This last weekend I was at the Glenwood Springs airport where I witnessed a takeoff that could have easily ended in tragedy. This particular incident made me think back to another incident several years earlier that was very tragic indeed where lack of flight planning resulted in a child burned to death on the side of a mountain in the wreckage of a small plane crash. This particular crash actually killed 2 of the four passengers, one being a child and the other being his father. The irony of this wreak was that it was an airplane in perfect working order, had plenty of fuel, and was being flown on a perfect sunny cloudless day here in Colorado.
We frequently hear about complacency with relation to flying. The tendency of course is that as pilots get more and more time under their belts, they tend to become complacent with regards to the operation of their aircraft. We see this in all aspects, from planning, to preflight, and right on into flight operations.
I see it everyday, pilots becoming lazy… not flying with precision of altitude and heading, not scanning for traffic as intently as they had when they first got licensed. What used to be a thorough preflight becomes a brief walk around. Of course no single aspect seems to fade more than the flight planning process. What was once a well prepared flight plan seems to go away entirely.
During our mountain flight training I often fly with pilots that have been flying for years if not decades. I usually begin each flight with what did flight service say? It’s amazing how many pilots will not hesitate to hop in the plane without even so much as a weather check. This is problem for a variety of reasons, which I will get into. But even if you think you know and understand the weather in your local area and you’re only staying in the pattern it’s still smart to see what’s happening with temporary flight restrictions.
Lack of flight planning is an even larger issue when flying in the mountains. Thinner air means operating much closer to the airplane performance limit. With both the incident that nearly occurred this weekend as well as the wreak I referred to, the issue was the same. The pilot’s failure to do any type of planning and subsequent failure to understand the performance limitations of their aircraft.
In the case of the wreak, the pilot departed Eagle Airport with full fuel and 4 passengers and tried to fly direct to Salt Lake. The only problem, it was high density altitude and the aircraft simply could not deliver the climb performance needed to fly direct. The missing ingredient… planning. A thorough planning would have revealed the aircraft’s inability to fly direct over a 13,000 foot mountain, and the result of the planning would have been either a lighter fuel load or a different route.
The incident I watched nearly unfold was all too similar. Without thinking (or rather any planning), a pilot of a normally aspirated ’74 Arrow topped off the tanks, and him and his passenger took off. They got in the air with only a couple feet remaining of runway and cleared the trees at the end with only a couple feet of clearance. Had they consulted the POH and some some basic performance calcs they would have known they were on the very edge of their aircraft performance.