More Information‎ > ‎Newsletters‎ > ‎

From Flight Operations and Safety


Jim Higgins, Director of Flight Operations & Safety WVFC


September 4, 2018 was a terrible day.  


That was the day I saw my first airplane crash.  After 30 years of doing all kinds of flying, I had never seen what greeted me when I arrived at PAO on that fateful Tuesday morning.  I’m sharing this analysis (my opinion only) candidly now in one small effort to help everyone avoid ever going through that.  Please, please don’t wait to go around.


The pilot (we will call him Pilot A) was doing an Angel Flight from Redding to Palo Alto that morning. Sadly, tragically, he waited too long to go around—and died because of it.  Fortunately, his 2 passengers survived, although with substantial injuries, but there will never again be an opportunity for that pilot to avoid tragedy by exercising his right, choice, and most importantly, his obligation to go around.  


As is typical, there are a number of links in this accident chain, but all of them could have been erased by executing a go around earlier than he did.  My point in discussing this is not to criticize or second guess Pilot A’s decisions that morning because all of us on safe ground have no idea of the entirety of his situation.  While we cannot “walk in his shoes,” we can learn and try to change our behavior in the future.  At least that’s my hope in writing this article.


On his approach and attempted landing, Pilot A faced a number of significant challenges so it is easy to understand how he found himself in so much trouble.  Smoke from the last round of fires produced familiar bad visibility — Pilot A reported being unable to see the airport from the Dumbarton Bridge.  After planning rwy 31, he was surprised to be given a left base for 13 due to a wind shift.  Planning to enter right downwind for rwy 31, he found himself high and fast for 13.  Mooney’s are notoriously difficult to land and extremely sensitive to speed and pitch attitude on touchdown. Pilot A had purchased this airplane earlier this year so it was still fairly new for him.  Also, the pressure of wanting to complete an Angel Flight without delay was no doubt on his mind.  And let’s face it, the PAO runway is fairly short and narrow, and relatively unforgiving.  


After multiple bounces/oscillations on the runway, including a prop strike that he was likely unaware of, with the end of the runway approaching quickly, he finally initiated a go around. Unfortunately, by that time his airspeed had decayed greatly.  On the climb out at about 200 feet, the Mooney stalled, dropped the left wing and did half of a spin into the water/mud next to the duck pond.


So, when is the right time for a go around?  The time for a go around is long before you are in trouble.  We need to actively monitor our approaches and look for the first sign that the approach is not going well.  That’s the time to go around!  Don’t wait until it’s obvious, because that will make the maneuver more difficult and therefore riskier than if you had started it earlier at your first sign that everything wasn’t as expected.  Too many pilots think a go around is an admission of a mistake.  But it’s really an opportunity to take control, be safe, and exert your will rather than sit back and hope for the best.  I’m not saying that was Pilot A’s issue by any means.  But I am saying, don’t let it be yours.  Please…