Saturday, March 3, 2012

Know Your Limits

My house creaked and groaned, buffeted by fifty knot gusts. It was not a good day to fly; anyone could see that.  Sometimes, however, conditions are not so extreme and deciding to launch requires some careful thought. I learned this lesson well three years ago on another windy day when I witnessed the misfortune of another.

My friend Scott was in town visiting.  I had promised him an airplane ride in Warrior 481 and was eager to deliver on that promise.  With respect to weather, the day was borderline.  Winds were running directly across the runway in the mid teens, gusting occasionally.  It was within my envelope and Scott is not particularly timid.  I knew that I could handle the conditions, but was trying to decide if flying that day was worth the effort.

We checked on the Warrior to make sure her pre-heater was working.  It was.  Driving back to the terminal building, I observed a Cessna 172 lined up for runway 28.  The aircraft was high and fast; I assumed that someone was practicing the missed approach for the VOR-A approach into Le Roy.  I was wrong.

The airplane was still descending.  At midfield, the Cessna was much too high to land.  It was pitched down significantly and its airspeed appeared excessive.  I realized that the pilot was trying to force the airplane down onto the 2600 x 60 foot runway.

"Go around..." I muttered softly, unable to take my eyes from Cessna.  With less than one third of the available runway length remaining, the Cessna pilot added power and began to climb.  I released the breath I had been holding.

Satisfied that certain disaster was averted, Scott and I continued to the terminal building where I checked additional weather data for the local area.  The sound of an airplane engine broke my concentration and I looked out the window to see the Cessna making another landing attempt. It was already midfield, high and fast ... again.  This time, the airplane touched down on the last third of the runway.  Some aggressive braking would be necessary to avoid going off of the end of the runway, but the pavement was uncontaminated with water or ice.

As I watched, the Cessna deviated from the runway center line, drifting toward the downwind runway edge.  It slowed as the right main wheel encountered the snowbank alongside the pavement.  Then the nosegear departed the runway and began to drag through snow.  This brought the Cessna to a rather abrupt stop.

In slow motion, the tail came up, pointed skyward, and quivered for just a moment.  Then, slowly, the airplane nosed over onto its back in the snow beside the runway.  I could not believe what I was seeing.

Then I realized that Scott and I were at the airport by ourselves.

I called 911 first, then Ray.  Ray issued a NOTAM closing the airport.  Scott (an EMT) and I drove to the scene to check on the pilot and any passengers who may have been aboard.  As we approached, the pilot and sole occupant of the Skyhawk climbed from the cockpit and stumbled away from the wreck.  We were relieved to see that he was out and moving on his own.

We parked on the opposite side of the runway from the stricken Skyhawk.  Scott and I met the pilot on the runway center line.  He was shaken, but appeared to be completely uninjured.  The airplane, on the other hand, looked rough.

As we waited for the cavalry to arrive, we engaged in small talk.  I learned several things about the accident pilot very quickly.  He was a low time private pilot, having accumulated approximately 125 hours in the span of five years.  The airplane was a rental out of Rochester.  He expressed that he was more accustomed to the larger runways there.  The smallest runway at Greater Rochester International is 4000 x 100 feet - significantly longer and wider than what Le Roy had to offer.  He was cognizant of the windy conditions, but had not flown in a long time and was eager to get back into the sky.  The aborted landing we witnessed was actually his second; the accident occurred on the third attempt at landing.

I cringed as he told me all of this.

I expressed how relieved I was that he was unhurt, but his focus was elsewhere.  He was worried about the wrecked airplane disrupting airport operations, that his wife would forbid him from flying again, and that the Cessna's owner would be irate (he was right about that last one).

I was sympathetic and tried to be supportive, reminding him that no one was hurt.  With only some bent metal, it was a best case scenario for any accident.  Internally, however, I was seething.

Note the skidmark and how close to the end of the runway the airplane came to rest.
A low time pilot, not current, and accustomed to long, wide runways chose this day to land at my airport with its comparatively short, narrow runway and direct crosswind near the maximum demonstrated capability of the aircraft he was flying.  Two aborted landings were not enough to convince him that a return to Rochester, with six choices in landing direction on more forgiving runways, might be in his best interests.


I understand an overwhelming desire to fly after a long time away from the sky.  But I was genuinely baffled by the pilot's aeronautical decision making and the number of opportunities for a different outcome that he ignored before coming to rest upside down in someone else's Cessna at Le Roy.

But I held these thoughts hidden behind a calm smile.  Soon enough, the fire department and police arrived on the scene.  I think the firemen were quite disappointed that there was no fireball for them battle.  Ray arrived shortly thereafter and handled the media with a charm and purposeful grace that left me quite impressed.

Scott did not get his ride in Warrior 481 that day.  But all of us based at the Le Roy Airport received an important reminder: know your limits and respect them.

Photo credit: These photos were all taken with my camera, but it was either Ray or Scott who took them.


  1. Glad he was ok. I constantly have to remind my concerned relatives that most aviation accidents are due to POOR decision making by the pilot, not because of the aircraft itself. If it doesn't feel right and it's not working, look for an alternative to whatever you are trying

    Thanks for sharing. Hope the weather clears for you soon.

  2. Chris, I remember you telling me about that day in an email. Glad the outcome was no more than bent metal. A good example of why we establish personal minimums and limits - and fly by them regardless of external pressures. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Chris,
    Stories like these remind us of the consequences of poor decisions. Thanks for sharing.


  4. I was very glad that he was ok, too. When we started down to the scene as the only people there, Scott and I did not know what we would find. I'm glad the guy was wearing his seat belt. I think of this example often when making go/no-go decisions, especially when I start seeing multiple reasons why a flight might not be a good idea. I know I'm not perfect and I think (emphasis on think) that I have a good grasp on where my limits are. There's an excellent lesson here, which I why I thought it would be worth sharing.

  5. Great post, Chris. Definitely a reminder to all of us - what seems like an idiotic decision when observed from the outside might feel differently when you're in the cockpit. Always have to do our best to think through things and exercise both PIC authority and PIC ADM!

    1. Excellent point, Steve. It's one I've often pondered. What was the pilot's decision making process? How did he determine that flying that day was a good idea? Or coming to Le Roy? Or trying to land again after two go-arounds?

  6. Chris,

    Thank you for sharing this. It makes me sad to see a needlessly bent-up airplane.
    This makes it clear me why some of the FBO's in my area require 90 day checkrides to maintain active renter status.


    1. It makes me sad, too. But not as sad as some of my friends who actually trained in that airplane and had fond memories of it. I've seen both of the trainers I flew in wrecked. It's rather unnerving to look at a crumpled airplane that you once flew halfway across the state.

  7. I just wonder why?

    What makes someone force an issue when not proficient, forget about even being current. After a second missed go to a place that has a runway favoring the winds, rent a car and drive home. Poor decisions bend metal and can snuff out the candle light.

    Great post, thanks for sharing. This reinforces my decision process and the no-go decision when needed.

    1. Amen, Gary. But you know, in this case, the rental car would not have even factored in. He was dropping into Le Roy for the heck of it - his car was back at Rochester with its more favorable runway options.