Logbook Stories

from my "Standard Pilot Master Log"


The First Time I Lost My Colleagues

December 14, 1977

I doubt if there's a professional pilot alive of more than a few years' tenure that hasn't experienced the loss of one or more of his or her colleagues that perished in an aircraft accident. I've experienced several such losses and this is the story of my first such loss. My two colleagues lost were Rich M., another flight instructor/charter pilot for the FBO, and Mark K., the office manager for the FBO, who was working on his commercial license.

On this day I had an Aztec trip to drop off something or someone and deadhead home. The weather was typically mid-winter midwest miserable: stable and stagnant but with low ceilings, low visibilities, low tops, but ice in the clouds. On the way in to home base I stayed on top as long as possible. The airport had weather reporting, and the reported visibility was at minimums for the non-precision VOR approach, but the reported ceiling was below MDA. Conditions had been deteriorating, the dewpoint spread was nonexistent, and it was approaching sunset. Knowing there was ice in the clouds, the ceiling was low, and that the final leg of the final approach course was long and didn't line up with the runway (which had only REILS, but no approach lights), I just elected to divert to a nearby airline airport that had a ILS. I shot the approach there, landed with no problem (other than not ending up at home base), and taxied into the FBO.

Rich had taken the Seneca II on a charter to pick up a couple bodies for a local mortuary. Mark went along, no doubt hoping to get some stick time, though Rich wasn't a multi-engine instructor, so I don't know how they were going to work that as far as who was going to occupy which pilot seat. Their ETA for home base was not long after mine, so I'm sure they were facing basically the same set of weather conditions. When I phoned home base from the diversion airport FBO our lineman told me they had crashed and were killed. At first I thought he was joking, but I heard the news on the cabbie's radio on the way back to the office from the other airport.

It was a pretty obvious stall/spin crash, but what were the factors that led up to it? A get-thereitis decision to try and make in it, getting a little too low and slow, ice on the wings, a sudden go-around attempt? Or last-second jinks trying to line up with the runway, again too low and too slow, with ice on the wings, an accelerated stall? Having flown that airplane, as recently as a couple days before the accident, I think there's something I knew about that airplane that I don't know if the NTSB investigators ever considered. The Senaca II is powered by a pair of turbo-charged engines. The turbos on that particular airplane did not spin up at the same rate. That's pretty typical for that type of powerplant, and probably could have used some finicky adjustment, but it wasn't a problem if you applied power gradually and smoothly, as you do when taking off. But if you jammed the throttles forward, as a pilot new to the airplane might do on an abrupt go-around or panic stall recovery, that would produce a fairly significant yaw due to the differential turbo spin-up. Just the thing that would catch one off guard and send an airplane already on the edge of a stall into a non-recoverable (at that altitude) spin.

So, same situation, different airplane, different pilot, different decisions, different outcome. Probably I'm too judgmental, but I don't think it had to happen. Four bodies and two fatalities. The fatalities were my colleagues. The other two bodies were already dead.



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