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From the Desk of the Safety Office


Michael May, Standards Officer WVFC

Reversing the Trend

Over the past year, the club has experienced several incidents that have resulted in insurance claims (those over $5,000 in damage), and several more that narrowly avoided significant damage. As you can imagine, this is a trend that we’d like to reverse. To that end, the Safety Office will be sharing some of these scenarios to raise awareness of certain risks, and to hopefully help us all learn some lessons that were learned the hard way by a few unfortunate pilots. Here is the first of these stories.

Going back to 2013, the club managed 2 years of claim-free flying, and a third year that resulted in a single claim due to a runway overrun. That relative calm was disrupted in October of 2016 when the club had its most significant accident in several years. N387CS, our newest Cessna 182, experienced significant damage when the nosewheel collapsed during an attempted landing on runway 31 at PAO in VFR weather with very light winds. The airplane skidded off the side of the runway and came to rest in the grass. This event resulted in damage to the engine, propeller, fuselage, landing gear, and wing. Thankfully the pilot was uninjured. This accident was a classic unstable approach scenario. After doing several laps in the traffic pattern at Half Moon Bay, the pilot reported that he let his guard down when returning to PAO. His approach speed on final was 80kt, 20kt faster than the recommended speed. After floating more than half way down the runway he attempted to save the landing by pushing the yoke forward to force the airplane onto the ground. The nosewheel collapsed upon impact and the airplane skidded to the right side, coming to rest about 500 feet from the departure end of the runway.

After this event the club Safety Office, working in coordination with the local FAA FSDO, began remedial training for the pilot. This pilot had recently obtained his Instrument rating in a 182, and the vast majority of his recent flying had been with a CFI in pursuit of his IFR ticket. Instrument approaches are flown very differently than a VFR pattern, typically at 80-90kt on the approach. After several patterns at HAF the pilot felt “back at home” at PAO and allowed himself to get too comfortable on the approach. The 15-20kt headwind that is typical at PAO in the afternoons had contributed to the pilot allowing his VFR approach skills to erode, and on the day of the accident the wind was not there to compensate for the high approach speed.

Looking at the causal factors of this accident, the first thing that jumps out is that adhering to stable approach criteria would have prevented it. Excessive speed on final approach is unstable and therefore should result in a go-around. However, the industry has proved that so far, pilots are terrible at following stable approach criteria. Consider that airline pilots, who know that their approaches are being monitored by the companies they work for, have a mandatory go-around compliance rate of less than 2 percent. Think about that for a minute. These are professional aviators who know that they are going to get “caught” for violating this policy, and they still only comply with it once per every fifty unstable approaches. This data point alone proves that just saying “he should have gone around,” while true, is not really going to fix anything by itself. The stable approach philosophy must be embraced in order for it to be effective, and that means holding ourselves to the standards that define a stable approach.

So, the million-dollar question is, how do we truly hold ourselves to the standard? For our pilot, the training focused on two areas. First, we wanted to make sure that his flying was precise. Being able to fly within +/-100 feet, +/-10kt, and +/-10 degrees of heading were required, and approach speeds and profiles had to be flown correctly. This was half of the equation. The other half was the go-around decision. If any of the above were not met, the pilot executed a go-around without being prompted by the CFI, and long before it became obvious that a successful landing would be impossible.

In summary, an unstable approach and the determination to complete the landing led to an accident and roughly $200,000 in damage. Contributing factors were the lighter than usual winds, the pilots recent experience flying IFR approaches at higher speeds coupled with lack of recent experience flying VFR patterns at PAO, and the pilot’s complacency that resulted from the comfort of being back at his home airport. As is the case in most accident chains, removing any one of these links would most likely have prevented the accident. Let’s all do what we can to learn from it, and hopefully become better aviators by making a true effort to fly to the standards that we set for ourselves.