Pilots on the New Jersey I-287 Airplane Crash

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I mentioned two days ago that icing was probably involved in Tuesday's crash of a Socata TBM 700 a few minutes after takeoff from Teterboro airport in New Jersey. Several pilots write in about this crash and larger questions of aviation safety, especially the difference between airline travel (statistically about the safest thing you can do) and travel in small personal airplanes (statistically dangerous). A pilot-writer friend wrote to remind me about the dramatic chapter about icing in Ernest K. Gann's under-appreciated (by the literary crowd) Fate is the Hunter.

First, from a professional Airbus pilot:

I've got to take exception to your reader Steve P. who said the audio of other pilots sounded "scared". You were correct with calling them "focused and concerned". Anytime the word severe is used, either for icing or turbulence, it gets our attention like nothing else but I would by no means have said they sounded scared. He is however correct by calling severe icing an emergency.

It is heartbreaking and frustrating to see an accident take place which seems at least from this distance to have been easily avoidable. I know we are spoiled by superior equipment and quality training but I think it is our judgment as airline pilots that we have to hang our hat on. I spoke with a private pilot years ago about equipment failure and planning and came to realize that there was a large gap in our approaches to safety and conduct. I always plan on things going wrong (which they rarely do but when it happens I am prepared and have a plan) whereas this particular individual never believed that his engine (or other equipment) could/would fail at the worst possible time. I believe his attitude to be in the distinct minority of pilots but I occasionally wonder. Of course the saying "complacency kills" applies across the board from the smallest to the largest of airplanes.

The frustration is even higher with AF447 but I've got to let that go for now.

From another professional pilot:

I once had a pilot helping me fly my first DC3 who had retired as number seven on the AA seniority list. He was typed in so many aircraft [ie, he had a "type rating" for large or turbine-powered airplanes] that he had two certificates. He taught me about ice. He said, 'When you get into ice of any consequence, go to maximum rated power and notify ATC [air traffic control] that you are climbing out of your assigned altitude to avoid structural icing and want them to clear any traffic conflicts.'

That advice kept me alive for over 23,000 flight hours.

From an amateur pilot who has given up the pursuit:

As a former owner of five planes who was scared several times in them, I can only imagine the horror of those final seconds when all on board knew they were doomed - each in his own way.

A former military pilot once told me that the v-tailed doctor killers (v-tailed bonanzas) had a nasty habit of breaking apart mid-air when their fuselages were over-stressed during pitching and yawing.

My guess is that if the plane stalled due to the ice and went into a spin that the pilot over-sped the plane (very easy to do in this situation) trying to correct it and then over-stressed the fuselage, causing the plane to breakup mid-flight.

What haunts me when I read about these accidents is how fast they are upon you. Everything is fine and in seconds you are terrified, wishing you were anywhere else in the world. When my best friend and an experienced pilot died at the controls of his plane (on a trip that I usually accompanied him) I sold my planes and went back to flying commercial with all of its hassles.

When things go wrong with a plane, sometimes there is no way out, no matter how great a pilot you may be.

And from another small-plane pilot:

[Re:] the comments about the focused and urgent airline crew's transmissions imply a contrast to the more casual transmissions of the TBM pilot. I think I know where you're going here: The TBM pilot should somehow have known better and could have avoided the incident if he had been more prudent.
 
That's a very comforting hypothesis, and one I've been trying to justify myself. After all, if we can't find fault with the pilot then we have to face the fact that any of us in the same situation in that plane on that day would have shared his fate.
 
As you point out, a TBM is a very capable aircraft designed to handle moderate icing. That's a big reason people buy them - they allow winter flying while less capable aircraft are grounded. To spend the money on one, then not use the capabilities you paid for, makes little sense. So the decision to launch seems, to me, to have been a prudent one given there were no forecasts for anything beyond moderate icing. You mention one PIREP about severe icing issued two hours earlier in the general area, with none thereafter. Would you have expected the TBM pilot to have aborted the trip based on that single stale report? Would you have?
 
So now the pilot is airborne. I too have listened to the transmissions. The TBM pilot was calm because, up to his last transmission, there was no mention or warning of anything other than moderate icing. The urgency in the transmission from the Air Wisconsin aircrew wasn't caused by worry over potential icing - it sounded much more to me like they were already in severe icing and were looking to get out of it. (If so, their "focus and concern" didn't do much for them either.)  All the transmissions about severe and extreme icing came after the last one by the TBM pilot, so we don't know if he heard them or, if he did, whether it was too late. If I had heard those reports I too would have been focused on finding out where they were, but only after the words "severe" and "extreme" were in the mix.
 
As much as we're loathe to admit it, this may be one where "There, but for the grace of God, ..."

I take seriously the varied cautions in these four notes. And yet I still fly, and take tremendous enjoyment in flying, a smaller and less capable airplane than the one that came to grief in New Jersey. (Although the airplane that I fly, unlike the TBM or most others, has a whole-airplane "ballistic parachute" that in principle provides a last-ditch safety measure to lower the whole airplane safetly to the ground when it might otherwise crash. Over the past decade there have been many "saves" via this parachute system.)

Part of my outlook, as with any dangerous activity, is simple denial and rationalization, as the last writer points out. Operationally in my case it also means extreme caution about "weather" -- which in specific terms for me means: (a) threatened icing conditions in the cold months, (b) threatened thunderstorms in the hot months, (c) very high or highly gusty winds often in the spring or fall, and (d) very low forecast ceilings any time of the year. This summer and fall there were four times when I "disappointed" friends or relatives by calling off trips -- to Maine, Cape Cod, Cincinnati, and Duluth -- that at the last minute I judged just not worth it on one or more of those counts. Two of the trips I "had" to make and did with last minute commercial tickets; two just didn't happen.

Things can easily go wrong in an airplane, as they can in other walks of life. But -- in addition to the denialist approach to risk that you need for a wide range of activities -- my observation is that a very cautious approach to weather, for the amateur pilot like me, is the main way to avoid foreseeable risk from the equation.

And soon, will place myself in the hands of United (and the TSA!) at my least favorite airport of all, Dulles, for Christmas travel to California. [Update, from the boarding area: Some day I would like TSA Administrator John PIstole to go through security at Dulles, with no one knowing who he is. I have a couple of officers I'll introduce him to; I've memorized their names, including Officer O... today. Today while being frisked myself I saw a spectacle that made me embarrassed for my country: it involved a disabled child, in a stroller and with a feeding tube attached, who appeared to be about three years old and from India. But I digress. Season's Greetings, even to the TSA!]

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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.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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