More on Pilots, Icing, Risk, and the Crash Over I-287 in New Jersey

IcingImage.GIFLast week I mentioned the probable role of icing in the small-airplane crash in New Jersey that killed a young family plus their friend, and the reaction of professional and amateur pilots to the accident. (Icing map image at right from NASA, as explained in #3 below.) Several more reactions.

1) Here is message from a naval aviator expressing concern about one of the small-plane pilots I quoted earlier. That previous pilot (who also has a background in naval aviation) had made a "there but for the grace of God..." argument about the risks inherent in small aircraft flight:

I just read your piece on the New Jersey airplane crash, and I really appreciate you including multiple points of view.   I feel it perfectly represents the dichotomy that exists between professional (ie: military) aviators, and your fly-by-night mom and pop school trained pilots.  Several things written by the amateur pilots scared me, and I'm hoping you will pass this message on to the fourth commenter in your article; the small plane pilot, I hope that this may some day save his life.

My name is LT xxx... and I am a Navy P-3 pilot gearing up for my third stint overseas.  I've flown in pretty nasty weather over Iraq, Arabian Gulf, Gulf of Oman, Europe (Azores Islands), Japan, North America, and I have several hundred combat hours of flight time.  I hunt submarines, and I often take a 140,000 pound aircraft to 200 feet off the water in order to accomplish the mission.  I have an unshakable confidence in my piloting skills, yet  I can tell you that I have canceled high priority missions for things less than a single PIREP of severe icing. 

You don't pay extra for the capability to take yourself into a situation where you will get killed.  You pay extra for the capability to get out of that situation if you ever find yourself so unfortunate to be in it.  Our aircraft is certified as an all weather aircraft, in fact, it is even used by NOAA to fly into hurricanes, yet we would not launch due to weather on multiple occasions.  The only time I would consider launching in severe weather would be a scenario with troops in contact who need immediate assistance. 

Once, in a threat environment; we decided to push our luck through a thunderstorm. We found ourselves caught over Iraq at night in severe turbulence and icing after losing our hydraulics, the radios iced up so we were lost communication while trying to maneuver away from unfriendly areas.   After several bumps and an eternity of radio static, we picked our way out of the storm and limped home. 

I'm begging you to  please learn from this small example.  I had heard this saying multiple times before this event, but it truly did not hit home until we found ourselves safely on deck, "The truly superior aviator utilizes his judgement to avoid situations where he has to utilize his superior piloting skills."  We pushed the aircraft into a situation that we should have avoided.  We let our over confidence and arrogance dictate our decision making and it almost led to a disaster.  Please do not make the same mistake I made. 

Thinking like yours, "To spend the money on one, then not use the capabilities you paid for, makes little sense" is the exact reason why private pilots die quite often.  We have multiple missile countermeasure systems, yet I do not deliberately  fly into weapon standoff ranges.  Too often, inexperienced pilots push the limits of their aircraft and their capabilities and then blame it on god when tragedy strikes.  Please, take heed of my message, and feel free to contact me if you would to speak more in depth.

Relevant to the lieutenant's advice, the airplane I fly has ice-protection equipment -- though not "FIKI" certification, for Flight Into Known Icing -- and near-real time satellite weather displays, on big screens in the cockpit, to help you know when trouble is ahead. It has multiply redundant navigation systems fancier than those in some airliners, and a parachute for the whole airplane in case everything else should go wrong. My goal, in making go/no-go decisions (especially when icing, thunderstorms, or very low ceilings are involved), is to stay out of situations where I would have to rely on any of that. And, as the private pilot I quoted earlier pointed out, the struggle is to avoid shifting those decisions based on the knowledge of how the plane is equipped.

2) Another amateur pilot writes to respond to an Airbus captain's argument that private pilots didn't take seriously enough the risks they (we) expose themselves to:

The Airbus pilot may understand general aviation perfectly well; his comment, though, implies that he or she doesn't fly light aircraft. When you or I climb into our birds, we're not denying an elevated level of risk -- we're accepting it. Commercial aviation has gone through almost a hundred years of conscious, painful artificial selection: people die, causes get analyzed, practices or equipment change to eliminate that cause. The relentless repetition of that cycle has led to the safest form of transportation in the world.

However, every change was a restriction of some sort. Airlines don't fly single-engine aircraft, don't fly VFR, never fly single-pilot, never take off in a Part-91-maintained aircraft, can't fly without ATC- and type-rated crew...the list goes on and on. Don't get me wrong, that's a wonderful thing. And as your correspondent says, the trained judgement of flight crew, more than any other single factor, is the principal bulwark against passengers dying.

But a thinking GA pilot recognizes that what they're doing is simply inherently more dangerous. I know that an engine failure in my Cardinal, in some situations, will result in an off-airport landing at the very least. But I choose to accept that risk, because if I don't, I can't fly. I risk my kids, too, and every passenger I take up. I'm straight with them -- I tell them flat out that what they're doing is more dangerous than flying commercially, more so than driving in fact. I mitigate the risk as best I can with the resources at my disposal (maintenance, training, etc.), manage it as best I can in flight (weather diversions, never landing with less than an hour's fuel in the tanks...), but what remains must simply be accepted if you want to fly. In fact the Airbus pilot is making a similar decision every time they launch, it's just that the risk is minuscule these days.

3) On the general phenomenon of inflight icing, which seems to have been at the heart of this crash and the Air France 447 disaster over the Atlantic as well, the SurroundedByAir site explains the importance and advantages of a new NASA weather site that makes it easier than ever before to anticipate areas of maximum risk. I mentioned this site earlier in the fall; the new post does a good job of explaining its value.

4) Finally, reader Ari Ofsevit explains the surprising use of pitot tubes -- the probes at the front of an airplane that help it calculate its windspeed, and whose icing-over can cause severe problems -- in terrestrial life:

I got the chance this fall to climb up the observation tower at the Mount Washington Observatory on a clear but windy day--winds gusting to 100 and sustained around 60--and see their instrumentation there. (And to look down from a perch of 6300 feet at the near-sea-level valleys below.) With frequent winds in excess of 100 mph, they use pitot tubes as their main wind speed indicator, and are often in the clouds with high winds, leading to severe riming conditions (it's not uncommon for rime to build up at a rate of several inches per hour, and for rime feathers, which are beautiful, to reach lengths of two or more FEET).

Summit_020408_375.jpg

Much like on an airplane, they heat their pitot tubes, but sometimes high winds and cold temperatures team up to coat the instrumentation with ice, and can lead to reports of wind speeds near zero when, in fact, gusts are well over 100. (Lucky for them, the mountain has a stall speed of 0.) Their solution is to go out in the cold and whack the metal tower to which the tubes are attached (if not the tubes themselves) with a crowbar--rime feathers are rather delicate and will crumble from this. Of course, that's not an option in a plane.

Some information about Mount Washington's pitot tubes (unique in ground weather observations):

- A thesis on wind measurement with pitot tubes.
- Installing new instrumentation last January.
- MSNBC article mentioning high tech equipment (crowbars).
- A page with many pictures [including the one above] --and a video--about rime ice.

Anyway, it's probably one of the best places to go if you want to experience severe icing conditions without flying a plane through them.

He also points out that last night's forecast was for conditions "not much different from flying a plane through a cloud":

Mostly in the clouds under mostly cloudy skies w/ a slight chance of evening snow showers.
Lows: around 15 below; Wind chills falling to 55-65 below zero°F
Wind: NW 80-100 mph increasing to 95-115 mph w/ higher gusts
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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