightly.
“What the hell is he doing,” I muttered, getting the attention of others nearby. That’s when I saw the helicopter, right over the runway centerline, right where it had no business being.
The student continued the turn. The bank reached 60 degrees or better, and the nose dropped. I heard someone scream, “BACK PRESSURE, PULL UP!!” It was an anguished cry, in a voice I recognized as my own. Now all eyes were on the little Warrior. The bank shallowed a bit, but not enough. The left wingtip struck the ground, far too hard. The plane began to cartwheel.
All hopes for a survivable crash evaporated as the pretty little plane turned into a ball of mangled aluminum. Seconds later, it was deathly quiet. The silence of the abruptly stopped engine, which a moment before had been developing full power, was eerie. I wasn’t hungry anymore.
The crash trucks rolled. Some hoped for a miracle, but no one who saw the crash could have long harbored any hope of survival for the pilot.
Not having been listening to the tower frequency, it’s impossible for me to know what happened, and why the helicopter and the light plane came into such conflict. The helicopter pilot apparently said he’d been cleared to land, and his approach was such that the lightplane was behind him. He never saw the plane until he heard ATC call for the equipment and turned to see what had happened.
Lessons? First, we can’t always count on ATC to be omniscient, all-knowing and all-seeing, or even infallible. A good scan of the sky ahead during the landing approach probably would have allowed the student to spot the helicopter sooner, and react in a less extreme manner. The weather was good VFR**.
The only other lesson I see in this tragedy is that as pilots, we need to remember–always–that our top priority is to FLY THE AIRPLANE. Every other duty, including collision avoidance, takes a back seat. Avoiding a collision does no good if the evasive maneuver results in a collision with the ground. The student’s last moments had panic written all over them, and that’s understandable, but he also forgot that when you bank a little plane 60 degrees at 80 knots, it doesn’t climb anymore.
Anyway, if this is judged to be off-topic for the list, I apologize.
Scott Johnson (s…@wowpage.com) – Controller, Atlanta ARTCC (C1/V)
Located in Douglasville, Georgia CID: 960496 SB Callsign: N20431
AIM: “DamnScot” IRC: “ScottJ” ICQ: 30730876 ICBM: N33 45.8 W084 49.5
The NTSB*** later investigated this accident, identified as NTSB #ATL00FA026, in a report released on April 19, 2001, more than 14 months after the accident. The factual report as well as the probable cause report are available online.
The pilot of the helicopter and the air traffic controller both shouldered their respective shares of the blame for the accident. The student made his own errors in judgement, and while some might hasten to attribute the crash to his inexperience, I really hold the instructor responsible. He signed the student’s logbook and qualified him to solo when he wasn’t ready. As a result, a man died needlessly. That’s the truly sad side of this story.
* Air Traffic Control
** Visual Flight Rules. Good, clear weather.
*** National Transportation Safety Board